The San Diego Trolley

Metropolitan Transit System - San Diego Trolley

MTS San Diego Trolley

The San Diego Trolley, the system that popularized light rail in the United States.

Well, where do I start?

This system, operated by the Metropolitan Transit System of San Diego County in California, was started in the early 1980s, right around the same time Edmonton and Calgary started light rail systems for their cities, with cars similar to San Diego’s first light rail cars.  The U-2 cars are based off those used in the metro system of Frankfurt, Germany.  The San Diego cars are different in that they are low-entry instead of high-entry like the original cars.  They were built by Siemens-Duewag in 1980-1982 and are numbered in the 1000-series.  Due to expansion, San Diego also purchased Siemens SD-100 cars in the late 80s or early 90s, and then followed that with the Siemens S70 Avanto low-floor light rail vehicles in 2006 and 2012, in the 3000- and 4000-series, respectively.  All trolleys are painted in a solid red paint scheme and bear the MTS logo and “San Diego Trolley” on the sides.

The trolley system from 2004, during my first visit to California, was the Blue Line from Mission San Diego to San Ysidro via Downtown and the Orange Line from the Downtown San Diego loop to Santee.  Around that time, there was light rail construction to connect Mission San Diego to Grossmont via the San Diego State University, a popular university and a major ridership generator for MTS.  Once construction was finished, the Green Line was routed from Old Town to Santee, the Blue Line shortened to operate from San Ysidro to Old Town and the Orange Line shortened to operate from Downtown San Diego to El Cajon.  Nowadays, the Green Line runs to the Convention Center and 12th/Imperial to Santee via America Plaza and Old Town, shortening the Blue Line to America Plaza via C Street and rerouting the Orange Line to the Blue Line’s C Street routing and terminating at the Santa Fe Depot station.

My favorite spots to spectate around the system (‘inspecting the equipment and operations’ or ‘railfanning’) are:

  • America Plaza.  This station has tracks coming from the Santa Fe Depot station and from the Seaport Village direction, taking trains into practically the side of an office building.  The station has a glass canopy that wraps around the facade of the building as if the building was built over the station.  The Orange Line trains come from the Santa Fe Depot and head south before making a 135-degree turn into this station and comes out on C Street to continue east towards San Diego City College.  The Blue Line terminates here, although once upon a time it continued out towards Santa Fe Depot, in that 135-degree angle.  Trains coming from all directions, plus it stops traffic with its numerous crossing gates.
  • 12th/Imperial Transfer Station.  The MTS headquarters is in a building that sits over the station and overlooks the tracks coming down 12th Street.  At this point, Blue Line trains would head due south through the San Diego Trolley yard towards San Ysidro, the Mexican border, while Orange Line trains head due east towards El Cajon.  Green Line trains terminate here and “turn around” in the yard.  A great location to look at packed trains going by in every direction possible.  That is, unless you don’t want to get caught up in baseball crowds at the nearby Petco Park.
  • Any Blue Line station south of 12th/Imperial.  National City and Chula Vista have very high-ridership stations on the Blue Line, mainly those who commute from Tijuana to jobs in San Diego County, especially 8th Street, Palomar, and H Street.  Lots of crowds of American and Mexican nationality and the 1000-series cars all over, although the Trolley Renewal Project will rebuild the platforms to accommodate the newer cars.  Some excellent views along the line exist at Pacific Fleet, where the US Navy shipbuilding facilities are located and some ships are stored.
  • City College Station.  This station is unique in that trains come from C street, make a right turn into the station underneath a condo building, then make a right turn down 12th Street.  Prior to construction of the condo, the station was at a 90-degree angle around the corner.  Half of the station was on C Street; the other half was on 12th Street.  The most unique station I had ever seen.  They straightened it out.
  • The newer Green Line stations.  Especially SDSU, the only underground Trolley station, and Grantville, built high in the sky over Interstate 15.  Just stunning views, and the newest trains in the system, make this a must see.

In terms of the lines themselves, the most interesting and eye-catching are the Green Line from Santa Fe Depot to SDSU with its mostly elevated structures and beautiful stations, and the Orange Line from 12th/Imperial to Euclid Avenue, where the line runs down a residential street almost unimpeded by traffic but segregated from the street.  The Blue Line, while it does have great views of Mexico from the Iris Avenue and Beyer Blvd stations, is rather dull in appearance, although the highest speeds in the system are probably in this area, a former freight right-of-way, as evidenced by its three-track configuration at H Street of which the easternmost track is the northbound Blue Line platform and the center track is the northbound track.  The Orange Line is a relatively fast, fairly modern-looking line aside from the inner city portions south of Euclid.  The best part of the line is from Grossmont to Encanto, with views of the valley and nearby shopping facilities.

If I were to state any criticism for this system, it would be the overcrowding on the Blue Line from San Ysidro.  It’s just a madhouse, no matter the time of day.  I will say, though, that the Blue is probably the only of the three lines to operate with three-car trains.  Back in the day, the Blue Line usually ran three-car trains, almost predominantly Siemens-Duewag U-2s, and the Orange Line ran nothing but SD-100s.  These days, the S70 low-floors have taken over the Green Line and has seen service on the Orange Line, pushing the SD-100s to the Blue Line after the U-2 fleet has been mostly retired and sent to Argentina for fleet renewal down there.  Sad to see them go, but it was worth it, and now it’s the S70s’ turn to make the San Diego Trolley worth riding for a new age of Trolley riders.

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