By Jim Walker
The vintage trolleys of Downtown Memphis have held a special place in the hearts of locals and tourists alike since they began operation in 1993. Unfortunately, since June 10, 2014, MATA’s trolley rail system has been offline, with the trolley division working to restore trolley cars and bring service back. In the interim, transportation Downtown was provided first by green hybrid buses, which were then replaced by spiffy trolley buses to keep the tradition alive.
Also keeping the tradition alive, and serving as unofficial Memphis ambassadors, are the trolley divers, including Terry Johnson. A familiar face in the Downtown area for a couple reasons, Johnson began driving the tracked trolleys in 1997 and has moved up on the seniority list to number three (of nine) as the years passed. And as with the other drivers, Johnson operates the trolley buses while he awaits the return of the tracked trolleys. “No shift or duties changed,” he said.
Johnson, 50, said he has been in Memphis his whole life, graduating from Kingsbury High School. He has been married to his wife Elizabeth Johnson for 28 years, and they raised two children here. Combine that with a warm and friendly nature, a genuine desire to help people enjoy themselves – and the fact he also serves as one of the hospitality ambassadors for the Blue Suede Brigade – and you have the perfect gentleman to advise trolley riders on where to go and what to do in town.
Johnson said that one of the things he likes most about driving trolleys, and one of the reasons he initially took the job, is that he is in charge while he works, with no one “standing over” him. Also, he said he had always liked trains, and the tracked trolleys provided that kind of experience. “I’d already ridden the trolleys,” he said of applying for the job.
After he was hired in 1997, Johnson had 30 straight days of training (no days off), driving with different supervising drivers. And this period included busy Memphis in May. Then he was on his own. “I picked it up fast. I was ready to go. I started on a Sunday by myself and did pretty good, all the way through,” he said.
Johnson said he has been on day shift (6 a.m. to 3 p.m.) since 1999. He worked Tuesday through Saturday until a month ago, and now has Saturdays and Sundays off.
“My typical day is to come in...I would be the first shift out. We pre-trip the trolleys...make sure everything is working right. We have to check in through our radios and let them know we are there. And when the shift is over, we hand it off to the second shift at three o’clock.”
Johnson said his riders are a mix of tourists and people who use the trolleys for commuting. “The tourists love them.”
Regarding commuting on the trolleys, Johnson said, “It’s a 25-minute ride from one end to the other, and on each end of the line (south and north)...it’s timed-in with the bus schedules to pick up the bus riders.”
Johnson said the busiest time on the trolley is weekdays at lunchtime, from about 11 a.m. to about 2 p.m. “On Saturdays, and Sundays also, it’s always busy...because of the tourists,” he added. Spring and summer are the busiest seasons, though there is no “slow-down” season, he said. But when it’s raining, a lot of people ride to get out of the rain.
“The fare is one dollar. You can go from one end to the other,” Johnson said. But if you get off, you’ll have to pay again. “There’s an all day pass that’s $3.50, and there’s a three-day pass for $9. And they have the FastPass, from the bus side, that you can also use on the trolley.” And the added that the $3.50 trolley pass is also good for any bus line.
Johnson said that pedestrians walking between the tracks is one of the primary things a trolley driver has to watch out for. “We have bells and horns to warn them we are coming.” He said that the intersection lights are controlled by Opticom systems to allow the trolleys through quickly. “But you still have to worry about cars running lights,” he said.
He said that, for safety, trolleys are not allowed to be on the same block with each other. “You have to maintain the distance. You can’t just jump on one and go.” And he added, “It looks easy because we make it look easy. You just have to come to work and realize you are not in your car. Safety really comes first on those trolleys.”
Johnson said he takes great pride in driving the tracked trolleys. “There are no other metal trolley systems in this state. So we are an elite bunch of people. Nobody else can do our job but us.” And he added, “We are the ambassadors that people first see...because they see the trolleys and they want to ride the trolleys.”
In comparing the tracked trolleys to the trolley buses on rubber tires, Johnson said there is more to watch out for on the buses “because you are out in the street. You’re dealing with other drivers.” He said the intersection lights still change for the trolley buses on Main Street, but on Front Street they have to go with the flow of traffic.
When asked if he has seen trolley ridership change with the absence of the tracked trolleys, Johnson said, “To me it seems like it has decreased a little because we have the tourists who want to ride the metal trolleys. There’s not a lot of places in this country where you can ride them.”
Johnson said he likes driving the tracked trolleys better than the trolley buses, and looks forward to their return. And he added that the tracked trolley drivers get to wear different clothing from bus drivers, including shorts in the summer. “But I like the air conditioning on the trolley buses,” he noted.
“I like doing what I’m doing,” Johnson summarized. “I’m just glad that MATA kept us in the Downtown area. We know Downtown.”
And, regarding also being a Blue Suede man on the street, Johnson said, “I like meeting people. I’m an ambassador on both sides. People I don’t see on the trolley, I see walking around.”
Ask him to tell you his story about having President Obama wave to him.