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30 August, 2012  ▪  Dmytro Kalynchuk

Fast Down the Rails. The Turbulent History of Electric Trams

The Ukrainian Week offers a series of articles about technological inventions which have changed human history and induced civilizational progress and modernization of the economic, social and cultural landscape. This week’s story tells about trams, the first urban means of transport.

The origins of the oldest urban public transport date back to the beginning of the impetuous age of technological progress, industrialization and urbanization. The boom in urban population, growth of city areas, industrial development and the pace of life acceleration brought about the need to develop urban transport. Thus the tram was to put an end to urban chaos, to lay the basis for public transportation in large cities and make it easier for workers to get to plants and factories and for sellers to get to city markets.


The first trams originated  in the British Isles (Wales) in the beginning of the 19th century and used horses. Unlike carriages, horse trams moved along rails and pulled heavy metal coaches with open or closed wagons. Despite an early start, “horse vehicles” were slow to win popularity in the big cities of Europe and North America in the first half of the 19th century. They were gradually displacing horse-drawn omnibuses, the predecessors of modern buses. The principal trouble with horse trams was the inconvenient exploitation of animals usually having to work several hours per day, needing maintenance and care. Moreover, they left a lot behind to clean up.

But in spite of these defects (not really apparent at that time), horse trams were the first to start regular passenger transport in big cities. They were very popular with citizens, proof of which is the fact that in the mid 1880s, the United States had 415 carriage companies with trams covering over 6,000 miles a year and providing 188m passengers with transport. The invention of the steam engine replaced “horse vehicles” with steam power trams and cable cars, but it was the electric current that brought the greatest potential for developing this means of transport.

The electric tram is the brainchild of the genius engineer and inventor Werner von Siemens. His Siemens & Halske company opened the world's first tram line between Berlin and Lichterfeld in 1881, and in the same year electric trams started moving along the streets of Paris.

The United States established their urban electric transport independent of Europe. The first American tram was launched in 1885 thanks to inventor Leo Daft, and a year later, Pittsburgh, New York and Cincinnati had their own tram lines. It was in 1885, too, that Minneapolis opened a tram designed by another inventor, Charles Van de Poule. The final flourish was added by engineer Frank J. Sprague, the inventor of the world's first trolley system.


The first tram in Ukraine was launched in Kyiv in 1892. Its creator, engineer and businessman Armand Struve also organized the construction of a railway bridge across the Dnipro River (currently Darnytskiy Bridge in Kyiv), the first centralized water supply and gas lighting system.

Kyiv's electric tram was launched in Kyiv due to a curious incident. Struve managed to get a concessionary right to establish the first city network of horse tram lines in 1881, after a tough competitive fight. But the first year of transport exploitation brought the inventor big losses. Horses tired quickly on Kyiv's steep slopes and were unable to pull heavy tram cars full of passengers an entire day. A tram required 10 animals a day to operate.

After this, Armand tried to use locomobile (steam tram) in difficult areas, but this was not cheaper, and so the inventor decided to have an electric tram — the latest European innovation — run down Kyiv streets.

The administration of Kyiv telegraph, fearing electric engines would interfere in the work of electricity and telegraph networks, strongly opposed new means of transport. Some city council deputies, in particular those linked to the owners of stud farms, were quick to support the telegraphers. But the engineer managed to set the project in motion after getting Kyiv millionaire Lazar Brodskiy involved.

The first two trams were built based on American designs at the Russian Kolomenskiy machine building plant in which Struve was a shareholder. The tram was tested by the official commission on 9 June and passenger transport was successfully launched on 13 June 1892. Kyiv citizens must have been proud of the event, as it was the first tram in the Russian Empire.

Other cities were quick to adopt the idea of city electric transport. Having estimated the prospects of the business, offers from foreign companies rolled into Ukraine. The next electric tram was launched by a Belgian company in Katerynoslav (currently Dnipropetrovsk) in 1897. It was the third tram of that type in Ukraine (after Kyiv and Lviv) and indeed in the entire Russian Empire. Saint Petersburg got its first electric tram only in 1907.

The Nijvel company (Belgium) launched transportation in Odesa in 1910. Electric cars also operated on the streets of Yelysavethrad (currently Kirovohrad) before the 1917 revolution.  Belgian businessmen later took over the Kyiv tram network. The city authorities tried to buy out the profitable industry and induced a lingering confrontation with the foreign investor wanting to either keep its share in the business or at least gain the highest possible profit. But in the end the revolution made losers out of both parties. In 1919, the tram business was nationalized by the Bolsheviks.


