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The San Diego Trolley is a trolley-style light rail system operating in the metropolitan area of San Diego, California. The operator, San Diego Trolley, Inc. (SDTI) is a subsidiary of the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS). The Trolley began revenue service on July 26, 1981, making it the first modern light-rail system in California. It is the fifth most-ridden light rail system in the country.

The Trolley initially used the same German-built Siemens-Duewag U2 vehicles as Edmonton and Calgary in Alberta, Canada, but has since expanded to also operate the SD-100 and Avanto S70 vehicles manufactured by Siemens.


SDTI was created by the Metropolitan Transit Development Board (now known as MTS) in 1980 to operate light-rail service along the Main Line of the San Diego and Arizona Eastern Railway, which had been purchased by MTDB from Southern Pacific Railroad in 1979. Service commenced on July 26, 1981 between Centre City or downtown San Diego and San Ysidro, with stops in the cities of San Diego, National City, and Chula Vista. San Diego will become known in transit circles as "The city that started the 'light rail craze' in the United States."

In March, 1986 SDTI opened an extension east from Centre City San Diego to Euclid Avenue, along the La Mesa Branch of the SD&AE Railway. Service was extended along the same line to Spring Street in May of 1989 serving Lemon Grove and La Mesa, and again to El Cajon in June 1989. Service from El Cajon to Santee, not operating along SD&AE right-of-way, began in August 1995.

The "Bayside" extension of the Trolley in Centre City San Diego opened in June 1990. The first phase of the Old Town extension, from C Street to Little Italy in Centre City San Diego, opened in July 1992. The second phase of that extension, running from Little Italy to Old Town, opened in June 1996.

The "Mission Valley West" SDTI extension from Old Town to Mission San Diego commenced in November 1997, and the "Mission Valley East" extension from Mission San Diego to La Mesa began operating in July 2005.

Early HistoryEdit

The planning for the San Diego Trolley began in 1966 under the auspices of the Comprehensive Planning Organization (CPO), an intergovernmental agency of 13 cities and San Diego County. San Diego’s streetcar system had been replaced with buses in 1949. In 1966 the local bus company, San Diego Transit, was facing a financial crisis and public takeover. The CPO developed a mass-transit plan to address the long-range transportation issues of the metropolitan area.

Little progress was made in the decade 1966-1975. CPO continued to research options for addressing the region’s transportation needs. Several prominent stakeholders submitted their own mass-transit master plans for the region. The alternatives studied in the decade included:

  • Restoration of the 1949 streetcar system for $1.3 billion
  • BART-like system featuring 417 stations and 284 route miles for $2.0 billion to $5.0 billion
  • Elevated system featuring automatic rapid transit vehicles for $1.0 billion
  • Short demonstration light-rail line (Airport to Downtown), for $20 million
  • Express bus system on freeways

The debate between rail rapid transit and light rail was conducted without reference to any specific right-of-way or railroad tracks. The CPO’s 1975 Regional Comprehensive Plan described a $1.5 billion rail-rapid transit system in San Diego featuring 58 route miles and 11 lines. However, by this time, it was widely acknowledged by public officials that the BART-like system would be much more expensive than light rail. Rail rapid plans were stalled due to high costs. Proponents of the rail rapid system were concerned about the low speed of at-grade streetcar systems. Operating deficits were also a concern. A 1974 CPO study concluded that a streetcar system would incur operating deficits of $1.9 million annually. It was also understood that any BART-like system would incur substantial deficits.

