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Tram, streetcar or trolley systems were common throughout the industrialized world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but they disappeared from many cities in the mid-20th century. In recent years, they have made a comeback. Many newer light rail systems share features with (or utilize) trams, although a distinction is often drawn between the two, especially if the line has significant off-street running.
The very first tram was on the Swansea and Mumbles Railway in south Wales, UK; it was horse-drawn at first, and later moved by steam and electric power. The Mumbles Railway Act was passed by the British Parliament in 1804, and the first passenger railway (similar to streetcars in the US some 30 years later) started operating in 1807. The first streetcars, also known as horsecars in North America, were built in the United States and developed from city stagecoach lines and omnibus lines that picked up and dropped off passengers on a regular route without the need to be pre-hired. These trams were an animal railway, usually using horses and sometimes mules to haul the cars, usually two as a team. Occasionally other animals were put to use, or humans in emergencies. The first streetcar line, developed by Irish-American John Stephenson, was the New York and Harlem Railroad's Fourth Avenue Line which ran along the Bowery and Fourth Avenue in New York City. Service began in 1832. It was followed in 1835 by New Orleans, Louisiana, which has the oldest continuously operating street railway system in the world, according to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
In 1883, Magnus Volk constructed his 2-ft gauge Volk's Electric Railway along the eastern seafront at Brighton, England. This 2 km (1.2 mi) line, re-gauged to 2 ft 9 in (0.84 m) in 1884, remains in service to this day, and is the oldest operating electric tramway in the world.
The first electric street tramway in Britain, the Blackpool Tramway, was opened on 29 September 1885 using conduit collection along Blackpool Promenade. After 1960, this remained the only first-generation operational tramway in the UK - it is still open.
Electric trams run in Budapest since 1887, and this first line has now grown to be the busiest tram line of Europe, with the tram cars following each other at an interval of 60 seconds at rush hour. Bucharest and Belgrade ran a regular service from 1894 and Sarajevo from 1895.
The very first passenger tram (streetcar) was the Swansea and Mumbles Railway, in Wales, UK. The Mumbles Railway Act was passed by the British Parliament in 1804, and this first horse-drawn passenger tramway (which acted like streetcars in the US some 30 years later) started operating in 1807. It was worked by steam from 1877, and then, from 1929, by very large (106-seater) electric tramcars, until closure in 1960.
The modern Tramlink in south London follows the route of the even older 1803 Surrey Iron Railway, a horsedrawn freight tramway sanctioned by Parliament in 1801, between Mitcham and Croydon. This gives Tramlink a claim to be one of the world's oldest tramways. (Tramway Path beside Mitcham tram stop had its name long before Tramlink was built). The Surrey Iron Railway was engineered by William Jessop, who had invented L-section iron rails in 1790, as an improvement on the wooden-railed wagonways which had been used in mines for centuries. These fish-bellied iron rails were manufactured by his assistant Benjamin Outram and it has been suggested that the word "Tramway" is a contraction of Outram's surname ("Outram Way"), but the term is much older and probably comes from the Low German word "traam" which means a "beam". (The first recorded surface-running horse-drawn wagonway was the 2-mile Wollaton Wagonway built in 1603-4 to carry coal from mines at Strelley down to the River Trent at Wollaton, near Nottingham, England).
The first streetcar in America, developed by John Stephenson, began service in the year 1832. This, the New York and Harlem Railroad's Fourth Avenue Line ran along the Bowery and Fourth Avenue in New York City. These streetcars, also known as horsecars in North America, were developed from city stagecoach lines and omnibus lines that picked up and dropped off passengers on a regular route and without the need to be pre-hired. These trams 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 emergencies. It was followed in 1835 by New Orleans, Louisiana, which is the oldest continuously operating street railway system in the world, according to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. At first the rails protruded above street level, causing accidents and major trouble for pedestrians. They were supplanted in 1852 by grooved rails or girder rails, invented by Alphonse Loubat.
