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A modern tram in the Tl district of Helsinki, Finland
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a historic postcard showing electric-powered trolley streetcars in Richmond, Virginia, where Frank J. Sprague successfully demonstrated his new system on the hills in 1888

A tram (or tramcar, trolley, or streetcar) is a railborne vehicle (lighter than a train) designed for the transport of passengers (and/or, very occasionally, freight) within, close to, or between villages towns and/or cities. Trams are distinguished from other forms of railway systems in that they travel wholly or partly along tracks laid down in the right-of-way of city streets, usually on track reserved for the tram system. A cable car is a special type of tram.

Tram systems are common throughout Europe and were common throughout the Western world in the early 20th century. Although they disappeared from many cities for many years in the mid 20th century, in recent years they have made a comeback.

The terms "tram" and "tramway" were originally Scottish and Northern English words for the type of truck used in coal mines and the tracks on which these trucks ran — probably derived from a North Sea Germanic word of unknown origin meaning the "beam or shaft of a barrow or sledge", also "a barrow or truck body". The sense of "streetcar" is first recorded in 1860.

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A Midland Metro tram running off-road in England


Appearing in the first half of the 19th century, trams were at first pulled by horses.

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A historic German Tram

The first trams, known as streetcars or horsecars, were built in the US, and developed from city stagecoach lines that were developed into omnibus lines that picked up and dropped off passengers on a regular route and without the need to be pre-hired. These first lines circulated in Baltimore, Maryland in 1828, in 1832 on the New York and Harlem Railroad in New York City, and in 1834 in New Orleans. At first the rails protruded above street level, causing accidents and major trouble for pedestrians. They were supplanted in 1852 by grooved rails, invented by Alphonse Loubat. The first tram in France was inaugurated in 1853 for the World's Fair, where a test line was presented along the Cours de la Reine, in the 8th Arrondissement. Trams were first regularly used in Europe in Sarajevo, starting in 1885.

These streetcars 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 emergency circumstances.

The horsecars were necessary but had problems. One of the best 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 storing and then disposing of. Since a typical horse pulled a car for perhaps a dozen miles a day and worked for four or five hours, many system needed ten or more horses in stable for each horsecar. New York City had the last regular horsecar lines in the U.S., closing in 1914. A mule-powered line in Celaya, Mexico operated until 1956. Horse-drawn trams still operate in Douglas, Isle of Man.

The tram developed after that in numerous cities of Europe (London, Berlin, Paris, etc.). More rapid and comfortable than the omnibus, trams had a higher cost of operation because they were pulled by horses. That's 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.

The technical modernity of electricity and more importantly its convenience resulted in its rapid adoption, once the technical problems of production and transmission of electricity were solved. The first electric tram opened in Berlin in 1881.

Cable cars

Main article: Cable car (railway)

The next type of streetcar was the cable car, which sought to reduce labor costs and the hardship on animals. Cable cars are pulled along a rail track by a continuously moving cable running at a constant speed and on which individual cars stop and start by releasing and gripping this cable as required. The power to move the cable is provided at a site away from the actual operation. The first cable car line in the United States was tested in San Francisco, California in 1873.

Cable cars suffered from high infrastructure costs, since a vast and expensive system of cables, pulleys, stationary engines and vault structures between the rails had to be provided. They also require strength and skill to operate, to avoid obstructions and other cable cars. The cable had to be dropped at particular locations and the cars coast, for example when crossing another cable line. After the development of electrically-powered streetcars, the more costly cable car systems declined rapidly.

Cable cars were especially useful in hilly cities, partially explaining their survival in San Francisco, though the most extensive cable system in the U.S. was in Chicago, Illinois, a flat city. The San Francisco cable cars continue to perform a regular transportation function, in addition to being a tourist attraction.

Trolley cars

Trolley cars, so called for the trolley pole used to gather power from an unshielded overhead wire or cable, were first successfully tested in actual service in Richmond, Virginia in 1888, in an installation by Frank J. Sprague. There were earlier commercial installations of electric streetcars, including one in Berlin, Germany, as early as 1881 by Werner von Siemens and the company that still bears his name. The earlier installations, however, proved difficult and/or unreliable. Siemens' line, for example, provided power through a live rail and a return rail, like a model train setup, limiting the voltage that could be used, and providing unwanted excitement to people and animals crossing the tracks.

Since Sprague's installation was the first to prove successful in all conditions, he is credited as being the inventor of the trolley car.

Trolley car systems in the U.S. and Canada became quite extensive, but, hit by the Great Depression, automobile competition, hostile politicians and predatory practices, declined precipitously after World War II. Some systems never closed however, with lines surviving in several cities even at the trolley's nadir in North America.

Concern about automobile traffic, fossil fuel availability, pollution and quality-of-life issues began a trend back to urban electric rail travel in North America during the 1970s, and a significant number of new lines and extensions and upgrading of other lines has occurred.

