Normally, when a transport company needs to refresh its rolling stock, it places an order with a huge conglomerate like Bombardier, Siemens or Alstom to produce new trains. Not so for HK Tramways. Every one of the double-decker trams you see rumbling down the streets was built by hand in Hong Kong.
That wasn’t always the case. When the first tram rolled into service 113 years ago, it was a single-deck model manufactured in the United Kingdom, shipped in pieces to Hong Kong and assembled here. The city was growing at a steady clip as it became an important entrepôt for trade with China, and by the beginning of the 20th century, it was in sore need of a public transport system.
The first tram line ran from Kennedy Town in the west to Causeway Bay in the east. 26 trams plied the route, including 10 designated first-class, with a 10-cent fare that afforded passengers more space than third-class trams, which cost 5 cents but were much more cramped. (The tram company had initially planned to offer three tiers of service, but second class was never introduced.)
This arrangement soon proved inadequate and double-decker trams were introduced in 1912 to meet growing demand. The top deck was open to the elements, which proved unpopular in Hong Kong’s fickle weather, so a canvas roof was eventually installed. Trams with a fully enclosed upper deck were introduced in 1928. Since then, the trams have remained essentially the same – in appearance, at least.
What’s inside is another story. At the Whitty Street Depot in Shek Tong Tsui, workers build Hong Kong’s newest generation of trams by hand. From the outside, they appear pretty much the same as older trams — one telltale difference is an electronic destination board instead of a hand-painted one — but they are a different beast entirely, with new motors, materials and a redesigned interior.
The older generation of trams are made from teakwood. Though charmingly old-fashioned — no other wood-framed trams are still in regular commercial operation — it creates higher maintenance costs, as the frames must be entirely replaced every seven years. Aside from the wood frame, a sure way of telling you are in an old tram is by the plastic bucket seats inside.
Since 2011, Hong Kong’s old trams have rolled into the Whitty Street Depot, where a team of five workers strips them down to their chassis. Then the clunky old DC motor is replaced by a new lightweight AC motor, which allows the trams to accelerate more efficiently.
Building the new trams is an exercise in thrift and local ingenuity. It’s hard to buy mass-produced parts for Hong Kong’s trams, given the small quantities required, so workers at the depot make nearly everything themselves.
The Scottish machine used to make tram wheels is nearly 100 years old, but it has been reconfigured into a computer programmable CNC cutter to create higher-quality wheels that last 24 months instead of seven.
Workers had spent years building wood frames, so it took time for them to learn how to cut metal. Each sheet of aluminium is cut and installed by hand.
Although the new trams are made of aluminium, the workers’ carpentry skills are still in demand: plastic bucket seats have been replaced by hand-cut teakwood benches. Plenty of other changes have been made to the tram interior. When passengers board through the rear door, they now pass through fare gates instead of turnstiles, which were difficult to manage with briefcases or shopping bags. Sturdy handles built into the frame of each seat eliminated the clutter of handrails. LED lighting is brighter and more evenly dispersed. And a new electronic destination screen announces the next stop.
There are 163 trams in the fleet, along with and just under half have been rebuilt. Not all are destined for reconstruction, though: tram number 120 dates back to the 1950 and has been left intact, including seats made from teak and woven bamboo.
HK Tramways was bought in 2009 by RATP Dev Transdev Asia, the international arm of the company that operates the Paris metro. Since then, it has reconfigured tram routes, refreshed wayfinding signage and installed a new RFID tracking system to keep tabs on tram operations. But competition from the MTR and buses is fierce, and despite the tram’s low fare — just HK$2.30, making it by far the cheapest way to get across Hong Kong Island — its ridership has continued to decline.
But 180,000 people still use the tram system every day. And with each passing tram, thousands more are reminded of something designed and made in Hong Kong – a rare local constant in a city always at risk of losing touch with its roots.