The first tram in France was opened in 1839 between Montbrison and Montrond, on the streets inside the towns, and on the roadside outside town. It had permission for steam traction, but was entirely run with horse traction. In 1848, it was closed down after repeated economic failure. The first street trams in Britain were built in 1860 in Birkenhead by the eccentric American entrepreneur George Train, who later introduced street trams to London.
One of the 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 disposing of. Since a typical horse pulled a car for perhaps a dozen miles a day and worked for four or five hours, many systems needed ten or more horses in stable for each horsecar. Electric trams largely replaced animal power in the late 19th and early 20th century. New York City had closed its last horsecar line in 1917. The last regular mule drawn streetcar in the U.S.A., in Sulphur Rock, Arkansas, closed in 1926. However during World War II some old horse cars were temporarily returned to service to help conserve fuel. A mule-powered line in Celaya, Mexico, operated until 1956.
The last example of a horse drawn tram to be withdrawn from public service in the UK took passengers from Fintona railway station to Fintona Junction one mile away on the main Omagh to Enniskillen railway in Northern Ireland. The tram made its last journey on 30 September 1957 when the Omagh to Enniskillen line closed. The "van" now lies at the Ulster Transport Museum, but a silhouette of the old horse tram is still displayed on the signs at the entrance to the village.
Horse-drawn trams still operate on the 1876-built Douglas Bay Horse Tramway in the Isle of Man, and at the 1894 Victor Harbor Horse Drawn Tram, in Adelaide, South Australia. New horse-drawn systems have been established at the Hokkaidō Museum in Japan and also in Disneyland.
The tram developed in numerous cities of Europe (some of the most extensive systems were found in Berlin, Budapest, Birmingham, Leningrad, Lisbon, London, Manchester, Paris). Faster and more comfortable than the omnibus, trams had a high cost of operation because they were pulled by horses. That is 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.
At first the rails protruded above street level, causing accidents and problems for pedestrians. They were supplanted in 1852 by grooved rails or girder rails, invented by Alphonse Loubat. Loubat, inspired by Stephenson, built the first tramline in Paris, France. The 2 km (1.2 mi) line was inaugurated on 21 November 1853, in connection with the 1855 World Fair, running on a trial basis from Place de la Concorde to Pont de Sèvres and later to the village of Boulogne. The Toronto streetcar system is one of the few in North America still operating in the classic style on street trackage shared with car traffic, where streetcars stop on demand at frequent stops like buses rather than having fixed stations. Known as Red Rockets because of their colour, they have been operating since the mid-19th century - horsecar service started in 1856 and electric service in 1892.
As many city streets were not paved at that time, normal carriages pulled by horses were often hindered by wet, muddy, or snowy conditions. One of the advantages of the horsecar tram over earlier forms of transit was the low rolling resistance of metal wheels on steel rails, allowing animals to haul a greater load for a given effort even in poor weather conditions. Problems included the fact that each animal could only work so many hours per 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 had to dispose of. Since a typical horse pulled a car for perhaps a dozen miles a day and worked for four or five hours, many systems needed ten or more horses for each horsecar. Electric trams largely replaced animal power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. New York City closed its last horsecar line in 1917. The last regular mule-drawn streetcar in the U.S., in Sulphur Rock, Arkansas, closed in 1926. During World War II some old horse cars were temporarily returned to service to help conserve fuel. A mule-powered line in Celaya, Mexico, operated until 1956. Horse-drawn trams still operate as a tourist attraction along the promenade in Douglas, Isle of Man. There is also a small line on Main Street at Disney World, outside Orlando, Florida. A horse-drawn service 1300m long operates every 40 minutes at Victor Harbor, South Australia daily, with 20-minute services during tourist seasons, between the mainland and Granite Island across a 630m causeway. It uses double deck trams, and Clydesdale horses, and runs year round.
Trams subsequently developed in numerous cities, including London, Southampton, Berlin, Paris, Seoul, Kyoto, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Melbourne. Faster and more comfortable than the omnibus, trams had a high cost of operation because they were pulled by horses. That is why mechanical drives were rapidly developed, with steam power in 1873, and electricity after 1881, when Siemens presented the electric drive at the International Electricity Exhibition in Paris.
