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Tram, streetcar or trolley systems were common throughout the industrialized world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but they disappeared from many cities in the mid-20th century. In recent years, they have made a comeback. Many newer light rail systems share features with trams, although a distinction is usually drawn between the two, especially if the line has significant off-street running.


History - Horse-drawn tramways

The very first passenger tram (streetcar) was the Swansea and Mumbles Railway, in Wales, UK. The Mumbles Railway Act was passed by the British Parliament in 1804, and this first horse-drawn passenger tramway (which acted like streetcars in the US some 30 years later) started operating in 1807. It was worked by steam from 1877, and then, from 1929, by very large (106-seater) electric tramcars, until closure in 1960.

The modern Tramlink in south London follows the route of the even older 1803 Surrey Iron Railway, a horsedrawn freight tramway sanctioned by Parliament in 1801, between Mitcham and Croydon. This gives Tramlink a claim to be one of the world's oldest tramways. (Tramway Path beside Mitcham tram stop had its name long before Tramlink was built). The Surrey Iron Railway was engineered by William Jessop, who had invented L-section iron rails in 1790, as an improvement on the wooden-railed wagonways which had been used in mines for centuries. These fish-bellied iron rails were manufactured by his assistant Benjamin Outram and it has been suggested that the word "Tramway" is a contraction of Outram's surname ("Outram Way"), but the term is much older and probably comes from the Low German word "traam" which means a "beam". (The first recorded surface-running horse-drawn wagonway was the 2-mile Wollaton Wagonway built in 1603-4 to carry coal from mines at Strelley down to the River Trent at Wollaton, near Nottingham, England).

A horse tramway in Gdańsk (late 19th century, then Germany, now Poland)

The first streetcar in America, developed by John Stephenson, began service in the year 1832.[1] This, the New York and Harlem Railroad's Fourth Avenue Line ran along the Bowery and Fourth Avenue in New York City. These streetcars, also known as horsecars in North America, were developed from city stagecoach lines and omnibus lines that picked up and dropped off passengers on a regular route and without the need to be pre-hired. These trams were an animal railway, usually using horses and sometimes mules to haul the cars, usually two as a team. Rarely other animals were tried, including humans in emergencies. It was followed in 1835 by New Orleans, Louisiana, which is the oldest continuously operating street railway system in the world, according to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.[2] At first the rails protruded above street level, causing accidents and major trouble for pedestrians. They were supplanted in 1852 by grooved rails or girder rails, invented by Alphonse Loubat.

The first tram in France was opened in 1839 between Montbrison and Montrond, on the streets inside the towns, and on the roadside outside town. It had permission for steam traction, but was entirely run with horse traction. In 1848, it was closed down after repeated economic failure. The first street trams in Britain were built in 1860 in Birkenhead by the eccentric American entrepreneur George Train, who later introduced street trams to London.

One of the advantages over earlier forms of transit was the low rolling resistance of metal wheels on steel rails, allowing the animals to haul a greater load for a given effort. Problems included the fact that any given animal could only work so many hours on a given day, had to be housed, groomed, fed and cared for day in and day out, and produced prodigious amounts of manure, which the streetcar company was charged with disposing of. Since a typical horse pulled a car for perhaps a dozen miles a day and worked for four or five hours, many systems needed ten or more horses in stable for each horsecar. Electric trams largely replaced animal power in the late 19th and early 20th century. New York City had closed its last horsecar line in 1917. The last regular mule drawn streetcar in the U.S.A., in Sulphur Rock, Arkansas, closed in 1926. However during World War II some old horse cars were temporarily returned to service to help conserve fuel. A mule-powered line in Celaya, Mexico, operated until 1956.

The last example of a horse drawn tram to be withdrawn from public service in the UK took passengers from Fintona railway station to Fintona Junction one mile away on the main Omagh to Enniskillen railway in Northern Ireland. The tram made its last journey on 30 September 1957 when the Omagh to Enniskillen line closed. The "van" now lies at the Ulster Transport Museum, but a silhouette of the old horse tram is still displayed on the signs at the entrance to the village.

