Mark L. Joseph, president of Yellow Transportation Co., brandishes a stack of postcards from satisfied customers of the revamped Baltimore trolley operation. "These things are overwhelmingly positive," he says. "They love it."
Customer response is one sign that the new service is on the right track, Joseph says. Another good sign is the warm reception the operation has gotten from hotels and tourist officials. "They are the people who can make or break us," he says.
The trolleys, which are actually dressed-up buses, disappeared from city streets in March after the city government decided it no longer could afford the $750,000 annual subsidy. In April the 13 trolleys were sold for $159,000 to Yellow Transportation, the company that operates one of the largest fleets of cabs in the city. In July the trolleys returned to the streets, rechristened the Baltimore Trolley Tours. But there are significant changes.
Originally envisioned as a way to promote tourism beyond the confines of the Inner Harbor, the trolleys carried passengers on routes in downtown and over to Fells Point.
The old city operation was strictly a no-frills affair. There were no pads on the seats, the trolleys were often late and many rattled down the road because of the lack of maintenance. But it was cheap, costing only 25 cents a trip.
It was so cheap that the trolleys were drawing away riders from the state Mass Transit Administration buses, which charge nearly a dollar or more. About 90 percent of the trolley passengers were city residents, according to Frances Zeller, a former employee of the city operation and now the operations assistant for Baltimore Trolley Tours.
One of the biggest differences between the two operations is the price. Baltimore Trolley Tours charges $9 for adults and $4.50 for children under 12. Children under 5 are free. But it also provides a narrated tour of the attractions of the city, and padded seats. Passengers are also allowed to get off one trolley and get on a later one without an additional charge. A trolley stops at each location about every half-hour.
The trolleys now make a continuous loop with 18 stops, including the Inner Harbor, Fells Point, the Babe Ruth Museum, Fort McHenry and most of the city's major hotels. Four trolleys travel the route from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., seven days a week, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.
The driver doubles as a tour narrator with the aid of a headset that allows driving and talking at the same time. Tickets are sold through major hotels and through the city's ticket kiosk in the Inner Harbor.
"This is what the city wanted when the trolleys began," Zeller says, noting that the new operation is geared more to the tourists and succeeds in introducing them to attractions beyond the Inner Harbor.
The new operation is patterned after a similar tour in Washington, according to Joseph. This includes the prepaid postcard that is part of the ticket that allows customers to register their feelings about the service. There is also a money-back guarantee if the customer is not satisfied.
So far, about 4,200 people have taken the tour, Joseph says. Of that total, only 12 have asked for their money back.
While the new operation has had profitable days and profitable weeks, it has yet to move into the black, Joseph says. At the current rate, he expects the tours to be self-sustaining by the end of the first year.
The company already has spent $70,000 on the renovation of 10 of the trolleys. The other three trolleys were sold to Ocean City,