The basic idea of a tram is: a railway for transporting people in crowded cities, with at least part of the tracks shared with road vehicles (from carts to cars). Consequences in construction: special rails sunk into the road, sharp curves, light carbodies (no need to withstand forces in a long train), entrances for fast loading/unloading and low platforms.
This idea was taken up rather early: the first trams (the very first: New York, 1832) were horse-drawn, then pulled by small steam locomotives. (For a preserved example, though not in a city, visit the Chiemseebahn in Bavaria.) But I will limit my coverage to what really accelerated the spread of tramways: electric trams.
Werner von Siemens presented the world's first electric locomotive, a small critter on miniature tracks, in 1879. Two years later, he could already build the first tram line, in district Lichterfelde in Berlin. But only a half dozen pilot lines were built (mostly by Siemens) over the next three years. Just then, the first line was built in the USA, where soon a great boom started. How much so is demonstrated by the fact that the builders led to the later electrics giants: beyond Siemens, innovator Frank J. Sprague's company was later bought by Edison, the Thomson-Houston Co. developed into General Electric, the German branch of the former became AEG.
In Europe, after the everyday success of the first few lines, an incredible construction boom started at the end of the decade. This boom was set off in 1887 in Budapest: the city leaders had an ambitious plan, and the two main traffic companies BKVT and BVVV became initial prime customers of the German firms Siemens and later AEG.
An old picture with the first (A) series trams in front of Nyugati Pályaudvar (=West Railway Terminal) on the Grand Boulevard line. Photo from villamosok és metrók
Looking back from today, the NIMBY issue of that age may sound strange: the wires of a catenary were considered an eyesore. So when Siemens built the first line, they developed a special system: on one side, the 'normal' rail and a guiding rail flanked a ditch, and hidden underground in it, two powered rails placed even closer supplied electricity, as the tram's downward trolley pole slid between them. The system was problematic, however: strong wear on the trolley poles, water-protected but no defence against snow and ice, and dirt filling up the ditches. Catenaries replaced the "Budapest system" everywhere by the nineteen-twenties.
Tram of then new BKVT type S on the line along the Small Boulevard at the Central Market Hall (right edge) not long before 1910. Notice the lack of overhead wire, and the side-by-side normal and guiding rail on the left side of the track: across the slit between the latter two, a trolley pole reached down to the safely hidden source of electricity. Coloured postcard from Villamosok.Hu (Hungarian Trams)
Above, you can already see some tramcar development: now the drivers' cabin is closed. When Budapest trams got pantographs, those first had a 'lyra' form, later the diamond shape. Meanwhile, motors grew stronger, and carbodies larger, also in cross-section: the original stagecoach-like sides with curved lower edge turned flat. Also, domestic production of trams ran up.
Trams developed not only in form but field of application. The first trams typically ran in suburbs, from which development branched in two directions: (1) strictly downtown street trams, and (2) so-called overland trams and/or interurbans, which went out into the agglomeration. (An example of the latter, the Chicago North Shore line, ran the particularly nice Electroliners.) In Budapest, a number of overland lines were built by various tram companies. Later, together with suburban 'proper' railways, they merged into the BHÉV company (which itself later integrated into the Budapest Traffic Company).
Three trams with overland tram history meet on Móritz Zsigmond körtér in snowfall – from left to right:
- Original BKVT type F, later BHÉV type M VI, then series 1600: lyra pantographs, flat sides, motors domestic
- Original BBVV type E, later BHÉV type M V, then series 2000: diamond pantographs, narrowed front for better fitting into curves, all-domestic production
- Original BBVV type U, later BHÉV type M IV, then series 2000: almost the same as above
Photo from Villamosok.Hu (Hungarian Trams)
WWI and the early spread of motorisation braked development. Still, as traffic kept growing, there was demand for ever larger trams. The natural next step was bogie vehicles. There were experiments early in the 20th century, but not so successful (just the BKVT F type – they quickly were converted into standard two-wheel critters, as seen above). Worldwide, the first successful bogied tram type was the American PCC. So Hungarian industry tried again, too: 30% longer, all steel (no wooden walls), and much more powerful than anything before, pre-WWII development reached its pinnacle in the ground-breaking "Stukas" (delivery started 1940). They got the nickname because during acceleration, they gave off a loud noise sounding like German Ju-87 "Stuka" dive-bombers.