A rare but significant variant of the trolley car was the conduit car, which drew its power from an underground third rail.

Golden Age

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A vintage British tram dating from 1925

Trams experienced a rapid expansion at the start of the 20th century until the period between the two world wars. There was a rapid increase in the number of lines and increase in the number of riders: indeed, it became the primary mode of urban transportation. Horse-drawn transport virtually disappeared in all European, American and Indian cities by 1910. Buses were still in a development phase at this time, gaining in mechanical reliability, but remaining behind compared to the benefits offered by trams; the automobile was still - for a time - reserved for the well-to-do.

A temporary disappearance from many cities

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Tram as part of a Polish barricade during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944

In several countries the advent of personal motor vehicles caused the rapid disappearance of the tram from the urban landscape in the 1950s. The technical progress of the bus rendered it more reliable, and it became a serious competitor to the tram because it didn't require the construction of costly infrastructure.

Governments thus invested mostly 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, India and Spain. On the other hand, they were maintained or modernized in Switzerland, Germany, Poland, Finland, Romania, Austria, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Japan and Eastern Europe. In France and the UK, only the networks in Lille, Saint-Etienne, Marseille, and Blackpool survive from this period, but they are each reduced to a single line. Australian tram networks disappeared by the 1970s, with the exception of the extensive system in Melbourne and the Glenelg line in Adelaide.

Return to grace

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, sound pollution and parking became problematic. Acknowledging this, some authorities saw fit to redefine their transport policies. The bus had shown its limits on account of its low capacity and its difficult coexistence with automobile traffic, which made it slow both on the road and commercially. Subways required a heavy investment and presented problems in terms of subterranean spaces that required constant security. For subways, the investment was mainly in underground construction, which made it impossible in some cities (with underground water reserves, archaeological remains, etc.). Subway construction thus was not a universal panacea.

The advantages of the tram thus became more 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 lines were inaugurated in 1985 and 1988. Strasbourg moved forward as well when in 1994 it opened a line with distinctly novel British-built tram designs, specified by the city, with the goal of breaking with the archaic conceptual image that was held by the public.

The public, who realized with each installation of tram lines their benefits in urban flexibility and redistribution and the reduction in automobile traffic in the downtown, encouraged numerous city governments to so equip their streets. The cities already equipped with trams do not hesitate to extend their lines and build new ones.

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 tram lines deviate from the metro lines to a significant degree). New rolling stock was purchased and the system was modernized, and a new line was proposed in 2003.

Technical developments

Later, cable cars were attached to a moving cable underneath the road. The cable would be pulled by a steam engine at a powerhouse. The Monongahela and Duquesne Inclines in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, have some of the appearance of trams, but are more accurately funiculars. 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 first is most common and used on most new tram designs). The first operational electric street railway was started in Scranton, Pennsylvania, but the first large-scale electric street railway system was built in Richmond, Virginia in January, 1888. By 1890 over 100 such systems had been begun or were planned.

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. Washington's was the last of these to close, in 1962. Today, no commercial tramway uses this system, as electrocution of children and animals is a serious problem, as well as current leak. More recently, a modern equivalent 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.

Traditionaly 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.

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Interior of a tram

Complementary to the traditional tram, these evolutions make it possible to cover more space or to cross slopes inaccessible to the traditional tram.


Tram-train operation uses vehicles such as the Flexity Link and Regio-Citadis which are suited for use on urban tram lines, but also meet the necessary indication, power, and resistance requirements to be certified for operation on main line railways. This allows passengers to travel from suburban areas into city-centre destinations without having to change from a train to a tram when they arrive at the central station.

It has been primarily developed in Germanic countries, in particular Germany and Switzerland. Karlsruhe is a notable pioneer of the tram-train. This system should be brought into service in the Paris area in 2005.

Pros and cons of tram systems


  • The initial investment is high, but it remains affordable for a medium-sized city. A kilometre of tram generally costs only a third of the investment for a kilometre of underground subway line, since no boring is needed, but the public roads must be rebuilt to incorporate the rails and also cable lines must be installed.
  • Elevated systems such as the monorail and the light metro require a special urbanism with large avenues and buildings in which to integrate the stations. It is also very difficult to compare their prices.
  • The infrastructure needed by the trams usually requires an extension of the pedestrian sectors.
  • Unlike buses, but like trolleybuses, (electric) trams give off no exhaust emissions at point of use.


