Operator takes wraps off tin can tram

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 October, 2010, 12:00am

It has the smooth look of an MTR train, a seating arrangement that reminds you of a double-decker bus and swing entry gates that will no longer trap your bags. Welcome on board the new-look Hong Kong tram.

Hong Kong Tramways owners Veolia Transport, which bought the city's century-old company more than a year ago, rolled out the prototype yesterday. The aim is to renovate the 161-strong fleet at a cost of around HK$75 million - part of the French company's HK$200 million investment plan for the network.

The major part of the facelift will see the traditional wooden tram bodies being replaced by aluminium, which will make them more durable, more environmentally friendly and easier to repair.

Aluminium may not be as tough as wood - questions about its use have been raised, especially after an accident two years ago in which the top of a bus was peeled off like a tin can - but Hong Kong Tramway's senior engineering manager Steven Chan Shih-yao said the new design could withstand an impact of up to 45 tonnes, which is similar to the originals.

'Most of our trams will be up for renewal in the next four to five years, so we must decide now, do we want to change them once and for all? Or we will keep mending the old ones when they wear down,' he said.

The old trams require thorough inspections every four years as the wood is prone to fungal infection. In light of rising wood and labour costs, aluminium is the perfect substitute as it is cheap and can last up to a decade without major maintenance and has a lifespan of between 35 and 40 years - 10 years longer than the wooden tram.

Veolia said in August that the improvements would depend on government approval for its proposal to raise fares by 50 HK cents, making it HK$2.50 a trip. The government has yet to make a decision.

Chan presented a prototype tram in a demonstration yesterday. He said it would soon be travelling back and forth from Shau Kei Wan to Kennedy Town carrying focus groups and offering free rides to commuters in exchange for their opinions.

The new-look tram has two rows of individual seats replacing the benches on the lower deck. The seats have hand grips attached to accommodate more standing passengers, but the maximum capacity will be kept at around 115.

The old tripod turnstiles, notorious for trapping commuters' bags, will be replaced by swing gates activated by infrared sensors. The back of the tram will also have a wall-mounted support for a standing passenger. Sound familiar? The firm behind the project is the same one that designs the MTR.

There was mixed reaction to the new tram yesterday. Two people who took a ride on it said it looked like an old 'hot-dog' bus - a type of double-decker widely used during the '70s and the '80s with no air conditioning.

A regular commuter said after seeing a picture: 'I think it has lost its appeal as an antiquated mode of transport, and there are fewer seats.'

But tram fans Joseph Tse Yiu-hon and Fung Pui-on said the changes made the tram more stylish and comfortable. 'There isn't much change on the outside, while the changes inside make trams better and not worse,' Tse said.

Lau Chi-pang, a historian at Lingnan University and a member of the Antiquities Advisory Board, said the spirit of heritage conservation is not always to keep everything the way it was, but to revitalise it in a way that it can develop with the environment.

'Even if you can keep the blue house in Wan Chai, there is little meaning if it is so old and derelict that no one can live in it. The same is particularly true for transportation.'

New look

Passenger information system

Broadcasts and digital panels announce the next stop

CCTV system

Allows driver to monitor the back of the tram

LED lighting

Lasts five times longer; cuts energy costs by 42 per cent

LED panel

Displays destinations

Swing doors

Replace turnstile; infrared sensor to detect passengers

Support for standing passengers


Benches replaced with individual seats on the lower deck, with hand grips

Aluminium structure

Replaces wooden structure; more durable