September 30th, 2013

Rethinking Hong Kong’s Trams

Hong Kong Tram Ride to Kennedy Town

Photo by Jens Schott Knudsen

In an unassuming shed next to an elevated highway, Hong Kong’s wood-framed trams are being rebuilt one by one. “They’re icons of the city,” says Emmanuel Vivant, the man overseeing the renewal. Four years ago, Vivant was part of the team that acquired Hong Kong Tramways for Veolia Transport, a French conglomerate that runs dozens of railways, tram systems and bus lines around the world. “What we saw was a lot of room for improvement,” he says.

Hong Kong’s tram network dates back to 1903, when tracks were laid from Kennedy Town in the west to Causeway Bay in the east. Less than a decade later, passenger demand was so strong, double-decker trams were introduced. Though Hong Kong has changed beyond measure in the past hundred years, the trams have remained a constant; there is no better way to see the city than from the front seat on the top deck, windows open to the clamoring streets below.

The tram remains popular, with 230,000 riders every day and an affectionate Cantonese nickname: ding ding. But its acquisition in 1974 by local conglomerate Wharf Holdings led to a long decline. Dedicated tram lanes were given over to cars. Tracks were poorly maintained, lengthening travel times so much that taking a tram across Hong Kong Island is often slower than riding a bicycle. The Millennium Tram, launched in 2000 in an effort to renew the rolling stock, was a widely-scorned flop.

“For us, the Millennium Tram was a warning sign that we had to be very careful in handling the icon,” says Vivant. “They looked too modern, too new, too much like a bus. People in Hong Kong really like their trams, so we decided we had to keep their heritage.”

After buying the tramway, Veolia launched a consultation exercise to find out what passengers wanted from their trams. The first discovery was that most passengers thought the windows should stay open; one of the biggest complaints about the Millennium trams was that the front windows were sealed shut. Passengers also had a soft spot for the trams’ wood frames, which the Millennium trams had discarded with little sense of nostalgia.

Millenium Tram

The Millennium Tram

One of the loudest complaints had to do with the tram system’s signage and wayfinding devices, which were virtually nonexistent. “The perception before was that most passengers were regulars who didn’t need any information, but we found that one out of every four passengers used the tram infrequently,” says Vivant. Now there are bilingual system maps and nameplates in each station, each one featuring the illustration of a classic tram in its original racing green livery. LED display panels announce the name of each stop inside the tram.

The next step was to undertake a complete overhaul of the rolling stock. Every year, 15 of the fleet’s 161 trams are rolled into the Whitty Street Depot, stripped to the chassis and rebuilt by hand. Most of the parts of new, but some, like the wheels, are repurposed using an 80-year-old machine that Vivant says would cost HK$10 million to replace. “Building a tram internally is way cheaper,” he says as we enter the workshop, where workers were picking away at the skeleton of an old tram. “There’s a lot of workmanship involved. We have people with a lot of know-how – carpenters, painters.”

The new frames are aluminum, which cuts down on maintenance costs and increases the amount of space inside each vehicle, but the wood frames of old have found their way into hand-cut teak seats, which add a bit of organic warmth to the tram’s interior. New seat handles keep standing passengers on sure footing. Passenger flow was improved by finessing the entrances, exits and stairwells, including the replacement of turnstiles with flap gates. Meanwhile, 70-year-old DC motors have been scrapped in favour of new AC motors, which has led to smoother rides and energy savings.


South China Morning Post graphic explaining the changes. Click to enlarge

There have been important behind-the-scenes changes, too. Tracks repairs have made for swifter journeys. Tram routes were rationalized to ease congestion, with more short stops and fewer trams running the entire length of the island, reflecting the fact that most tram trips are short. The movement of trams is now tracked by RFID transmitters buried beneath the tracks, which passengers can see through a new mobile app. Vivant took me to the control room, where a dozen or so operators monitor the progress of trams, which are notorious for bunching up during the rush hours. “We can’t use GPS because Hong Kong is too dense, so the signal gets lost,” explains operations manager David Wong. “But it’s better than before, when the switching system transmitted location data through modems.”

Now that the tram system has entered the 21st century, Vivant says the next step is to install priority signals for trams and to reclaim road space lost to cars and buses. He hopes that will be possible after the MTR’s West Island Line extension opens in 2015 and the underground Central-Wan Chai Bypass is completed 2017, which should reduce the amount of traffic on surface streets. “It’s a great opportunity for us to regain some of the tram lanes we’ve lost,” he says.

Veolia has even more ambitious plans in Hong Kong. The company is currently lobbying the government to scrap the HK$12 billion monorail it has planned for East Kowloon, which it says would be expensive and impractical to expand, and instead opt for a much cheaper, more flexible modern tram — which of course would be managed by Veolia. Vivant also says a long-planned waterfront tram line along the north side of Hong Kong Island is still in the works.

For now, though, the company must make do with what it has. “I like the fact that we don’t receive any subsidies — it’s more exciting and we have more freedom,” says Vivant. “But we need to be placed on an equal footing with our competitors. That’s the only way we can have a sustainable future.”

Passing trams


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One comment

  1. Hong Kong Trams Enthusiast says:

    Veolia and HKT has put so much effort on improving HK tramways since take over; We are very confident that HK tramways will have a prosperous future.

    October 19th, 2013 at 10:30 am