The convenience and economy of electricity resulted in its rapid adoption once the technical problems of production and transmission of electricity were solved. As early as 1834, Thomas Davenport, a Vermont blacksmith, had invented a battery-powered electric motor which he later patented. The following year he used it to operate a small model electric car on a short section of track four feet in diameter. The first prototype of the electric tram was developed by Russian engineer Fyodor Pirotsky, who modified a horse tram to be powered by electricity. The invention was tested in 1880 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. In 1881, Werner von Siemens opened the world's first electric tram line in Lichterfelde near Berlin, Germany. For some time the German word for tram was simply "die Elektrische".
Parallel developments were occurring during the same period in the United States, where Frank J. Sprague and others contributed to inventions, including a system for collecting electricity from overhead wires. A spring-loaded trolley pole, invented in the US in 1885 by Charles Van Depoele, used a wheel to travel along the wire. Frank Sprague improved the designs, and in late 1887 and early 1888, using this trolley system, Sprague installed the first successful large electric street railway system, the Richmond Union Passenger Railway in Richmond, Virginia. By 1889, over a hundred electric railways incorporating Sprague's equipment had been begun or planned on several continents.
In Japan, the Kyoto Electric railroad was the first tram system, starting operation in 1895. By 1932, the network had grown to 82 railway companies in 65 cities, with a total network length of 1,479 km (919 mi). By the 1960s the tram had generally died out in Japan.
As for Ireland, from 1898 a tram service was in operation in Cork City but was discontinued in 1931 owing to the increased popularity of buses. There have been campaigns for the introduction of a service similar to the Luas in Dublin. but so far there has been little support for the idea, as the Dublin Bus service is extremely popular.
The convenience and economy of electricity resulted in its rapid adoption once the technical problems of production and transmission of electricity were solved. The first prototype of the electric tram was developed by Ukrainian engineer Fedir Pyrotskyi. In 1875 he experimented with electrically powered railway cars on the Sestroretsk railway. The electricity was transferred over a distance of approximately one kilometer; both rails were isolated from the ground, one rail served as a direct conductor and one as a return conductor. In 1880 he modified a city two-decker horse tram to be powered by electricity instead of horses, and on 3 September 1880 this unusual form of public transport started to serve residents of Saint Petersburg, amid the vocal protests of the owners of the horse-cars. This short-lived experiment continued only until the end of September 1880.
On 16 May 1881, Werner von Siemens opened the world's first electric tramway in the suburb of Gross-Lichterfelde, (later incorporated into Berlin). The Gross-Lichterfelde Tramway was built in meter gauge and ran from today's suburban station Lichterfelde Ost to the cadet school on Zehlendorfer Strasse (today Finckensteinallee). At first, the route was just a testing plant; Siemens named it an "elevated line taken down from its pillars and girders". The route was regauged to standard gauge in October 1925. (See Berlin Straßenbahn).
In 1883, Magnus Volk constructed his 2-foot gauge Volk's Electric Railway along the eastern seafront at Brighton, England. This 2 km (2,000 m) line, re-gauged to 2 ft 9 in (840 mm) in 1884, remains in service to this day, and is the oldest operating electric tramway in the world.
In 1884 the electric tram FOTG from Frankfurt am Main to Offenbach was opened with rails of metre gauge all on road and a bipolar overhead line. In 1905 it was changed to standard gauge, and the overhead line became unipolar. The western part of this line is still working.
The first electric street tramway in Britain, the Blackpool Tramway, was opened on 29 September 1885 using conduit collection along Blackpool Promenade; it was later changed to overhead power supply. After 1960, this remained the only first-generation operational tramway in the UK; it remains in operation today. The most extensive systems were to be found in Birmingham, Glasgow, London, and Manchester.
