The Multinational Ding-Ding

Hong Kong tram

The ding-ding, Hong Kong’s 105-year-old tramway is now a multinational asset. Yesterday, local conglomerate Whalf Holdings sold 50 percent of its shares in Hongkong Tramways to the French transportation company Veolia, which retains the option to buy the remaining half. “Operating the light rail system in Hong Kong will give us the knowledge and expertise in mainland China. That’s strategically why we chose to start in Hong Kong,” said the head of Veolia’s new Chinese division. While I’m not sure that’s a very good strategy (what does running a century-old British-style tramway in Hong Kong teach you about operating modern light rail in, say, Chongqing?), it does raise some questions about the future of a beloved piece of Hong Kong transport.

So far, Veolia has promised not to make any changes to the tramway’s current operations. Although they are much slower than the MTR, trams remain extremely popular, largely because they cost just $2 (about 30 Canadian cents) to ride. I’m willing to bet that the experience of rattling through the canyons of Wan Chai or North Point, wind rushing through open windows, has something to do with it too. After all, the tram is the very opposite of the sleek, air-conditioned MTR, and it can often be more enjoyable to ride than the loud, dingy buses that serve local routes on the Hong Kong side of the harbour. Hongkong Tramways makes about $150 million from fares, which hasn’t changed for several years, but the revenue from advertising on trams and tram stations has increased from $20 million to $50 million since 2004. Even considering the poor state of the economy, it seems almost inevitable that advertising will play an ever more prominent part in the tramway’s operation.

While there may not be any changes to the current tram line, Veolia will spearhead a proposal to run a spur line along the newly-reclaimed Central waterfront, from the Star Ferry pier to the convention centre in Wan Chai. It’s a great idea, one that could help offset the decline in Star Ferry ridership and give the public better access to waterfront open space. The only problem is that the guiding principle behind the new line would be nostalgia: the rolling stock would consist of custom-made replicas of the various types of trams that have served Hong Kong through the decades. In other words, instead of a proper, serious tram line along the waterfront, we’d have a tram better-suited to running a loop around the perimeter of Hong Kong Disneyland. I can easily envision a Peak Tram-style line that caters to tourists and charges far more than any normal transit user would be willing to pay. Hong Kong’s tramway is nostalgic enough; any new investment should be focused on making it more efficient and useful to the public.

Since the SCMP articles relevant to this story are hidden behind a paywall, I’ve taken the liberty of excerpting some relevant passages.

Replica trams for harbourfront
Proposed tramway loop on Central reclamation would use historic cars

Celine Sun and Anita Lam
Apr 08, 2009

Hongkong Tramways’ new operator, the France-based transport giant Veolia, will be responsible for steering a proposed development of a new harbourfront loop on the reclaimed area between Central and Wan Chai.

The tram operator is considering reproducing trams from different eras to run on the proposed route from the Star Ferry pier in Central to the Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai to attract tourists and local passengers.

“[The trams] will look like living museums,” Wharf Transport Investment director Frankie Yick Chi-ming, said. An initial study by the company indicated the idea was feasible.

(…)

The replicas would showcase different designs that had ridden the rails since the first single-deck trams were introduced in 1904.

Open-top double-deck cars were introduced in 1912 and were replaced by fully-enclosed models in 1925.

The tramway operator started to build its own trams in the 1950s and adopted single-deck trailer that was attached to the back of an ordinary passenger tram. The latest “millennium” model, designed and made locally, was launched in 2000.

Hongkong Tramways operates a fleet of 163 trams carrying about 230,000 passengers a day on six routes between Kennedy Town and Shau Kei Wan on Hong Kong Island.

Engineering sector lawmaker Raymond Ho Chung-tai welcomed the proposal, but stressed that the current tram system should stay.

“It doesn’t matter if the tramway along the promenade is run by a new monorail system or in the old street-tramcar style – it isn’t a bad idea to introduce something new – but our current tramway must stay.”

French giant buys control of city’s trams
Wharf sells 50pc stake in HK icon

A French multinational is taking over the running of Hong Kong’s famed tramways after buying a 50 per cent stake in the business from conglomerate Wharf (Holdings) (SEHK: 0004).

Announcing the deal yesterday, the two companies said they aimed to “bring new impetus to keep the system on track well [into its] second century of operation”. They said existing services would continue.

The French company, Veolia Transport, did not say how much it paid for its stake but that it was “far less than 100 million euros (HK$1.04 billion)”. It has an option to buy the other 50 per cent of the company.

The company – formerly Connex – is a subsidiary of Veolia Environnement and operates transport systems, including tramways, around the world. It runs bus joint ventures in Anhui province and Nanjing.

(…)

Under the new ownership arrangement – which is certain to face scrutiny from environmentalists and heritage activists – Mr Charrade will replace Wharf Transport Investment director Frankie Yick Chi-ming as managing director of Hongkong Tramways.

Mr Charrade said the company understood the trams were part of Hong Kong’s cultural heritage.

“We are committed to protecting and preserving it,” he said.

Mr Yick said: “Our goal [in co-operating with Veolia] is to bring the tram services to a new level.”

Mr Charrade said Veolia would seek to improve the company’s management and technical services and the safety, efficiency and quality of its services.

“We will study our passengers first before analysing the sustainability of the existing system,” he said.

But he committed to “continuity of existing services” and said there were no plans to raise fares, cut staff or restructure the company. For 11 years, the adult fare has been HK$2.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Wednesday April 08 2009at 12:04 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, Transportation and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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