— by Nikhil Seewoo, Sui Yingda and Liu Bowei —
China’s love affair with tram systems started in the late 19th century with Beijing opening its first system linking Ma-chai-pu Railway station to the south gate of the city in 1899. Soon afterwards, in the decade following the start of the 20th century, other cities such as Fushun, Tianjin, Shanghai and Dalian launched their very own tram systems, making the first quarter of the century the golden age of tramways in China. Almost 600 tram cars were in circulation in over a few dozens of lines.
In the 1920s, Shanghai was known as “The Paris of the East, the New York of the West”. Trams were a common feature of the wealthy Shanghai scene with the earliest trams and trolleybuses running across the foreign concessions as early as 1908. However, China, like much of the world, fell out of love with trams over the years as other modes of transport became available.
Following the Second World War and the Chinese civil war, tramways started gradually losing their dominant part in the urban transportation network. Shanghai itself closed its tram network in the 1970s. The fast development of private cars and buses, the limitation of trams in regards to their tracks and finally the space a tram line was occupying on the public way spelled its fate. Ultimately, in the last quarter of the 20 century it reached its near total terminus with only three lines preserved in the northern city of Dalian.
So who would have thought that trams would be a big urban idea today? Having the biggest urban population in the world has created a transportation nightmare for the Chinese authorities. Soaring air pollution levels due to the high number of cars on Chinese roads – one car for every three families – coupled with the frantic migratory influx towards urban areas coerced the Chinese officials into examining alternative means of mobility. As such, trams are making a comeback.
China planned 2000km of tramline to be completed between 2012 and 2020 in some 20 different metropolitan areas, with the cities of Guangzhou, Shanghai and Zhengzhou seeing the biggest of these development investments. Tram lines were favoured for their convenience, punctuality, environmental friendliness and their energy-saving benefits amongst others. Electrical driving systems and newly developing hydrogen systems being at the core of trams’ propulsive system promise a ‘pollution free environment’. In contrast, a conventional metro system consumes ten times the energy that new tram systems would use, with a metro car consuming twice the energy a tram would use. Moreover, constructing a single modern tram line takes one third the time to build a metro line, making obvious gains both financially and in regards to time.
At the forefront of these planned tramlines lies the ‘super tram’, a technologically advanced tram which China is developing and which it hopes to export with the label “Made in China”. Super trams are essentially modern trams fitted with the newest smart technology, ranging from fast internet connectivity and synchronization with traffic to minimal impact on road structure. These new super trams will require no overhead line to draw their propulsive power and will instead make use of stored battery power. They will be connected to the internet and as well as providing commuters with internet services concerning departure and arrival time, they will also share real-time traffic news to users of the road. In the quest of integrating the trams in the urban-space, the super trams will be synchronized to the traffic lights and will seemingly blend in the array of cars without triggering any jam.
Running alongside the development of the super-tram are other grand ventures by the Chinese. The TEDA Modern Guided Rail Tram system in Tianjin and Zhangjiang Tram line in Shanghai – first two running rubber-tired tram systems in Asia and born from the partnership of CSR (China) and Siemens (Germany) a new low-floor battery powered tramcar which has a charging time of only 30 seconds are two examples. By contrast, some cities like Suzhou still rely on more conventional tram transportation system with steel wheels and overhead lines to complement their already implemented Metro system.
Tram systems, however are not as faultless as they are marketed and many question the cost performance and efficiency of the latter. It was revealed by the operating manager of the Zhangjiang tram system in Shanghai that the operating company was enduring a yearly loss of 20 million RMB after going into operation in 2009. The Zhangjiang tram relies on a Translohr monorail system developed by French based multinational Alstom – a costly system used by less than five nations. The Translohr tramcar comes not only with a price of 30 million RMB per unit but also has excessive maintenance costs – requiring trained specialists and use of imported spare parts. However, many of the criticisms were from wrongly implemented systems in the wrong areas and many experts insist that trams are useful means of public transport, particularly in dense urban areas.
The contemporary renaissance of the tram in China far from being an artifice aimed at re-igniting the spark of romanticism. It is a little more progressive than that. The trams revival pursues a higher aspiration: that of showcasing a decent and eco-friendlier way of commuting through the cities to its ever increasing population.