A type TM "Stuka"/series 3600 tram at Gellért tér. Photo from Villamosok.Hu (Hungarian Trams)
After WWII, like much of Europe, Budapest lay in ruins, materials were scarce, money was scarce. So trams of old types had to continue running – but at least they could be upgraded. The most important change was to replace the wooden chassis with a steel one. The new chassis had a standardised look for a great variety of original types.
Two rebuilt BVVV type F (series 2500) trams on beautiful line 51 (closed 1983) at the city's edge (close to where I lived as a small child), beside a railway line it will cross a kilometre away. This was the last pre-war type to operate (until summer 1984), and the only one I remember myself. A preserved unit got as far as the UK. Photo from Hampage.hu (Trams of Hungary)
Post-war scarcity also had its effect on travelling habits – travelling by clinging to the railing outside the entrance became quite normal, well into the sixties:
Overcrowded trams of BKVT type F (with new steel chassis) on line 67 along radial road Thököly út. Photo from villamosok és metrók
But when the wooden→steel chassis upgrades went full-swing, a new type was built too, albeit only an improved version of the "Stukas". A stupendous 375 trams of the new standard type UV (series 3200/3800) were built in a decade starting 1956, and would determine the image of Budapest trams for four decades. Though there are few visible differences with the "Stukas" (one is the cut-out for the bogies), they are more solid and stronger, and built for multi-car operation.
Two type UV trams with middle trailer on line 49 leave the Small Boulevard for Szabadság-híd (=Liberty Bridge; a cantilever construction originally named for Emperor Franz Joseph I), with the Gellért Mountain and the Gellért hotel/spa visible on the Buda side. My own photo of 8 July 2006
Tramcars couldn't be lengthened further, while multiple cars waste space. So the logical next step was articulation. In Budapest, after the wood→steel upgrades, the tramway company's own maintenance shop felt itself prepared to attempt construction on its own. In 1961, it presented the CSM type (series 1200II). These showcased the rounded 'streamlined' forms now fashionable for all kinds of vehicles. But the bogie-less vehicles nicknamed 'Bengáli' (wordplay from a word for 'unwieldy') weren't too sound a construction, weak and shaky and loud and heavy, so with time, they were passed off to countryside towns.
Type CSM (series 1200) articulated tram at Bosnyák tér, end station for the long since disused line 64. Photo Hampage.hu (Trams of Hungary)
The failure of the maintenance shop was taken with glee at Ganz, the company normally making trams. So they got to construct another articulated type, whose 181 exemplars would serve the busiest lines almost exclusively until now. This was type GCSM, whose rather bland but surprisingly widely known nickname preserves the memory of this builders' rivalry: 'Industrial Articulated'. Built from the middle of the sixties, their looks conformed to the new fashion of functional design: flat surfaces, sharp edges.
A type GCSM "industrial articulated" (series 1300II) in front of the south wing of the Parliament building. This is line 2/2A, along the east (Pest) bank of the Danube. My own photo of 8 July 2006
In the meantime, in the East Bloc, the Czech(oslovak) ČKD factory became market leader. They once bought the license of the American PCC type, and developed it further in the "Tatra" product line. When the construction of a third, outer Budapest boulevard created new demand at the end of the seventies, it was cheaper to buy non-articulated type T5C5 Tatras than get a GCSM successor from Ganz. These trams are the ultimate in Spartan functional design, the one big innovation was tainted-glass windows. The 322 trams supplied enabled the phasing-out of old types mentioned above.
Two type T5C5 "Tatra" (series 4000) cars under Gellért Chapel in the side of Gellért Mountain (both named for a bishop from the time of forced Christianisation who was rolled down in a barrel on this mountainside when pagans caught him in an uprising). My own photo of 8 July 2006
Meanwhile in Germany, the future was born. In the West, most tram lines were torn up to make way for roads. But in some bombed-out German cities, people thought reconstruction is an opportunity to reform transit systems. The idea was to mix the benefits of all types of urban rail: a line that enters the city as suburban railway or overland tramway could then continue as downtown tram, or even go underground below too busy streets ('light metro'). These systems were called Stadtbahn = city-rail. For the concept to really work out, new technologies had to arrive. In the seventies, they came.
