Prague trams - serving the city for more than 100 years

31-07-2008

Old red and white trams are just as much a part of the Czech capital as Prague Castle or Charles Bridge. The metro is definitely faster and more comfortable, but it doesn’t offer the same views as trams do. Besides, the metro stops at midnight while trams can carry you home at any time of the day and night, that is of course, if you live close enough to the railway tracks. So, when did trams first appear in the streets of Prague? And what is it like to be at the controls of a tram?

It is 5 o’clock in the morning and tram driver Marek Vilímek is making the final checks in his tram at the Pankrác depot before he finally sets off. He makes sure that the cars are clean and that there is sand in the containers under the seats… Yes, even today, sand is the best way to prevent trams from sliding when the tracks are wet.

The depot in the Prague district of Pankrác accommodates around 150 trams, which run in various directions around the city. My favourite one is line 18, which cuts through the Nusle valley and climbs all the way to the Prague Castle. Marek Vilímek is in charge of number 13.

“We are just leaving the depot and heading towards Smíchov and then we go up Barrandov Hill. Today I’m working two shifts – in the morning and in the afternoon. This line is pretty short so I only do three circuits and then come back to the depot.”

Marek Vilímek has worked as a tram driver for about two years. While his colleague takes the controls, Marek tells me a few words about his job. As you can imagine, talking to a driver while the tram is in motion is strictly forbidden.

“I have always enjoyed driving. I drove cars and vans and then I decided to work for the Public Transport Company. First of all for financial reasons but most of all, because I used to admire tram drivers when I was little and I wondered what it would be like to drive a tram and turn all those knobs. So you could say that I made my childhood dream come true.”

And how does one actually become a tram driver?

“You need to be at least 21 and you have to have a driving licence. If you pass the theory tests and medical checks you then do three months of training, where you learn everything about trams. In the meantime you have to memorize all the lines and tram stops in Prague.”

The first electric tram in Prague, Fr. Křižík in frontThe first electric tram in Prague, Fr. Křižík in front The very first tram line in Prague dates back to 1875, when a Belgian businessman built tracks for a horse-drawn tram. The line went from today’s Náměstí Republiky to the National Theatre. Horse-drawn trams were operating until 1925 when they were completely replaced by electric trams.

“The first electric tram in Prague was constructed by Czech electrician František Křižík and it went into operation in 1891. The first line led from Letná to Stromovka and it was about 800 metres long. That was the very beginning of public transport in Prague. The first tram lines were owned by private companies. By 1896 there were already 55 km of tracks; today we have about 140 km and there are about 28 day-lines and 7 night-lines.”

Milan Pokorný is in charge of the Museum of Public Transport, a former depot in the Prague district of Střešovice. If you like trams and want to see what the old wagons looked like, this is definitely the right place to go.

“We are standing in front of a train number 240, which is the oldest tram in our depot. It was made in 1908 and the man behind the timeless design was the famous architect Jiří Kotěra. This type of trams was in use until the 1940s, when it was replaced by a different model known as ‘the submarine’.”

T3 modelT3 model Those who were old enough to ride a tram before 1974 may remember jumping on and off tram cars – some of which were open in these days. By 1974, they were replaced by the now iconic T3 model. This round shaped tram is still the most common in Prague and the two circular lights on the front give this tramcar its characteristic friendly look.

“The legendary T3 model was made in 1962. It was a breakthrough construction and design. These tramcars are still the core of the Prague Public Transport fleet. They need to be upgraded a bit, but they will still be around in 25 years’ time. The producer, ČKD Tatra has made around 35,000 T3s since 1962 and these trams have been used all over the world.”

It’s a Wednesday afternoon and the old T3 tram is making its way through the busy traffic. Meanwhile I try to find out if other passengers enjoy trams as much as I do.

Where are you going right now?
“I am going to Nusle.”
Is that where you live?
“Yes, that’s where I live. I am going home from work.”
Do you use tram on a regular basis?
“Yes, every day.”
Do you find them reliable?
“Yes, but not very comfortable. There are too many people going to work
in the morning…”

“We are from France and we are going to visit the Vyšehrad castle with my sister because she is going to live here next year. We find the trams a very comfortable way of transport in Prague because it’s very easy to find your way and at the same time you can enjoy the city and the view.”

You just got on the tram. Is that where you live?
“Yes. This is where I live.”
So you use tram every day.
“Every day for several times.”
How do you find it? “It’s always on time because the rails are on the main roads and trams don’t get stuck in traffic jams. The trams are very comfortable during the summer. It would be nice to have air-conditioning but I guess it would be too expensive. But I guess it’s OK for the price.”

What about the new type of trams? Do you like them?
“No, I prefer the old ones.”
Why?
“Because they look much better in Prague!”

Well I agree and it seems that trams are here to stay. According to Milan Pokorný from the transport museum, big cities such as Prague have come to appreciate the advantages of tram transportation. While a number of routes were abolished in previous years, he says the city is now investing in reviving some of those tram lines.

31-07-2008