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Ding Ding Serving Hong Kong for 110 Years

In 1904, single-deck trams manufactured in Preston, an industrial town in northwest England, started trundling along what were then mainly waterfront areas of Hong KongIsland. A newspaper clipping reporting on the inaugural service depicted the trams as an attraction, rather than an important transportation service.

“The line opened today passes through some interesting scenery. Commencing at ShauKeiWanVillage, the line almost immediately commences to ascend and for a considerable distance continues to make an ascent. ...An excellent view across AldrichBayand KowloonBayis obtained. A fairly level track leads towards QuarryBaybut one or two inclines have to be transverse before Taikoo is reached. From QuarryBay, a delightful run along the waterfront, past the Metropolo Hotel, and the Kerosene Works, brings one to Causeway Bay Polo Ground.”

The scenery may have changed along the 9 1/4 mile route, and reclamation has left the tracks far from their once “delightful waterfront runs,” but the trams are almost exactly the same as the double-decker trams that came into operation in 1912 to replace the initial 26 cars. Efforts to modernize the fleet in the past have often been met with stiff opposition from the public.

“I think there is a strong sentimental attachment to trams because people have grown up with the ding-ding,” said Emmanuel Vivant (left), Managing Director, Hong Kong Tramways, Limited.” They have been through good and bad times, through wars, economic booms and busts. People have so many stories to share about the trams, which they feel very close to. They also feel it is an icon of Hong Kongthat should be preserved.”

Preserving that icon in an age when daily commuters’ expectations of 21st century travel are for comfortable, rapid and affordable transportation is quite a balancing act. Daily tram commuters provide the bread and butter that ensures the trams’ survival, so Vivant said it is essential that he listens to their views. At the same time, he also has to address the views of those who say the trams should be preserved.

He accomplishes this by modernizing the trams’ suspension and fitting light new engines, which make the trams faster, smoother and safer, while maintaining the exterior’s classic look. Trams are now also fitted with RFID technology, which enables dispatch to increase tram efficiency, avoid bundling of trams and quickly dispatching trams during peak demand.

“We now have a homegrown app that allows people to check the location of tram stops and what time that the next tram will arrive in real time. Passengers can also check at panels installed at tram stops,” said Vivant.

 

Declining numbers

When the tram was the main mode of transportation on Hong KongIsland, the company used to carry 530,000 passengers every day. The start of bus services in the 1920s siphoned off some passengers, and more recently the MTR. Vivant puts the number of tram commuters today at 200,000. Despite this, he is proud that Hong Kong Tramways is still the most used tram line in the world.

This is partly due to the convenience of hoping on and off a tram when people need to travel distances that are a little too far to walk, and the advantage that dedicated tram lines provide over being stuck in traffic on a bus. However, Vivant laments that the average speed of trams has decreased by around 20% due to the increase in road traffic, particularly private cars.

Tram-only lanes cover about 40% of the tram network, and he hopes the Government will consider giving back dedicated tram lines once the MTR extension to KennedyTownand the new bypass open, which will free up road space.

“We believe the trams are the most environmentally friendly means of transport as there are no roadside emissions, they are the most socially inclusive, and the most efficient user of our limited road space. So I think there is a real opportunity to grant more space to trams, which will also benefit the travelling public and the environment,” said Vivant.

It is also the cheapest form of public transportation in Hong Kong. Unlike the MTR, which has a mechanism to adjust fares, or buses which have a basket of factors to support their request for fare increases, there is no clear reference for adjusting tram fares.

“It is a complicated issue. We have the same issues as other operators – costs, labour, inflation, upgrading vehicles etc – but it is very difficult for us to increase fares,” he explained. “We try to increase efficiencies and raise advertising revenue to stay afloat. We only raise fares as a last resort. How and when fares are being adjusted, like other transport operators, would provide us more  long term visibility.”

 

International operations

Veolia Transport China Limited (VTCL) took full ownership of Hong Kong Tramways in 2010, as VTCL’s parent companies Transdev and RATP Development, felt the partnership would be mutually beneficial. Transdev and RATP Development are among the world’s largest operators of public transportation systems, running everything from New Orleanstrams to double-decker busses in Londonand the Metro in Paris.

Vivant says the Hong Kong operation is very important and useful for its other operations around the world, and at the same time, best practices and information exchanges in other cities around the world add to its Hong Kongoperations.

That expertise also gives it an advantage when bidding for other projects, most recently in Singaporeand the Mainland. As the mother company operates buses, trams, as well as ferries and taxis, few companies know more about moving people efficiently and comfortably across cities. 

“Cities in the Mainland want to develop their own expertise and systems, which we are keen to help them accomplish. They realize they are lacking in crucial expertise which we help develop among local staff,” he explained. “For example, we operate the metro in Seoul, where we brought in some expats to train up local staff, who were then able to develop local expertise.”

Local expertise is also evident in its Hong Kong operations, as its RFID system and mobile app were developed in Hong Kong. Trams are also built at its depot in Sheung Wan, which Vivant says will continue to be the case to minimize costs and ensure quality and innovation.

“Our staff are proud to be part of an essential service that serves Hong Kong citizens, whose love of the tram is a reminder that we are also a crucial piece of Hong Kong’s heritage, which gives us a strong sense of responsibility and pride,”he said.

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