  • The initial cost is larger when compared with the bus, which is usually preferred by smaller cities
  • Speed is lower than in subways, unless long lengths of reserved track are involved (if most of the route is off-street then it is called light rail) (maximum around 7,000 passengers/hour, compared to 12,000 passengers/hour for the subway)
  • dangerous for the cyclists, because they share the same roadway with the trams
  • occupies urban space above ground and it needs modifications to traffic flow

Regional variations

Western Europe

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A tram in Bilbao, Spain, on a section of grassed track

In the Netherlands many local railways were referred to as trams, even where the steam locomotives did not have enclosed motion. In Belgium an extensive system of tram-like local railways called Vicinal or Buurtspoor lines had a greater route kilometre length than the main-line railway system. The only survivors of the Vicinal system are the Kusttram (which almost reaches France at one end and the Netherlands at the other) and two lines near Charleroi.

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Adtranz Tram on the Line 1 in Nantes,France

France has several tram networks in major cities: in Paris suburban, in Lyon, in Nantes (Nantes has the largest French network) ...

Recently the tram has seen a huge revival with many experiments like trolleybuses masquerading as trams in Nancy or hidden wires as in Bordeaux as the municipalities find it a quick fix to the traffic problems.

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In the United Kingdom, tram systems were widely dismantled in the 1950s, and after the closure of Glasgow's extensive network in 1962 only Blackpool's survived (see Blackpool Tram Upgrade), although a funicular line continued to operate up the Great Orme in Llandudno. However in recent years new light rail lines have been opened in Manchester (Metrolink), Sheffield (Supertram), the West Midlands (Midland Metro), Croydon (Tramlink) and Nottingham (NET), with several others under consideration, and extensions planned for many existing systems.

The Norwegian capital Oslo has an extensive network, as does the Swedish city of Gteborg (Gothenburg).

In Finland, there have been three cities with trams: Helsinki, Turku and Viipuri. Of these, only Helsinki still has trams.

Central and Eastern Europe

All countries of the former Soviet Bloc have extensive tram infrastructure. Industrial freight use of city tram lines was a widespread practice during the communist era but has since mostly disappeared, as factories left the urban areas. Czech ČKD Tatra and the Hungarian Ganz factories were notable manufacturers of trams. The busiest traditional city tram line in the world is still route 4/6 in Budapest, Hungary, where 50-meter long trains run at 60 to 90 second intervals at peak time and are usually packed with people. A part of this route is the same as where electric trams made their world first run in 1887. Most vehicles are still of high-floor type, in fact many of them are old ones. Low floor hi-tech trams are only starting to infiltrate Central European lines due to their high price and high maintenance costs.

North America

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PCC car in San Francisco

Note that in North America, trams are generally known as streetcars, whilst the term tram is more likely to be understood as a rubber-tyred mock streetcar, an aerial tramway or a people-mover.

Many North American cities abandoned their streetcar systems in the mid-twentieth century, their city governments having succumbed in the late 1940s to inducements from General Motors Company and Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, as these firms were eager to sell diesel-powered transit buses and rubber tyres, respectively. However, traditional systems survived in Boston, Newark, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Toronto. This survival was aided by the introduction of the modern PCC car in the 1940s and 1950s in all these cities except New Orleans.

New light rail systems have since opened in many other cities, starting with the ground-breaking system in San Diego, and now including Baltimore, Hoboken, Buffalo, Denver, Los Angeles, Portland, Sacramento, St Louis, Salt Lake City, San Jose, and Vancouver. Additionally, all the surviving PCC operators have replaced their PCC cars with light rail vehicles, although PCC cars are still in regular operation on San Francisco's F Market line.

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Former Porto trolley in Memphis, Tennessee.

Another trend originating in North America is the introduction of newly built heritage streetcar lines using original or replica historic equipment, a trend which is now spreading elsewhere in the world. Examples in North America include Memphis, Tampa, Seattle, Charlotte and the new Canal Street line in New Orleans.


 Double-decker Tram
Hong Kong Double-decker Tram

Asia has had relatively few tram systems, with the notable exception of Japan.

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Kumamoto, Japan

Hong Kong still possesses the Hong Kong Tramway, a traditional English-style double-decker tramway with street running, along the north shore of Hong Kong Island. More recently the KCRC Light Rail system has opened in the north west New Territories. Despite its name, the Peak Tram is actually a funicular railway.

The Philippines once had a tram network in Manila, but it was destroyed during World War II. The system has been replaced with the LRT and MRT.

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Tram in Kolkata

In India, Kolkata (Calcutta) has a tram network. Kanpur and Mumbai (Bombay) were the other two which had a network but were dismantled.

Zhengzhou, China has a tram network.


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A W6 class tram in Melbourne

In Australasia, trams are used extensively only in Melbourne, all other major cities having largely dismantled their networks by the mid 20th century.

In Melbourne, in addition to newer types of trams in use such as the Citadis and the Combino and the middle-aged A, B and Z class trams, older W-class trams remain in service and are a popular tourist attraction. W-class trams are used exclusively on the free City Circle tram route, and also in use on some regular routes. A total of 53 W-class trams remain in regular service, with the oldest in service tram dating from 1939. See also: Trams in Melbourne.

