What can you expect for 50 cents these days? In the case of plans for the city's century-old trams quite a lot, although some may not appreciate a makeover for our oldest functioning heritage item. Hong Kong Tramways' new owner is giving us a glimpse of what we can get in return for the 25 per cent rise it has asked the government to approve in the standard HK$2 fare, which has not been increased for 12 years.
A prototype of a new-look tram will soon be travelling back and forth between Shau Kei Wan and Kennedy Town, and the opinions of focus groups and commuters sampled. The first impressions of our reporter were that it was a reminder of the smooth functionality of an MTR train and the seating in a double-decker bus; and you no longer have to be careful your bag does not get caught in the turnstiles, which are replaced by automatic swing-entry gates.
None of this detracts from the trams' social advantage over the buses they often overtake in heavy traffic - environment-friendliness. Owner Veolia Transport, a French multinational, argues that this virtue will be enhanced by the replacement of wooden bodywork with longer-lasting, more easily maintained aluminium.
That sounds a reasonable deal for 50 cents, when you throw in plans to upgrade tracks to reduce noise and friction and install better motors to improve speed, torque and traction. The government should also try its hardest to accommodate a request for more turn-arounds between Wan Chai and North Point to enable more flexible services to meet demand, especially in the west of the island.
First reactions are understandably mixed. They include nostalgia for an antiquated form of transport before it goes the way of so much of our heritage. Transport, however, must move with the times. The passing of steam locomotion in other places had the same effect on people, leading to the creation of railway historical societies and the preservation of the odd locomotive which is fired up now and then for steam train excursions for old and young alike. Our trams come from the same era. A few are worth preserving for posterity.