The Peak Tram, an old Hong Kong icon: taking millions of tourists a year to Victoria Peak, what can we expect from its sixth and latest upgrade since opening in 1888?

Hong Kong’s famous Peak Tram closes on June 28 for six months to allow the replacement of track and cabling and the introduction of new, larger carriages. Photo: Sun Yeung

One of Hong Kong’s most iconic landmarks, the Peak Tram, is set to undergo its sixth upgrade since opening in 1888, and will be temporarily closed to the public from this month.

Why the reputation?

The Peak Tram will suspend services from June 28, 2021, for six months as it is scheduled for an upgrade of its facilities. Photo: Nora Tam

One of the world’s oldest funicular railways, the Peak Tram is just as much a tourist destination as the spot it was built to service, Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak. Its must-ride reputation has built up over time thanks to the way the cars scale the steep gradient – up to 25.7 degrees – along the 1.4km route, giving sweeping views of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers and the harbour beyond, as the tram climbs 396 metres from Garden Road in Central to Victoria Peak.

Asia’s first funicular railway

A scanned image from a lantern slide showing the Peak Tram. Photo: Peter Zheutlin
By the early 1880s, there were 30-40 expat families living on The Peak for its cooler climes, despite the district’s only access being by sedan chair.

Scottish-born designer Alexander Findlay Smith, who also lived on The Peak, began looking at the best means of transport for ascending steep hills. He travelled to Europe and North America and came back with a plan for what became the first cable funicular tramway in Asia.

Government approval was granted in 1882 and the Hong Kong High Level Tramways Company was born. Construction began in September 1885 and the line was officially opened in May 1888 by Governor Sir George William des Voeux. The new tram connected Murray Barracks to Victoria Gap with five stops in-between.

Hong Kong’s venerable Peak Tram is a funicular railway that has been in operation since 1888. Photo: SCMP

Smith bought Dunheved House, originally a restaurant and bar close to the tram’s planned terminus, and converted it into the Peak Hotel in 1888 in time for the line’s opening.

Detail of the seats inside a carriage of the Peak Tram. Photo: Sam Tsang

The original trams were made from varnished timber and seated 30 people on rows of wooden slatted seats at the front and rear of the carriage, with an enclosed compartment in the centre for first class passengers – Peak residents and government officials. The Peak Tram was originally powered by coal-fired steam boilers, and in its first year, carried around 150,000 passengers.

Upgrading a legend

The steam boilers were replaced by an electrically powered system in 1926. Then, in 1956, new generation lightweight metal-bodied carriages seating 62 people replaced the old wooden carriages.

Peak Tram, Hong Kong Island, in November 2019. Photo: Martin Williams

In 1989, the Peak Tram was rebuilt with new tracks, a computerised control system and two new carriages with a capacity of 120 passengers. By 1997, the Peak Tram was carrying two million passengers a year and pre-Covid-19 numbers were up to four million.

The latest upgrade, expected to take around six months, will see the introduction of a longer carriage increasing the capacity from 120 to 210. Power and towing systems will be upgraded, and cables and rails replaced.

Fun facts

American screen legend Clark Gable boards a Peak Tram at the Barker Road stop during the filming of Soldier of Fortune in November 1954. Photo: SCMP

The Peak Tram featured in the 1950s Hollywood movie Soldier of Fortune, starring Clark Gable, with the opening and closing scenes shot inside the carriage. The Peak Tram also featured in the popular 1970s television show, The Love Boat.

From 1908 to 1949, the tram’s first two front seats were reserved for the Hong Kong governor. A bronze plaque was attached to the seats reading: “This seat is reserved for His Excellency the Governor.” The seats were not available to other passengers until two minutes before departure.

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  • Asia’s first funicular railway featured in 1950s Hollywood film Soldier of Fortune, starring Clark Gable, and also in 1970s television show The Love Boat
  • The line, connecting Murray Barracks to Victoria Gap, was opened by Governor Sir George William des Voeux in 1888