Ukraine’s second electric tram was launched in Lviv in 1894, when the city authorities announced a tender for the transport system. The reasons were quite mundane – horse trams could no longer cope with the volume of passengers. Siemens & Halske won the tender and launched the Lviv electric tram line on 31 May 1894. This was the fourth tramway in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

But local horse carriers blemished the almost perfect project. The first local tram was pelted with tomatoes and rotten eggs. A wife of one of the carriers, Lviv newspaper wrote, “proposed to a tram something totally impossible to make and accompanied the proposition with relevant gestures”. In short, the woman proposed the vehicle “to kiss her ass”. Lviv carriers’ reaction was natural, as the tram was ruining their business. Still, progress could not be stopped and city electric trams even appeared in Chernivtsi before World War I.

New trams drastically changed the look of the cities. It is hard today to imagine cities cleaning up straw dumps and the smell of excrement. As horses faded away, streets stopped being cobbled. Trams also started playing a social role. It was now normal for citizens to have tram stories and jokes, to make acquaintances and even fall in love while in transport.

The Lviv tramway line functioned in spite of all the political and military turbulences of the first half of the 20th century and later became one of the cultural brands of the Western Ukraine capital. The tram business was almost devastated during World War II, in particular due to the shooting and bombing that was part of the Soviet assault in September 1939 and the Red Army's seizing the city in July 1944.

The tram line was suddenly halted in 1947. Due to after-war “population exchanges” between Poland and the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, all the Poles were evicted. As Poles made up 80% of the city tram management, Lviv had to recruit railway personnel and experts from Eastern Ukraine to fully resume transport.


At the beginning of the 20th century, the tram won popularity in the biggest cities all over the world. City expansion, active industrial and technological progress made public transport a crucial issue, as it was necessary to organize the transport of a great number of people from their homes to work. Compared to underdeveloped motor transport, trams were cheap and efficient.

In 1920, all the largest cities of the world were covered with tram rails. But at the beginning of the 1930s the development of trams in Europe and North America began to differ from developments in the USSR. In the West, trams began to lose the competitive struggle with other means of transport — buses and private cars. Besides, there was another electric rival – trolleybusses which required a cheaper infrastructure. As a result, in 1930s tram development slowed, while after the World War II city streets were already full of private cars, gradually turning trams into anachronisms.

In 1971, French President Georges Pompidou said that the city had to accept the motor car. His words depicted the world trend in urban transport. During the 1960s and 70s, trams almost disappeared from the city streets of North America, France, Great Britain, India, Turkey, Australia and so on. Meanwhile, the situation in Germany, Austria and Belgium was completely different. There trams were not only still used, but also modernized; the tram's native land was not willing to give up its invention — a desire which proved to be a good decision.

At the end of 1970s, motor transport development led to new urban problems, namely the deterioration of city environments and huge traffic. Smog, traffic jams, noise and a lack of parking places became a city routine. Municipal administrations had to spend significant funds on bus fuel due to high oil prices. As authorities faced the need to protect their environments, more ecologically-friendly public transport was found in a revival of trams.

To achieve this, engineers needed to encourage car drivers to use trams, which required a new attitude to the old-fashioned transport. New electric tram designers provided their vehicles with futuristic looks. In 1978 new tram lines were established in Canada and later in the Netherlands, France and Great Britain. For places where it was impossible to put rails, experts proposed an alternative of trams on tires with the vehicle moving with the help of wheels and one rail.

The tram revival process included one more interesting detail – the majority of car drivers refused point-blank to sit on a bus or a trolleybus, but willingly used rail transport. Mostly due to this, the tram finally won the competitive struggle with trolleybus.

The USSR did not have any of these highs and lows, as trams never disappeared from Soviet city streets. Instead, the Soviet Union modernized them, in particular by establishing express tram lines in Kyiv and Kryvyi Rih. This was due to the fact that in contrast to Europe and America, cars were a luxury for the average Soviet citizen and most of the population had no alternative to surface transport, apart from trams.

The situation in Ukraine changed radically after independence in 1991. A huge number of private cars and minibuses reduced the scale of surface passenger transport by trams. Meanwhile insufficient financing has led to the deterioration of tram lines. In many cities, trams have essentially disappeared. In Kyiv, a public movement has been set up called Kyivans for Public Transport, whose members demand the city's tram and trolleybus networks be preserved. Now Ukrainian cities are facing the same problems their Western counterparts faced in the 1970s. Traffic jams have already led many drivers leave their cars in the parking lots and use the subway or tram instead.

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