The Metropolitan Transit Development BoardEdit

The creation of the Metropolitan Transit Development Board (MTDB) in 1976 with a clearly stated mission initially did not resolve differences between the many stakeholders. However, MTDB did analyze previous transit studies, and determined that the guideway system should satisfy the following principles:

  • Corridor should extend a long distance and offer high-speed operation
  • Low capital cost designs should be adopted, to keep the costs within an affordable range
  • Construction should be at-grade with mostly exclusive right-of-way
  • Operating deficits should be minimized

A feasibility study completed in 1975 identified the unit costs of guideway options, including the estimation of ‘typical section’ per-linear-foot costs for six guideway types: (1) cut-and-cover subway; (2) tunnel bore; (3) ‘aerial line’; (4) open-cut line with retaining walls; (5) sidehill berm cut line; (6) at-grade line. In addition, the MTDB’s enabling legislation explicitly required the guideway system to satisfy the following criteria, consistent with the principles adopted by the Board:

1. Priority consideration shall be given to technologies presently available and in use

2. Guideway system shall be capable of being brought into operation incrementally

3. Transportation rights-of-way of public entities shall be utilized to minimize construction costs

The adoption of the above principles effectively required either a ‘light rail vehicle’ capable of street running (to avoid grade separation), or a commuter-rail like design terminating at the Santa Fe Depot.

The MTDB’s enabling legislation also provided a dedicated funding source for guideway construction that would expire in 1981. Urgency was created since the dedicated funding would revert to the State highway fund if not expended on mass-transit guideway construction. In 1976-77, considerable planning efforts were completed. MTDB’s 1977 “Guideway Planning Project: Phase I Report” identified many alignment options:

(1) Interstate highways I-5, I-8, and I-805; (2) State Routes 94 and 163; (3) Railroad rights-of-way owned by Santa Fe (AT&SF) and by Southern Pacific/San Diego & Arizona Eastern (SD&AE); (4) Local arterials El Cajon Boulevard, 4th/6th/Genesee Avenues, and Highland/National/3rd/5th Avenues.

This report dismissed the use of local arterials for line-haul purposes, due to the cost of aerial or tunnel guideways. “A guideway extending from El Cajon easterly (parallel to I-8) to the vicinity of I-5/Santa Fe Railroad, then southerly through Centre City to San Ysidro parallel to I-5 and SD&AE” was recommended as the first increment. As planning intensified, Phase II of the “Guideway Planning Project” was under way, with efforts initially focusing on the El Cajon Line with the higher ridership potential. However, nature intervened.

Tropical Storm KathleenEdit

On September 10, 1976, tropical storm Kathleen destroyed parts of SD&AE’s Desert Line, at the time a part of the Southern Pacific (SP) system. The hurricane caused $1.3 million worth of damage, primarily in the Eastern part of the State. Through freight service to Arizona was suspended and San Diego became an isolated portion of the SP system. SP petitioned for abandonment of the SD&AE on August 9, 1977 of all tracks west of Plaster City, while the MTDB guideway planning project was ongoing. Due to the apparently immediate availability of a right-of-way in the South Bay Corridor, the transit planning refocused on the SD&AE (SP) Tijuana line, making it the effective ‘minimum operable segment’.

At the same time, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors became concerned about the freight service on the SD&AE. Direct freight service to the East was seen as vital to the county’s economic interests and the continued viability of San Diego as a deep-water port. With an eye towards preserving freight service and future transit right-of-way, San Diego County commissioned its own internal study effort, “Feasibility of Using Existing SD&AE ROW for Commuter Service”, to examine using a portion of the SD&AE tracks for light rail or diesel passenger service sharing track with freight services. Part of the motivation for considering the SD&AE was to “operate the freight service at a profit through changes to work rules, relief from property taxes, and sharing of costs with the transit operation”.

Transit AlternativesEdit

By late 1977, two major transit investment studies were under way focusing on the same corridor: the MTDB-sponsored “Guideway Planning Project”, and San Diego County’s “SD&AE ROW Feasibility Study”.

1. The Base Case: MTDB described the base case as a modified bus network that retained the same number of total vehicles as the present San Diego Transit system.

2. MTDB’s All-Bus Improvement Alternative: This “low capital cost” system would have introduced high-occupancy vehicle lanes on freeways and invested in higher capacity buses and express routes.

3. MTDB’s Rail Improvement Alternative, San Diego County’s “Light Rail Electric”: This “medium capital cost” has electric light-rail transit replacing buses in the South Line corridor and would re-deploy the buses on feeder services.