In the United States on April 15, 1886 Montgomery, Alabama established its electric streetcar system nicknamed the Lightning Route. Another successful, continuously-operating electrified streetcar system in the United States was established in Scranton, Pennsylvania by November 30, 1886, giving it the nickname "The Electric City". But the first large-scale electric street railway system known as the Richmond Union Passenger Railway was built in Richmond, Virginia, in January 1888. By 1890 over 100 such systems had been begun or were planned.
While Paris had an experimental electric tram in 1881 (which ran between Place de la Concorde and Palais de l'Industrie for an exhibition about electricity), the first major electric tram systems in Europe probably ran in Budapest from 1887 while Bucharest ran a regular service from 1894 and Sarajevo from 1895.
The first electric tramway in the Southern Hemisphere was opened in Melbourne, Australia in 1889 and was operated by a group of land developers. It ran from Box Hill railway station up to Doncaster Hill as a tourist tramway and closed in 1896.
In South America, battery-powered tramways operated in Niterói, Brazil and Rio de Janeiro starting in 1883 and 1887, respectively, but the first true electric tramway—with overhead wires—anywhere in Latin America opened in Rio de Janeiro in 1892.
The advent of personal motor vehicles and the improvements in motorized buses caused the rapid disappearance of the tram from most western and Asian countries by the end of the 1950s (for example the first major UK city to completely abandon its trams was Manchester by January 1949). Continuing technical improvements in buses made them more reliable (than before), and a serious competitor to trams because they did not require the construction of costly infrastructure.  However, the demise of the streetcar came when lines were torn out of the major cities by "bus manufacturing or oil marketing companies for the specific purpose of replacing rail service with buses."
In many cases postwar buses were cited as providing a smoother ride and a faster journey than the older, prewar trams. For example, the tram network survived in Budapest but for a considerable period of time bus fares were higher to recognize the superior quality of the buses. However, many riders protested against the replacement of streetcars arguing that buses weren't as smooth or efficient and polluted the air. In the United States, there have been allegations that the Great American streetcar scandal was responsible for the replacement of trains with buses, but critics of this theory point to evidence that larger economic forces were driving conversion before General Motors' actions and outside of its reach. Certainly the oldest system of all, the Swansea and Mumbles Railway of 1807, was purchased by The South Wales Transport Company (which operated a large motor bus fleet in the area) and despite vociferous local opposition, closed down in 1960.
Governments thus put investment principally 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 France, the UK, and altogether from Ireland, Spain, as well as being completely removed from city's such as Sydney, which had one of the largest networks in the world with street mileage of 181 mi (291 km) and Brisbane. Most tram networks also disappeared in North America, but some cities still retained trams, such as Philadelphia, Newark, San Francisco, and Toronto. On the other hand, they were generally retained or modernized in most communist countries, as well as Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Portugal etc. In France, only the networks in Lille, Saint-Étienne and Marseille, survive from this period, but they all suffered significant reduction from their original size. In Great Britain, only the Blackpool Tramway kept the faith, with an extensive system which includes some street running in Blackpool, and a long stretch of segregated track to nearby Fleetwood.
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, traffic congestion, sound pollution and parking became problematic. Acknowledging this, some authorities saw fit to redefine their transport policies. Rapid transit required a heavy investment and presented problems in terms of subterranean spaces that required constant security. For rapid transit, the investment was mainly in underground construction, which made it impossible in some cities (with underground water reserves, archaeological remains, etc.). Metro construction thus was not a universal panacea.
The advantages of the tram thus became once again 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 systems were inaugurated in 1985 and 1988. The first UK modern light rail system opened in Manchester in 1992 with Italian built vehicles. In 1994 Strasbourg opened a system with novel British-built trams, specified by the city, with the goal of breaking with the archaic conceptual image that was held by the public.
