TRANSPORTATION
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City Weekend

A very Hong Kong love affair with trams

Hong Kong Tramways boss Emmanuel Vivant wants to improve network, but knows he cannot do anything that harms Hongkongers’ attachment to the ‘ding ding’

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 July, 2017, 1:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 July, 2017, 3:58pm

It was quite literally a love story. Before Emmanuel Vivant became the boss of Hong Kong’s iconic tram system, he shared a romantic moment with his wife on a “ding ding” when the couple were visiting the city several years ago.

Sitting in his office at the Whitty Street tram depot with dozens of toy trams, the managing director of Hongkong Tramways recalled how he and his Korean wife, whom he met in Paris, exchanged wedding rings on the tram after they got married elsewhere.

“We were still living in Korea at the time. We came here for a visit. We bought our wedding rings in a jewellery shop at Harbour City in Tsim Sha Tsui. Then we crossed the harbour and took the tram. We exchanged wedding rings on the tram,” Vivant said.

From 2009 to 2012, Vivant was based in Seoul where he was in charge of strategy for Asia and business development for South Korea and Southeast Asia for RATP Dev Transdev Asia (RDTA), which owns and operates Hong Kong Tramways. He is now RDTA’s chief executive officer.

The French mechanical and civil engineer came to Hong Kong as the tram’s director and general manager in 2012 and was then promoted to managing director two years later. After he arrived, the tram company made several changes such as adding air conditioning in one car during a three-month trial and a rubber coating to tram tracks to minimise noise, and introducing a new smiley logo.

The firm has also faced challenges including the blocking of tram tracks in Causeway Bay during the pro-democracy Occupy movement in 2014 and the toppling over of a vehicle in Central earlier this year.

But Vivant knows that the 110-year-old transport system cannot be changed drastically. He understands that the tramway, which he describes as “a part of Hong Kong’s heart”, is more than a just a means of public transport. He says Hongkongers undoubtedly have an emotional attachment to the “ding dings” – just as he and his wife have.

You’ve made quite a few changes to the tram system. What were the challenges for you in putting these new elements in place?

In two words, our changes mean protect and progress. We know the expectations of the public. We know we need to cherish the traditional elements of the tram, but, at the same time, we are purely a commercial operation, and we don’t receive subsidies from the government.

People have different options. Every morning, when they take the tram, they can take the bus or MTR. So, we need to be able to upgrade our services and remain relevant.

We have some real strengths. First, we are the most affordable mode of transport. Second, we are very convenient. We have one tram stop every 250 metres, which means, for short rides, if it is less than 4km, the tram will be competing with the bus and the MTR in terms of travel time.

We are very relevant to the future of Hong Kong because we are green. We have zero emissions and we are right in the corridor where unfortunately, pollution has been worsening, and it’s becoming a real issue. And finally, we are more than just transport. I think, if you remove the trams, you remove a part of Hong Kong’s heart.

A retired government planner filed an application to the town planning board to remove the tram system in central. he said it would solve the problem of traffic congestion. What do you think about that?

I think it created a healthy debate in 2015 about traffic congestion in Hong Kong, the cause of congestion in Central and other districts. It also helped to demonstrate the strong attachment of Hong Kong people to the trams. I think at that time the Town Planning Board received several tens of thousands of submissions supporting the trams. The board in the end rejected his application.

Today, the same applicant has made the same application to the same authority with the same argument. I am expecting it will have the same outcome.

When you look at other leading big cities in the world Hong Kong is competing with, they are putting forward plans to increase the space given to electric transport, mass transit, pedestrians and non-motorised transport. A city like Paris, in the past 10 years, has built seven new tram lines. It is now building five new ones. The city is actually shutting down highways to give the space back to pedestrians. A city like New York built the High Line, removed space that was given to private cars and built bicycle lanes. They built a huge shared-bicycle system. New York is now building a tram system to connect Brooklyn and Queens.