Horse-drawn trams still operate on the 1876-built Douglas Bay Horse Tramway in the Isle of Man, and at the 1894 Victor Harbor Horse Drawn Tram, in Adelaide, South Australia. New horse-drawn systems have been established at the Hokkaidō Museum in Japan and also in Disneyland.

The tram developed in numerous cities of Europe (some of the most extensive systems were found in Berlin, Birmingham, Budapest, Leningrad, Lisbon, London, Manchester, Paris). Faster and more comfortable than the omnibus, trams had a high cost of operation because they were pulled by horses. That is why mechanical drives were rapidly developed, with steam power in 1873, and electrical after 1881, when Siemens AG presented the electric drive at the International Electricity Exhibition in Paris.

Electric Trams

The convenience and economy of electricity resulted in its rapid adoption once the technical problems of production and transmission of electricity were solved. The first prototype of the electric tram was developed by Russian engineer Fyodor Pirotsky. In 1875 he experimented with electrically powered railway cars on the Sestroretsk railway. The electricity was transferred over a distance of approximately one kilometer; both rails were isolated from the ground, one rail served as a direct conductor and one as a return conductor. In 1880 he modified a city two-decker horse tram to be powered by electricity instead of horses, and on 3 September 1880 this unusual form of public transport started to serve residents of Saint Petersburg, amid the vocal protests of the owners of the horse-cars. This short-lived experiment continued only until the end of September 1880.

On 16 May 1881, Werner von Siemens opened the world's first electric tramway in the village of Gross-Lichterfelde, (later incorporated into Berlin-Steglitz). The electric tram was built in meter gauge and ran from today's suburban station East Lichterfelde to the cadet school in the Zehlendorfer Strasse (today Finckensteinallee). At first, the route was just a testing plant; Siemens named it an "elevated line taken down from its pillars and girders". The route was regauged to standard gauge in October 1925. (See Berlin Straßenbahn).

In 1883, Magnus Volk constructed his 2-foot gauge Volk's Electric Railway along the eastern seafront at Brighton, England. This 2-km line, re-gauged to 2 ft 9 in (840 mm) in 1884, remains in service to this day, and is the oldest operating electric tramway in the world.

In October of the same year, the first permanent tram with transmission of electricity by an bipolar overhead line was opened in Austria. This Lokalbahn Mödling–Hinterbrühl was in service till 1932.

In 1884 the electric tram FOTG from Frankfurt am Main to Offenbach was opened with rails of metre gauge all on road and a bipolar overhead line. In 1905 it was changed to standard gauge, and the overhead line became unipolar. The western part of this line is still working.

A historic German tram

The first electric street tramway in Britain, the Blackpool Tramway, was opened on 29 September 1885 using conduit collection along Blackpool Promenade; it was later changed to overhead power supply. After 1960, this remained the only first-generation operational tramway in the UK; it remains in operation today. The most extensive systems were to be found in Birmingham, Glasgow, London, and Manchester.

In the United States on April 15, 1886 Montgomery, Alabama established its electric streetcar system nicknamed the Lightning Route.[3] Another successful, continuously-operating electrified streetcar system in the United States was established in Scranton, Pennsylvania by November 30, 1886, giving it the nickname "The Electric City".[4] But the first large-scale electric street railway system known as the Richmond Union Passenger Railway was built in Richmond, Virginia, in January 1888. By 1890 over 100 such systems had been begun or were planned.

While Paris had an experimental electric tram in 1881 (which ran between Place de la Concorde and Palais de l'Industrie for an exhibition about electricity), the first major electric tram systems in Europe probably ran in Budapest from 1887 while Bucharest ran a regular service from 1894 and Sarajevo from 1895.

The first electric tramway in the Southern Hemisphere was opened in Melbourne, Australia in 1889 and was operated by a group of land developers. It ran from Box Hill railway station up to Doncaster Hill as a tourist tramway and closed in 1896.