Amongst other Australian cities, Sydney closed a once-extensive tram system in the 1950s but has since opened a new light rail line. Adelaide also closed its urban tram network, but has retained an express tram line linking the city centre with the seaside suburb of Glenelg. The smaller cities of Bendigo and Ballarat retain heritage tramway operations.

Perth and Brisbane both have proposals to implement light rails systems in their respective CBD's. In Brisbane's case, several proposals have been made and each has been knocked back, but with the recent introduction of integrated ticketing under the TransLink scheme and expansive Queensland Government transport infrastructure plans, the most recent proposal may go ahead. Proposals also exist to extend the Sydney and Adelaide systems beyond one line each.

The Tasmanian city of Hobart was the first city in the Southern Hemisphere to operate a sucessful electric tramway system, installed in 1893, and the only Australian city to use the European-style 'bow collector', instead of Frank Spragues trolley pole system. Another first for Hobart was its use of electric double-decker trams, the first city outside Europe to do so.

All New Zealand cities closed their tramway systems, but Christchurch has since constructed a new city-entre heritage line, using historic cars.


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Former Copenhagen articulated car in service on Alexandria's urban tramway
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A tram from Heliopolis terminates at Cairo's Ramses Station

Tram systems were and are less prevalent in Africa. However, in Egypt both Cairo and Alexandria have historic and still extant tram systems.

In Cairo, the urban tramway network is now defunct, but the express tramway linking it with Heliopolis is still in operation, as is the relatively new tram system in the satellite town of Helwan 25km to the south.

In Alexandria, both the urban tramway network and the express tramway system serving the eastern suburbs are still in operation. The urban system operates yellow cars, included some acquired second-hand from Copenhagen, on largely street track. The express tramway operates 3-car trains of blue cars, including some double-deck cars, on largely reserved track.

Streetcars in North America


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A Boston College-bound Type 8 Breda tram on the MBTA's Green Line in Boston

In Canada, most cities once had a streetcar system, but today Toronto's TTC is the only traditional operator of streetcars, and maintains the most extensive system in North America (in terms of total track length, number of cars, and ridership). New systems have been built in Edmonton, Alberta and Calgary, Alberta.

The first lines built in the United States (and indeed the world) were in 1832 from New York City to Harlem by the New York and Harlem Railroad, and in 1834 in New Orleans.

Most US streetcar systems were removed by the 1950s. Among the reasons, the US firm of General Motors formed a separate subsidiary named "National City Lines", whose business mission was to buy out streetcar operations all around the US and replace them with fleets of buses.

Surviving systems

Not all streetcars systems were removed; the San Francisco cable cars are the most famous example in the United States. More conventional streetcar operations survived complete abandonment in Boston, Newark, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco in the United States, together with Toronto in Canada. All of these systems have received new equipment. Some of these cities have also rehabilitated lines, and Newark, New Orleans, and San Francisco have added trackage in recent years. In Toronto, the city has added two new lines in recent years, and is activly upgrading its other lines. Further expansion is planned in combination with the city's plans for the rejuvenation of its waterfront.

More recently a number of cities in North America have built new light rail systems which operate partially in the right-of-way of city streets. These systems could be called trams by Europeans and Australians but are generally not known by that name within the US, where the term light rail is generally applied. Edmonton, Alberta was the location of one of the earliest of these new systems, which substantially utilised European technology, and was soon followed by similar installations in San Diego, California and Calgary, Alberta (see Edmonton Transit System, San Diego Trolley, and C-Train).

Heritage Streetcar Systems

An historic tram from  still running in , , .
An historic tram from 1907 still running in Oberbozen, South Tyrol, Italy.

Heritage streetcar systems are used in public transit service, combining light rail efficiency with America's nostalgia interests. Proponents claim that using a simple, reliable form of transit from 50 or 100 years ago can bring history to life for 21st century Americans. Systems are operating successfully in over 20 U.S. cities,and are in planning or construction stages in 40 more. Heritage systems currently operating in Memphis, Tennessee, Tampa, Florida and New Orleans, Louisiana are among the larger.

Over 50 years after the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway, the revival of streetcar operations in New Orleans is credited by many to the worldwide fame gained by the streetcars made by the Perley A. Thomas Car Works. These cars were operating on the system's Desire route in the 1947 play and later movie of the same name. Some of the original cars have been carefully restored locally and continue to operate in 2004.

See also

External links


da:Sporvogn de:Straenbahn es:Tranva eo:Tramo fr:Tramway ga:Tram nl:Tram ja:路面電車 pl:Tramwaj pt:Elctrico ru:Трамвай sk:Električka sl:Tramvaj fi:Raitiovaunu sv:Sprvagn tt:Tramway zh:電車


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