As a kid, Bill Taylor got a kick out of riding the little trolley at the old State Fair on Stockton Boulevard. It was called the Elephant Train and Taylor never forgot it.
Now, he’s launching a new version of the old train, this time downtown along the waterfront. Taylor, who founded the local Willie’s Burgers chain a quarter century ago, sees a niche for a nimble little hop-on-and-off trolley to shuttle people around downtown and Old Sacramento who don’t want to deal with driving and parking hassles.
That may be state workers headed to lunch in old town, tourists visiting museums or workers who can’t park near their jobs.
Taylor and his son, Greg, this year bought a quite-bright orange trolley bus on wheels. It’s open-air, with a canopy overhead, and seats about a dozen-plus. They painted the name Elephant Train on it a few weeks ago and began testing it out in Old Sacramento and on downtown streets as they search for funding, permits and partnerships.
They say they hope to have the first trolley up and running in a month or so on a circuit that includes downtown hotels, the railroad museum in Old Sacramento, the auto museum on the waterfront and the state Capitol and state office area. They intend to offer free rides for a few weeks to test the service out.
Long-term, they’d like to assemble a fleet of six trolley cars running on a variety of routes. That’ll probably cost $500,000, he said. He’s launching a kick-starter campaign to help.
Sitting at the wheel of his trolley in Old Sacramento last week, Taylor, who looks a bit like singer Jimmy Buffett in his Hawaiian shirt and baseball cap, said he might even try a Margarita-style trolley that he calls the Pink Elephant Train that will pick up people at downtown clubs.
“If we can work it out with (regulators), we’ll have a blender in on this one!” he said. “We might be able to make the Pink Elephant Train really rock ‘n’ roll.”
Taylor said he hopes to sign discount or voucher deals with museums and restaurants that will allow him to charge $4 per round-trip, but will offer tokens for $3 off at museums, restaurants and other businesses, making the actual ride cost $1.
Crocker Art Museum executive Lial Jones, whose facility lacks sufficient parking, said she likes the trolley idea.
“Generally I’m in favor of any concept that will make it easier for visitors to get to and enjoy the Crocker,” Jones said. She said she’s not sure about offering discounts to riders, “but it is something we would be willing to explore.”
Old Sacramento District Director Brooksie Hughes likes the concept as well. She said the trolley can help with one of Old Sacramento’s biggest problems, getting people to and from the district, which is separated from downtown by the Interstate 5 freeway.
“I think it’s super cool,” she said. “I’m really excited it’s here.”
The Elephant Train’s arrival poses an interesting question downtown: Will it have any impact on the $200 million streetcar line Sacramento and West Sacramento are planning that would run on rails through downtown and over the Tower Bridge?
Taylor says he sees his trolley as paving the way for the bigger streetcar later, not competing with it. That modern streetcar system, with enclosed cars, would involve more vehicles, more frequency, longer hours, and year-round usability. It is expected to cost about $1 per ride.
Unlike the streetcar, however, which would run a fixed route on rails, Taylor’s trolley runs on wheels, so it can change routes and roles as needed, if and when the streetcar is built, Taylor said. “As that (streetcar) comes on, we will morph into some other form so that we complement what they do. We don’t see them as competition.”
City Councilman Steve Hansen, the city’s leading streetcar proponent, sees the Elephant Train’s main role as limited to getting people to and from Old Sacramento and nearby attractions.
“We will need to see how used it is before we will know its impact” on the proposed streetcar and light rail, Hansen said.
The more immediate competition may be with the horse-drawn carriages that Rick Newborn of Top Hand Ranch has offered in old town since 1970. Newborn has seen other horse companies and some trolleys come and go over the years. He says he doesn’t know much about the Elephant Train concept and thinks Taylor ought to come talk to him, given that the two might run into a business overlap.
“I am not opposed to competition, as long as it is fair competition, and they don’t start doing the same tours that I do,” Newborn said.
Taylor said he sees his business as complimentary to the horse-drawn carriages. “The more people we get down here the better off everyone’s business will be,” he said.
Taylor’s son Greg, who has an architecture degree from Harvard and a love of art, says the trolley enterprise, for him, is about helping create a modern downtown that is dense, active and animated, with limited need for private automobiles.
For his dad, though, it’s a bit more personal, a bit more nostalgic. The elder Taylor spent some of last week piloting the trolley around Old Sacramento and downtown, ringing the bell and inviting people on for free rides. He landed some riders from Thailand, Canada and England. One group said they were headed to the depot. We’ll take you, he told them.
“This gives us a great sense of community,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, I’ve been retired 25 years. This is just what I do to keep busy. It’s fun.”