Hong Kong’s 109-year-old tram system continues to be a popular mode of transportation in the city, with the tram drawing about 200,000 riders per day on an average. Riders like its low-cost and convenience, and many locals see the trams as a symbol of their culture. Driven by its popularity, the tram operator, Veolia Transport, will invest about $20 million to update the system with new rail cars, and a new audiovisual announcement system. However, the tram system is facing increasing competition from the city’s well-financed and expanding subway system. Below are some excerpts from the article “Modern Subways Zip Below, but a City’s Trams, Slow and Sweaty, Plod On”, by Gerry Mullany, published in the New York Times, on October 14, 2013.

Gerry Mullany reports “Hong Kong has one of the world’s most highly regarded subway systems, with spotless stations, cellphone service on trains, and trains with a 99.9 percent on-time record.”

“But the city’s trams, perhaps surprisingly, are holding their own.”

“I take the tram very often — it’s convenient, economical and efficient,” said Derik Wong, 42, who works in the food and beverage industry and takes the tram 5 to 10 times a week. “If you plan your time well, the tram’s speed is not a problem.”

“Called the ding-dings by locals for their pedestrian warning bells, the trams draw 200,000 riders a day for a price of 2.30 Hong Kong dollars, or 30 cents, a ride, regardless of distance traveled. Seniors pay half price.”

“By comparison, fares on the subways of the Mass Transit Railway system (M.T.R.), which carries 5.1 million passengers a day, range from 4.10 to 7.50 Hong Kong dollars, or 53 to 97 cents, on the Island line.”

“But just as important is the ease of the on-and-off commute on an island with a dense string of business and retail districts along its northern coast.”

“The trams may be old and slow, with typical speeds of six miles per hour, but their popularity shows how in this ever-modernizing city, old habits survive. The system is privately run by a French operator and does not receive any money from the local government.”

“Studies show that it is not just longtime Hong Kong residents who rely on the 109-year-old system. “We’re very representative of Hong Kong,” said Emmanuel Vivant, the general manager of the system. “The old and the young use us. And a lot of white-collar people take trams during lunchtime,” shuttling, for instance, from the city’s huge financial towers to restaurants in nearby neighborhoods for meals.”

“The tram operator, Veolia Transport, has enough confidence in the trams’ place in Hong Kong that it is investing roughly $20 million to update the system, mainly with more durable aluminum cars to replace the old wooden ones. The new cars are designed to last five times longer — up to 20 years — before they need an overhaul. Perhaps belatedly, Veolia is also introducing audio and visual announcements of coming stops, improvements that tram systems elsewhere instituted years ago.”

“Still, the trams face increasing challenges from the well-financed M.T.R., which is expanding its reach around Hong Kong Island with a new line to the southwest coast, while extending its main Island Line to an area where the tram now faces no underground competition.”

“The M.T.R. system benefits not only from fare revenue, but from the more lucrative profits generated by the property it develops above railway station sites, which include office towers and some of the famous high-end shopping malls that make Hong Kong a world tourist magnet.”

“To compete, Veolia must rely on some innovative ways to eke out money, not only by leasing billboards on the sides of the cars, but also by renting out antique trams for party rides. At the same time, Veolia has low fixed costs and does not outsource operations, and with trams coming by about every 90 seconds and generally packed standing room only with up to 110 passengers per car, the money keeps coming in.”

“Veolia also benefits from its route simplicity. The M.T.R. has a labyrinthine underground network that can be time-consuming to navigate.”

“The nostalgic pull of the trams keeps many riders loyal. The system was Hong Kong Island’s first mode of mass transit, running along the waterfront until land reclamation into Hong Kong Harbor effectively pushed the tram service inland. When Hong Kong considered eliminating the system in the 1980s, public support helped to keep the trams alive.”

“Trams are a symbol of Hong Kong,” said Peter Wong, 59, a retiree who said he had been taking them since he was a kid. “I don’t mind trams are not air-conditioned, because it’s good value for the money,” Mr. Wong said as he waited for a tram at Western Market. “You can’t demand everything with such a low fare. Also, Hong Kong culture is preserved in trams.”


Article: “Modern Subways Zip Below, but a City’s Trams, Slow and Sweaty, Plod On”, by Gerry Mullany, published on October 14, 2013, in the New York Times