In South America, battery-powered tramways operated in Niterói, Brazil and Rio de Janeiro starting in 1883 and 1887, respectively, but the first true electric tramway—with overhead wires—anywhere in Latin America opened in Rio de Janeiro in 1892.[5]

Disappearance from many cities

The advent of personal motor vehicles and the improvements in motorized buses caused the rapid disappearance of the tram from most western and Asian countries by the end of the 1950s (for example the first major UK city to completely abandon its trams was Manchester by January 1949). Continuing technical improvements in buses made them more reliable (than before), and a serious competitor to trams because they did not require the construction of costly infrastructure. [2] However, the demise of the streetcar came when lines were torn out of the major cities by "bus manufacturing or oil marketing companies for the specific purpose of replacing rail service with buses."[6]

In many cases postwar buses were cited as providing a smoother ride and a faster journey than the older, prewar trams. For example, the tram network survived in Budapest but for a considerable period of time bus fares were higher to recognize the superior quality of the buses. However, many riders protested against the replacement of streetcars arguing that buses weren't as smooth or efficient and polluted the air. In the United States, there have been allegations that the General Motors streetcar conspiracy was responsible for the replacement of trains with buses, but critics of this theory point to evidence that larger economic forces were driving conversion before General Motors' actions and outside of its reach. Certainly the oldest system of all, the Swansea and Mumbles Railway of 1807, was purchased by the The South Wales Transport Company (which operated a large motor bus fleet in the area) and despite vociferous local opposition, closed down in 1960.

Governments thus put investment principally into bus networks. Indeed, infrastructure for roads and highways meant for the automobile were perceived as a mark of progress. The priority given to roads is illustrated in the proposal of French president Georges Pompidou who declared in 1971 that "the city must adapt to the car".

Tram networks were no longer maintained or modernized, a state of affairs that served to discredit them in the eyes of the public. Old lines, considered archaic, were then bit by bit replaced by buses.

Tram networks disappeared almost completely from North America, France, the UK, and altogether from Ireland, Spain etc. On the other hand, they were generally retained or modernized in most communist countries, as well as Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Portugal etc. In France, only the networks in Lille, Saint-Etienne and Marseille, survive from this period, but they all suffered significant reduction from their original size. In Great Britain, only the Blackpool Tramway kept the faith, with an extensive system which includes some street running in Blackpool, and a long stretch of segregated track to nearby Fleetwood.

Tram networks

1) Closed completely in many countries like - Algeria, Venezuela, Columbia, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Bolivia, Cuba, Uruguay, Panama, Trinidad, Guyana, Jamaica, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Singapore, Thailand, Philippines, South Korea, Shrilanka, Syria, Lebanon, Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar etc.

2) Closed almost except one or two towns/cities like - Uzbekistan, India, Sweden etc.

3) Previously closed but later returned as heritage system - South Africa, New Zealand, Peru etc.

4) Previously closed but later returned as modern system - Tunisia etc.

5) Some systems closed, some remains, some returned - Egypt, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, North Korea, Turkey, China, Japan etc.

Return to grace

A Siemens "Combino" tram in Amsterdam
A new Italian produced Sirio tram in Gothenburg
tram in Strasbourg, 2004.

The priority given to personal vehicles and notably to the automobile led to a loss in quality of life, particularly in large cities where smog, traffic congestion, sound pollution and parking became problematic. Acknowledging this, some authorities saw fit to redefine their transport policies. Rapid transit required a heavy investment and presented problems in terms of subterranean spaces that required constant security. For rapid transit, the investment was mainly in underground construction, which made it impossible in some cities (with underground water reserves, archaeological remains, etc.). Metro construction thus was not a universal panacea.

The advantages of the tram thus became once again visible. At the end of the 1970s, some governments studied, and then built new tram lines. In France, Nantes and Grenoble lead the way in terms of the modern tram, and new systems were inaugurated in 1985 and 1988. The first UK modern light rail system opened in Manchester in 1992 with Italian built vehicles. In 1994 Strasbourg opened a system with novel British-built trams, specified by the city, with the goal of breaking with the archaic conceptual image that was held by the public.