Hong Kong has been very fortunate to preserve its trams across all these years. The tram is the most affordable and greenest mode of transport. The tram is not just a form of transport. It makes Hong Kong a special city. So, for me, there should be more trams, not less.

In April, 14 people were injured when a westbound tram toppled over in Central around midnight. What was your reaction when you first heard of the news and how did you deal with the situation?

The first thing on my mind when I heard about it was the condition of the injured and the reaction to the emergency. I was in Mumbai on that day for work. I was working with my Indian team for a new project in India. When I heard about the incident, I cooperated with the operations team in Hong Kong on the emergency response and then took the first flight back to Hong Kong that night. I think for us, what’s important with an incident like that is to learn the right lessons, all the lessons to make sure it does not happen again. In this case, it means, in particular, reviewing the way we select and train our drivers, the way we develop and monitor them.

We have finished our internal investigation but we cannot comment because the police investigation is still ongoing.

You’ve been living in Asia for many years. How does the transport scene in Hong Kong differ from that in other cities where you have lived?

Hong Kong is a very unique place for public transport. More than 90 per cent of the trips in Hong Kong are done by public transport. I have lived in Seoul, Beijing and Paris, which are also public transport cities, but maybe only 60 per cent of trips there are done by public transport. A lot of cities look at Hong Kong as a model.

Hong Kong is also unique because public transport operators here are pretty commercial and not directly subsidised by the government. In fact, they are often competing with one another. In most respects, I think Hong Kong is a leader.

I think what could be improved, maybe, is the walkability of the streets, the space that is given to pedestrians and the space that is given to green public transport. Maybe, Hong Kong can have more integration between different public transport modes and more integrated information for passengers.

You’ve been with Hong Kong Tramways for around five years. What is the most memorable moment you have encountered at work?

I think my most unforgettable moment was leading the company when the Occupy movement was under way. We were trying to work every day with the team responding to the situation, and trying to maintain our service as much as we could under those circumstances.

We had some trams that were stuck in Eastern district so they could not come back to the main depot for maintenance. So, we had to resort to extraordinary measures to keep the trams in a proper functioning state. We maintained the bogies [the chassis of the tram which supports the vehicle and provides protection for some internal parts] in our Western depot, put them on a truck and sent them to Eastern district.

We also offered free transfers between the eastern and western parts of the network. We had free shuttles in Causeway Bay to connect with Victoria Park. We really tried to do whatever we could to maintain services.

What are the next big plans for Hong Kong Tramways?

First, it is to keep improving our service. We have a number of projects that we are currently working on. Number one is cooler trams. We are planning to start introducing air-conditioned trams next year. We are working on a new bogie design to make sure we can maintain the quality of our operating assets and also improving the riding comfort on trams. We are also working with Chinese University on a new tool – a kind of artificial intelligence tool – to optimise real-time dispatching of our trams.

QUIRKY QUESTIONS

What do you like about Hong Kong?

What I really like about Hong Kong is how easy I can get out of the city. Like taking a ferry to a small island. I enjoy going to country parks. I can refresh myself there.

What do you usually do for fun?

At weekends, my wife and I like hiking. We sometimes spend a day on the beach in Shek O. When we have a bit more time, we usually go travelling. We like visiting new places.

What is your favourite place for travelling?

I have been living in Asia for 10 years. I think it is a fascinating region. But the more I live in Asia, the more I like going back to my roots. I love visiting Greece, Italy and France.

Did you find it difficult to adapt to the environment and culture in Hong Kong when you first moved here?

Before I moved to Hong Kong, I lived in Seoul and Beijing. What I found tough here, even though I had lived in Asia for a long time, was the vibrancy, pace and noise of the city. But it only took me a couple of weeks to adjust.

What is your favourite Hong Kong food?

Dim sum.

Do you take the tram every day?

I don’t. But I take the tram very often. I live in Wan Chai. Typically I take a taxi to work, and very often I take the tram back home.