The renaissance of light rail in North America began in 1978 when the Canadian city of Edmonton, Alberta adopted the German Siemens-Duewag U2 system, followed three years later by Calgary, Alberta and San Diego, California. Britain began replacing its run-down local railways with light rail in the 1980s, starting with Tyneside and followed by the Docklands Light Railway in London. The trend to light rail in the United Kingdom was firmly established with the success of the Manchester Metrolink system and Sheffield Supertram in 1992, followed by Midland Metro in Birmingham in 1999, and Tramlink in London in 2000.
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 metro lines deviate from the tram lines to a significant degree. New rolling stock was purchased and the system was modernized, and a new line was proposed in 2003.
It was the Olympic games of 2004 that prompted the redevelopment of trams as part of the Athens Mass Transit System. The tramways in Athens are among the most modern in the world, integrated with the revived Athens Metro system, as well as the buses, trolleybuses and suburban trains.
In Melbourne, Australia, the already extensive tramway system continues to be extended. In 2004 the Mont Albert line was extended several kilometres to Box Hill, whilst in 2005 the Burwood East line was extended several kilometres to Vermont South. In Sydney, trams returned with the opening of the Metro Light Rail in 1997, which has seen extensions and now covers 7.2 mi (11.6 km).
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 pantograph is most common and used on new tram designs). 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. It was called Conduit current collection. Washington's was the last of these to close, in 1962. Today, no commercial tramway uses this system. More recently, a modern equivalent to the old stud systems 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. There is a UK example of interlaced track on the Tramlink, just west of Mitcham Station, where the formation is narrowed by an old landslip causing an obstruction. (See photo in Tramlink entry).
Traditionally 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. In some jurisdictions this has even been made mandatory since the 1990s, for example by the HMRI in Britain and the Disability discrimination act in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries.
Historically, the rail gauge has had considerable variations, with narrow gauge common in many early systems. However, most light rail systems are now standard gauge. An important advantage of standard gauge is that standard railway maintenance equipment can be used on it, rather than custom-built machinery. Using standard gauge also allows light rail vehicles to be delivered and relocated conveniently using freight railways and locomotives. Another factor favoring standard gauge is that low-floor vehicles are becoming popular, and there is generally insufficient space for wheelchairs to move between the wheels in a narrow gauge layout.
The revival of tram networks, particularly in France and Spain, has brought about a number of technical developments both in the traction systems and in the styling of the cars.
A ground-level power supply system known as Ground-level power supply or APS is an updated version of the original stud type system. APS uses a third rail placed between the running rails, divided electrically into eight-metre powered segments with three metre neutral sections between. Each tram has two power collection skates, next to which are antennas that send radio signals to energize the power rail segments as the tram passes over them. Older systems required mechanical switching systems which were susceptible to environmental problems. At any one time no more than two consecutive segments under the tram should actually be live. Wireless and solid state switching remove the mechanical problem.
The Eurotram series was developed by Socimi of Italy. It is used by Strasbourg, Milan, and Porto. The Eurotram has a modern design that makes it look almost as much like a train as a tram, and has large windows along its entire length. The Eurotram has become part of the Flexity Outlook product range offered by Bombardier Transportation.
The Citadis tram, flagship of the French manufacturer Alstom, enjoys an innovative design combining lighter bogies with a modular concept for carriages providing more choices in the types of windows and the number of cars and doors. The recent Citadis-Dualis, intended to run at up to 100 km/h (62 mph), is suitable for stop spacings ranging from 500 m (1,600 ft) to 5 km (3.1 mi). Dualis is a strictly modular partial low-floor car, with all doors in the low-floor sections.
Most of 100% low-floor trams carry the mechanical penalty of requiring bogies to be fixed and unable to pivot (except for less than 5 degrees in some trams). This creates undue wear on the tracks and wheels and reduces speed, at which a tram can drive through a curve. While other manufacturers deal with the issue by introducing partially high floor (at the place of the bogies, i.e. Citadis) or not using conventional bogies (however this solution is very expensive, i.e. ULF), the 2009 introduced Škoda 15 T was developed with pivoting bogies at the ends and with jacobs bogies between the articulations in order to overcome all the shortcomings, which previous models of low-trams had, especially considering the fixed bogies.