Hong Kong's Tram Through the Decades

For most of us in Hong Kong, the tram provides an efficient, cost-friendly and interesting way to commute on Hong Kong Island. The story of the tram is intertwined with the history of Hong Kong as it grew from a small trading outpost into one of Asia’s most iconic cities.

In the year 1901, due to growth in both the population and the importance of Hong Kong, England sanctioned the building of a tram system on the island. Construction of a single track system between Kennedy Town to Causeway Bay began in 1903. The first tramcars were built in England, then shipped and assembled here. They were single-deck, and of the 26 trams, 10 were reserved for first-class passengers, enclosed in the middle, with the front and back open. The remaining thirdclass passenger trams were open-sided, seating 48 passengers. Tram fares for the first and the third class were 10 cents and 5 cents, respectively.

One July 2, 1904, Tramcar No. 16 left the depot for its first test run. And on July 30, at 10 am, the first tramcar was driven by the wife of the Director of Public Works from the Tram Depot to Arsenal Street, with her son on board continuously ringing the bell. Normal services commenced immediately thereafter. Initially, there were difficulties with people standing in the way of oncoming trams and onlookers boarding whenever they wished without paying. Coolies discovered the relative ease of hauling their carts on the tram tracks rather than on the roads. These issues caused delays and offenders were deterred by a $20 fine. Legislation was enacted in 1911 to stop the illegal use of the tram track. In 1912, due to strong demand, the first double decker tram was introduced, with the first-class on the upper deck. In 1913, light canvas roof covers were added to protect the open rooftop during rainy weather. In 1920, the service was extended to Happy Valley. The tram company stopped generating its own electricity and started buying it from the Hong Kong Electric Company. Trams were fitted with permanent wooden roofs and roll-down blinds. In 1927, the new double track between Shau Kei Wan and Quarry Bay was put into use. And in 1938, the air brake system was introduced to further improve performance.

Between 1941 and 1945 (the years of Japanese occupation of Hong Kong,) very limited tram service was available, with only 12 cars in operation from Causeway Bay to Western Market, though all 109 tramcars remained. By October 1945, 40 cars were back in service. In 1953, to further ease congestion, another route from North Point to Whitty Street was introduced. In the 1960s, the use of single deck trailers became popular. The trailer was attached to the back of an ordinary tramcar and was for first-class passengers only, with a capacity of 38 passengers. Trailers continued in service until 1982. The 1970s saw a number of firsts. Eight panels on each car were rented out for advertising in 1970. And in 1971, Hong Kong Tramways began employing female conductors and drivers. In 1972, the class distinction of first and third was abolished. In 1976, drop-in coin boxes were installed near the driver, and rotating turnstiles were fitted at the entrance located at the rear. Conductors became redundant and were trained to become drivers. 

In 1986, antique tram No. 28 was built for tram tours and private parties, and in 1989, the Sharp Street Depot was re-developed into the shopping mall we now know as Times Square. In 2004, Hong Kong Tramways celebrated a centenary of service. The seventh generation tram, the one we use today, was put into service in 2011, a combination of modern interior design which retains the traditional exterior. The following year, the company adopted a real-time positioning system with RFID technology, which allows passengers to keep track of approaching trams through the “Next Tram” app. Last year, the “TramOramic Tour,” a one hour trip on a 1920s-style tram with an open upper deck was launched. During the journey, landmarks and authentic stories about the city are narrated via personal headphones in eight languages. I’ve had the good fortune of going on one of these. It is a magical experience to sit on the open top deck looking out at the bright lights and fantastic architecture that define this city. The “ding… ding” of the tram evokes nostalgia for a time gone by, allowing us to step back in time, even as we go about our business of daily living. The next time you step into one of these iconic tramcars, pause a moment and reflect on how wonderfully the tram showcases the history of this unique city.

By Dimple Shaw