4. MTDB’s Fully Separated Rail Freight Service Alternative: MTDB examined the possibility of an exclusive double-track South Line on the SD&AE right-of-way. Under this freight rationalization proposal, freight trains would operate over the parallel Coronado Spur south to Imperial Beach, and via two miles of new right-of-way and five miles of “shared corridor” parallel operations on dedicated tracks to reach Tijuana.

5. San Diego County’s “Leased Diesel” Option: The county saw the leased diesel (equivalent to present day commuter rail) as the lowest initial cost option with the least time required to begin service. Facilities would be designed to be convertible to light rail when more funds became available.

6. San Diego County’s “Light Rail Diesel” Option: The county was interested in the self-powered diesel rail cars for its lower capital costs, however, noted that the vehicles were not then approved by the California Public Utilities Commission for one-person operation.


In 1978, the MTDB successfully negotiated with SP to purchase the SD&AE for $18.1 million, including the $1.3 million required to restore the hurricane damaged freight line. This was a dual-intent decision, to preserve both rail freight services to the Imperial Valley, and to preserve available right-of-way for future transit use. In light of cheaper light-rail options identified in the MTDB and San Diego County studies, more expensive options such as a proposed $325 million rail-rapid transit line on a new right-of-way to the border seemed less competitive. There was universal agreement that using the SD&AE right-of-way and light rail technology was more economical and practical than a new rail-rapid transit line.

Construction of the San Diego Trolley proceeded incrementally. The initial construction of new track focused mainly in downtown San Diego. The work on the SD&AE railroad track is best described as ‘rehabilitation’. The MTDB replaced 40% of all ties, cropped and welded the jointed rail, constructed electric catenaries, and installed an absolute block signal system. To control costs, the San Diego Trolley ordered only 14 cars, and did not install ‘mimic’ boards or the on-train location equipment until after the East Line was completed in 1989. No new sidings were initially installed on the SD&AE segment, which had three passing sidings between San Diego and San Ysidro. Service started at 20-minute headways using the rehabilitated single-track line.

San Diego Trolley opened in 1981 with 13.5 miles of operations on the South Line. Additional vehicles were purchased in 1983, and the South Line was mostly double-tracked by 1984, largely on the strength of demand for more frequent headways. The business plan’s incremental building and funding approach was vindicated. The East Line opened to Euclid Avenue in 1986, and was extended to El Cajon in 1989, and Santee in 1992.


Gena Holle, The San Diego Trolley, Interurban Press (1995); “Guideway Planning Project Final Report”, MTDB (1978); “Report on Feasibility of Using Existing SD&AE ROW for Commuter Service”, San Diego County (1978); MTDB publicity materials including “San Diego Trolley, Inc. Summary” (1997), MTDB Progress Report 1976-1986; Pacific Southwest Railway Museum, San Diego & Arizona Railway.

Current linesEdit

Blue LineEdit

The Blue Line currently operates between San Ysidro and Old Town. The line first opened between Centre City San Diego and San Ysidro in 1981, at a spartan cost of $86 million. The Bayfront/E Street station in Chula Vista opened in 1985. In 1986, the line was named the South Line to differentiate it from the new East Line to Euclid Avenue. It was renamed the North-South Line when the Old Town extension opened in 1996. The North-South Line was renamed the Blue Line in 1997 with the opening of the extension to Mission San Diego. The Fenton Parkway stop opened in 2000. With the introduction of the Green line on 10 July, 2005, most Blue line service between Old Town and Qualcomm stadium was discontinued save for a few select rush hour trains. On September 3, 2006 the Qualcomm service Blue line trains were discontinued entirely due to low ridership. Now all Blue line trains terminate at Old Town.

Stops along the Blue Line are:

Because of the sharing of the track with freight traffic, stations along the southern end are sparsely furnished and do not feature concrete platforms like the rest of the system.

Orange LineEdit

The Orange Line currently operates between Centre City San Diego and El Cajon. Service began on the Trolley's second line in 1986, initially operating between downtown San Diego and Euclid Avenue. The East Line, as it was then called, kept its name after successive extensions to Spring Street, El Cajon Transit Center, the Bayside in downtown, and Santee Town Center. It was renamed the Orange Line in 1997. Service between Gillespie Field and Santee Town Center was replaced by the Green Line in 2005.

