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Aging San Diego trolley cars find new life in Argentina

Dozens of old San Diego trolleys are getting a new life in South America. KPBS reporter Matt Hoffman visited the Metropolitan Transit Systems train yard and got to see how the cars will be used to expand rail service more than 6,000 miles away.

Dozens of old San Diego trolley cars are getting a new life in South America, helping to expand rail service more than 6,000 miles away from their original home.

For the last decade, the Metropolitan Transit System has been sending old trolley cars to Mendoza, Argentina.

San Diego County and Argentinian elected officials on Friday signed a declaration committing to the partnership and the continuation of operations of the MTS trolley fleet in Mendoza.


"There’s going to be millions of folks in Argentina who now have access to transportation in a way they didn't have before," San Diego County Supervisor and MTS board chair Nathan Fletcher said.

It started in 2012 with the first-generation trolleys from the 1980s and now nearly all of MTS’ second-generation trolleys are on their way to be repurposed. MTS began decommissioning these trolleys earlier this year.

Natalio Mema, the secretary of public services in Mendoza, said the first-generation trolleys are still running great. Mendoza is getting an additional 39 MTS trolleys.

"Our services are going to double with these new trolleys, and together with the first-generation trolleys, it is going to become much better," he told KPBS in Spanish. "I just want to thank MTS and all the authorities involved in San Diego because, thanks to them, we've been able to continue to expand trolley services in our city."

MTS’ second-generation trolleys — the Siemens SD100 series — rolled out in the mid-1990s. They were the system's first trains with onboard computers. Even though these trolley cars have millions of miles on them, they can still run for years to come. If they weren’t given away, MTS officials said they would be forced to scrap them.


"And that is a cost to the agency and not to mention environmentally you don't want to see something useful go into a landfill," MTS CEO Sharon Cooney said.

A second-generation San Diego trolley car sits at the MTS trolley service yard, Dec. 2, 2022.
Carlos Castillo
A second-generation San Diego trolley car sits at the MTS trolley service yard, Dec. 2, 2022.

Some of the second-generation trolleys are already in service in Argentina. They are identifiable by their series number. The 5000 series that currently running in San Diego is the newest fifth-generation model, which is more accessible for passengers.

"We made a conscious decision to become more accessible for people by becoming low floor which means people can roll their strollers or wheelchairs on," Cooney said.

Transit officials say the partnership is a win-win and look forward to continuing it. The trolleys in Mendoza have kept their signature red paint job and carry more than two million passengers each year.

Argentina is covering the costs associated with dismantling and shipping the trolley cars to Mendoza.

Some second-generation trolleys will still operate in San Diego for the next year or so, but a majority of them will eventually end up in Mendoza, but Cooney said there are talks to keep some in town.

"We are in conversations with a prominent brewery here to possibly put one on one of their campus and possibly going to a railway museum because we were one of the first light rails," she said.