Little noticed outside professional circles, there has been a revolution in electric motors: asynchronous AC motors have come of age, which were not only lighter and much stronger than what was before, but allowed continuous acceleration. Progress in automation made variable-level entrances a fail-safe technology: the plates below the door would either form a platform or descend to turn into steps. Suspension with rubber springs and dampers provided a smooth ride.
In 2001, after a long battle within the ruling Socialist-liberal coalition, Budapest bought a couple dozen used (thus cheap) type TW6000 trams from Hannover. Despite being a quarter century old, they became the technologically most advanced trams in the city... Though they were a bit high-level and heavy for Budapest, they convinced the sceptics (including me).
Two type TW6000 (series 1500II) trams in the loop in Mézeskalács park, end station of line 62. Photo from Hampage.hu (Trams of Hungary)
In the nineties, chiefly the French tram revival pushed another technology revolution. Now trams became low-floor (with most equipment on the roof), lightweight, and streamlined again. This wasn't without great mishaps: rushing new types into service meant that there were a lot of teething problems, chiefly with electronics, but also wear and tear. Siemens' flagship Combino trams had to be withdrawn across the world because of fissures in their aluminium carbodies. So when a big order came from Budapest, Siemens resurrected an earlier steel design under the same name.
The big order was for the world's busiest tram line, along the Grand Boulevard (lines 4/6). This is nothing to be proud of, the daily 200,000/hourly max. 10,500 passengers would be in the capacity range of a subway. But an orbital subway was never built, so pairs of "Industrial Articulateds" transport the masses in close succession. So when finally new vehicles were ordered, they were for the world's longest passenger trams (precisely 53.99 m; only the CarGoTram freight trams in Dresden/Germany are longer [59.4 m]). The new series 2000II got the nickname Óriáshernyó (=giant caterpillar).
The giant caterpillar of one of the first series 2000II trams curves out of Hungária depot (next to the MTK stadium, where the movie Victory was filmed with Pelé, Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine). Photo from Hampage.hu (Trams of Hungary)
The first trams were put in service on 1 July. However, they had so many problems that they had to be taken out of service for repairs, repeatedly. There were corroded old catenary-holding poles falling over under the weight of new, thicker catenary, doors not working properly due to faulty software and tolerances, air conditioners with a concept ignoring the limited amount of electricity a DC system can give... This of course grew into a big pre-local-elections political scandal, ultimately 'solved' by the major firing the traffic company head... But by now, the teething problems seem to have been sorted out, the giant caterpillars are back in regular service, with no big problem for weeks.
The low-floor inside of the new Siemens Combinos (series 2000II). On the photo left, made by a colleague of mine, you see the entrance is level with the platform of the stopping place outside. On the right, my own photo of 8 July 2006, with a view along four of the six sections at passengers trying to look unimpressed while examining the New Thing
Finally, the tourist department speaking. If you are a tram fan and want to visit Budapest, I recommend a ride on these lines (also see present tram lines' map):
- line 2/2A:
- runs along the eastern bank of the Danube, with perfect view for the bridges and the scenic parts on the Buda side, plus the Parliament building.
- line 56:
- in Buda, has a mountain character, climbs up into Hűvösvölgy (=cold valley), where you can board a narrow-gauge railway operated by children (well, teens)
- line 52:
- an outer-district line in Pest, with a very varied right-of-way that includes sections still with some flair of 100 years ago
- line 41:
- along a main road in Buda, then after a dramatic curved bridge over a railway line, suddenly becomes an overland tram in woods
- line 37:
- runs from Blaha Lujza tér to Új Köztemető (=New Common Cemetery) in Pest (1956 connections: Stalin's statue was cut up at the former, you'll find the burial place of the executed revolutionaries in the second), along a route that has to cross several railway lines and does so on a variety of bridges, curves and underpasses
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