Stops along the Orange Line are:

  • Gillespie Field (runs concurrent with Green line until Grossmont)
  • Arnele Avenue
  • El Cajon Transit Center
  • Amaya Drive
  • Grossmont Transit Center
  • La Mesa Boulevard
  • Spring Street
  • Lemon Grove Depot
  • Massachusetts Avenue
  • Encanto/62nd Street
  • Euclid Avenue
  • 47th Street
  • 32nd & Commercial
  • 25th & Commercial
  • 12th & Imperial Transit Center (runs concurrent with Blue Line until America Plaza)
  • Park & Market
  • City College
  • Fifth Avenue
  • Civic Center
  • America Plaza
  • Seaport Village
  • Convention Center
  • Gaslamp Quarter
  • 12th & Imperial Transit Center

Green LineEdit

The Green Line is the newest Trolley line. Service currently operates between Old Town and Santee. This includes the Mission Valley East extension, as well as previously operating segments of the Blue Line west of Mission San Diego and Orange Line east of Grossmont Transit Center. The San Diego State University stop is the system's only underground station.

Stops along the Green Line are:

  • Santee Town Center
  • Gillespie Field (runs concurrent with Orange Line until Grossmont)
  • Arnele Avenue
  • El Cajon Transit Center
  • Amaya Drive
  • Grossmont Transit Center
  • 70th Street
  • Alvarado Medical Center
  • SDSU Transit Center
  • Grantville
  • Mission San Diego
  • Qualcomm Stadium
  • Fenton Parkway
  • Rio Vista
  • Mission Valley Center
  • Hazard Center
  • Fashion Valley Transit Center
  • Morena/Linda Vista (serves the University of San Diego area)
  • Old Town Transit Center (connection with Coaster and Blue Line)

Special event serviceEdit

SDTI operates special trains during sporting events at Petco Park and Qualcomm Stadium, as well as selected conventions and other city events. These trains operate between Qualcomm Stadium and downtown San Diego.

Stops along the line are:

  • Qualcomm Stadium
  • Fenton Parkway
  • Rio Vista
  • Mission Valley Center
  • Hazard Center
  • Fashion Valley Transit Center
  • Morena/Linda Vista
  • Old Town Transit Center (connection with Coaster and Blue Line)
  • Washington Street
  • Middletown
  • County Center/Little Italy
  • Santa Fe Depot (connection with Coaster and Amtrak)
  • Seaport Village
  • Convention Center
  • Gaslamp Quarter
  • 12th & Imperial Transit Center

Future extensionsEdit

There are plans for one additional Trolley extension. The Mid-Coast line will operate from Old Town to the Golden Triangle. The project will be constructed in two phases: The first phase will parallel Interstate 5 and existing railroad right-of-way from Old Town north to Balboa Avenue, with intermediate stops at Tecolote Road and Clairemont Drive. The second phase will complete the line to University Towne Centre, with intermediate stops at La Jolla Village Square, the western and eastern halves of UCSD, and Executive Drive. An additional stop at Jutland Drive is possible.

Expansion in the growing South Bay region is frequently discussed. With the expansion of commercial and residential development into the Otay Valley, an extension from the San Diego Trolley's Blue Line into those areas, which runs from Centre City San Diego to United States and Mexican border, is one of the many possible routes.

There are also plans for a "Silver line" which will not use the standard light rail but will use old-fashioned PCC cars and additional street trolleys similar to the F line that runs down the center of Market Street in downtown San Francisco. The tentatively named "Silver Line" will run in the "Centre City Loop". For more info:


It is notoriously difficult to create a transit system that effectively serves a sprawling, low-density city like San Diego. Some San Diegans specifically criticize the trolley for its lack of service into some traffic-prone areas, such as Lindbergh Field (San Diego International Airport), or to any of the city's beaches. Some developers have come forward with a proposal for a monorail system to supplement the trolley in high-density areas where trolley construction is not feasible or cost-effective. Template:Fact

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit


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