The renaissance of light rail in North America began in 1978 when the Canadian city of Edmonton, Alberta adopted the German Siemens-Duewag U2 system, followed three years later by Calgary, Alberta and San Diego, California. Britain began replacing its run-down local railways with light rail in the 1980s, starting with Tyneside and followed by the Docklands Light Railway in London. The trend to light rail in the United Kingdom was firmly established with the success of the Manchester Metrolink system and Sheffield Supertram in 1992, followed by Tramlink in 2000.

A great example of this shift in ideology is the city of Munich, which began replacing its tram network with a metro a few years before the 1972 Summer Olympics. When the metro network was finished in the 1990s the city began to tear out the tram network (which had become rather old and decrepit), but now faced opposition from many citizens who enjoyed the enhanced mobility of the mixed network—the metro lines deviate from the tram lines to a significant degree. New rolling stock was purchased and the system was modernized, and a new line was proposed in 2003.

It was the Olympic games of 2004 that prompted the redevelopment of trams as part of the Athens Mass Transit System. The tramways in Athens are among the most modern in the world, integrated with the revived Athens Metro system, as well as the buses, trolleybuses and suburban trains.

In Melbourne, Australia, the already extensive tramway system continues to be extended. In 2004 the Mont Albert line was extended several kilometres to Box Hill, whilst in 2005 the Burwood East line was extended several kilometres to Vermont South.

Technical developments

Sarajevo was the first city in Europe to have a full-time (from dawn to dusk) operational electric tram line. Since then it has upgraded to more modern trams.

Modern trams generally use overhead electric cables, from which they draw current through a pantograph, a bow collector (less commonly) or the now-rare trolley pole (the pantograph is most common and used on new tram designs). There are other methods of powering electric trams, sometimes preferred for aesthetic reasons since poles and overhead wires are not required. The old tram systems in London, Manhattan (New York City), and Washington, D.C., used live rails, like those on third-rail electrified railways, but in a conduit underneath the road, from which they drew power through a plough. It was called Conduit current collection. Washington's was the last of these to close, in 1962. Today, no commercial tramway uses this system. More recently, a modern equivalent to the old stud systems has been developed which allows for the safe installation of a third rail on city streets, which is known as surface current collection or ground-level power supply; the main example of this is the new tramway in Bordeaux.

In narrow situations double-track tram lines sometimes reduce to single track, or, to avoid switches, have the tracks interlaced, e.g. in the Leidsestraat in Amsterdam on three short stretches (see map detail); this is known as interlaced or gauntlet track. There is a UK example of interlaced track on the Tramlink, just west of Mitcham Station, where the formation is narrowed by an old landslip causing an obstruction. (See photo in Tramlink entry).

Traditionally trams had high floors, requiring passengers to climb several steps in order to board, but since the 1990s this design has been largely replaced by low-floor trams, or occasionally by high-floor trams with level boarding platforms, as in Manchester's Metrolink and some parts of Cologne's network, which allow passengers in wheelchairs or with perambulators to access vehicles more easily. In some jurisdictions this has even been made mandatory since the 1990s, for example by the HMRI in Britain and the Disability discrimination act in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries.

Historically, the rail gauge has had considerable variations, with narrow gauge common in many early systems. However, most light rail systems are now standard gauge. An important advantage of standard gauge is that standard railway maintenance equipment can be used on it, rather than custom-built machinery. Using standard gauge also allows light rail vehicles to be delivered and relocated conveniently using freight railways and locomotives. Another factor favoring standard gauge is that low-floor vehicles are becoming popular, and there is generally insufficient space for wheelchairs to move between the wheels in a narrow gauge layout.

See also


  1. ^ The John Stephenson Car Co. Retrieved 25 February 2009.
  2. ^ Bellis, Mary. "History of Streetcars and Cable Cars". Retrieved 2007-01-10.  
  3. ^ "Charles J. Van Depoele". Retrieved 14 December 2008.  
  4. ^ "Electric City Trolley Museum". Retrieved 14 December 2008.  
  5. ^ Morrison, Allen (1996). Latin America by Streetcar: A Pictorial Survey of Urban Rail Transport South of the U.S.A., p. 3. New York: Bonde Press. ISBN 0-9622348-3-4.
  6. ^ [1], American Public Transportation Association


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