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A tram, tramcar, trolley, trolley car, streetcar, or light rail vehicle[1] is a railborne vehicle, lighter than a train, designed for the transport of passengers (and/or, very occasionally, freight) within, close to, or between villages, towns and/or cities. The infrastructure along which a tram runs is a tram system (also tramway, street railway).

Usage of the term

The terms "tram" and "tramway" were originally Scots and Northern English words for the type of truck used in coal mines and the tracks on which they ran - probably derived from a North Sea Germanic word of unknown origin meaning the "beam or shaft of a barrow or sledge", also "a barrow" or container body.

Although "tram" and "tramway" have been adopted by many languages, they are not used universally in English, North Americans preferring "trolley", "trolley car" or "streetcar". The term "streetcar" is first recorded in 1860, and is a North American usage, as is "trolley," which is believed to derive from the "troller," a four wheeled device that was dragged along dual overhead wires by a cable that connected the troller to the top of the car and collected electrical power from the overhead wire, sometimes simply strung, sometimes on a catenary. The trolley pole, which supplanted the troller early-on, is fitted to the top of the car and is spring-loaded in order to keep the trolley wheel, at the upper of the pole, firmly in contact with the overhead wire. The terms trolley pole and trolley wheel both derive from the troller.[2]

Modern trolleys often do not use a trolley wheel: either they have a metal shoe with a carbon insert or they dispense with the trolley pole completely and have instead a pantograph. Other streetcars are sometimes called trolleys, even though strictly this may be incorrect: cable cars, for example, or conduit cars that draw power from an underground supply.


The first streetcars, also known as horsecars in North America, were built in the United States and developed from city stagecoach lines and omnibus lines that picked up and dropped off passengers on a regular route and without the need to be pre-hired. These trams were an animal railway, usually using horses and sometimes mules to haul the cars, usually two as a team. Rarely other animals were tried, including humans in emergencies. The first streetcar - the New York and Harlem Railroad's Fourth Avenue Line - ran along the Bowery and Fourth Avenue in New York City, and began service in the year 1832. It was followed in 1835 by New Orleans, Louisiana, which is the oldest continuously operating street railway system in the world, according to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.[3] At first the rails protruded above street level, causing accidents and major trouble for pedestrians. They were supplanted in 1852 by grooved rails or girder rails, invented by Alphonse Loubat. The first tram in France was inaugurated in 1853 for the upcoming World's Fair, where a test line was presented along the Cours de la Reine, in the 8th arrondissement.

One of the advantages over earlier forms of transit was the low rolling resistance of metal wheels on steel rails, allowing the animals to haul a greater load for a given effort. Problems included the fact that any given animal could only work so many hours on a given day, had to be housed, groomed, fed and cared for day in and day out, and produced prodigious amounts of manure, which the streetcar company was charged with disposing of. Since a typical horse pulled a car for perhaps a dozen miles a day and worked for four or five hours, many systems needed ten or more horses in stable for each horsecar. Electric trams largely replaced animal power in the late 19th and early 20th century. New York City had closed its last horsecar line in 1917. The last regular mule drawn streetcar in the U.S.A., in Sulphur Rock, Arkansas, closed in 1926. However during World War II some old horse cars were temporarily returned to service to help conserve fuel. A mule-powered line in Celaya, Mexico, operated until 1956. Horse-drawn trams still operate in Douglas, Isle of Man. There is also a small line operated on Main Street at DisneyWorld, outside of Orlando Florida. A small horse-drawn service operates every 40 minutes at Victor Harbour, South Australia, daily with 20 minute services during tourist seasons. This service runs between the mainland and Granite Island across a causeway.[1]

The tram developed after that in numerous cities of Europe (London, Berlin, Paris, etc.). Faster and more comfortable than the omnibus, trams had a high cost of operation because they were pulled by horses. That is why mechanical drives were rapidly developed, with steam power in 1873, and electrical after 1881, when Siemens AG presented the electric drive at the International Electricity Exhibition in Paris.

The convenience and economy of electricity resulted in its rapid adoption once the technical problems of production and transmission of electricity were solved. The first prototype of the electric tram was developed by Russian engineer Fyodor Pirotsky. He modified a Horse tramway car to be powered by electricity instead of horses. The invention was tested in 1880 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The world's first electric tram line opened in Lichterfelde near Berlin, Germany, in 1881. It was built by Werner von Siemens. (see Berlin Straßenbahn).

History of the different types of trams

Horse drawn trams

Calcutta was developing fast as a British trading and business centre. It was a town, where transport was mainly by palanquins carried on the shoulder by men, phaetons pulled by horses, etc. In 1867, The Calcutta Corporation with financial assistance from the Government of Bengal developed mass transport. The first tramcar rolled out on 24.2.1873 on the streets of Calcutta with horse drawn coaches running on steel rails between Sealdah and Armenian Ghat via Bowbazar and Dalhousie Square, (now BBD Bag). The Corporation entered into an agreement on 2.10.1879 with 3 industrial magnates of England : Robinson Soutter, Alfred Parrsh and Dilwyn Parriih. Registered in London, the Calcutta Tramways Company came into existence in 1880 after the sanction of The Calcutta Tramways Act, 1880.

By 1902 Messrs Kilburn & Co completed the electrification of the Calcutta tramways and the first electric tramcar was introduced in the Kidderpore section.

Calcutta (now Kolkata) remains the only Indian city, which has maintained tramway system. As of now, it remains an unreliable but very comfortable & eco-friendly transport.

Steam trams

The first form of mechanical trams were operated using mobile steam engines. Generally, there were two types of steam trams. The first and most common had a small steam locomotive (called a tram engine in the UK) at the head of a line of one or more carriages, similar to a small train. Systems with such steam trams included Christchurch, New Zealand, Sydney, Australia, and other provincial city systems in New South Wales.

The other style of steam tram had the steam engine mounted in the body of the tram. The most notable system to adopt such trams was in Paris. French designed steam trams also operated in Rockhampton, in the Australian state of Queensland between 1909 and 1939. Stockholm, Sweden, also had a steam tramline at the island of Södermalm between 1887 and 1901. A major drawback on this style of tram was the limited space for the engine, meaning these trams were usually underpowered.

Cable pulled cars

The next type of tram was the cable car, which sought to reduce labor costs and the hardship on animals. Cable cars are pulled along a rail track by a continuously moving cable running at a constant speed on which individual cars stop and start by releasing and gripping this cable as required. The power to move the cable is provided at a site away from the actual operation. The first cable car line in the United States was tested in San Francisco, California, in 1873. The second city to operate cable trams was Dunedin in New Zealand in 1881. Dunedin's cable trams ceased operation in 1957.

Cable cars suffered from high infrastructure costs, since a vast and expensive system of cables, pulleys, stationary engines and vault structures between the rails had to be provided. They also require strength and skill to operate, to avoid obstructions and other cable cars. The cable had to be dropped at particular locations and the cars coast, for example when crossing another cable line. Breaks and frays in the cable, which occurred frequently, required the complete cessation of services over a cable route, while the cable was repaired. After the development of electrically-powered trams, the more costly cable car systems declined rapidly.

Cable cars were especially useful in hilly cities, partially explaining their survival in San Francisco, though the most extensive cable system in the U.S. was in Chicago, a much flatter city. The largest cable system in the world which operated in the flat city of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, had, at its peak, 592 trams running on 74 kilometres of track.

The San Francisco cable cars, though significantly reduced in number, continue to perform a regular transportation function, in addition to being a tourist attraction. Single lines also survive on hilly parts of Wellington, New Zealand and Hong Kong.

Other power sources

In some parts of the United Kingdom, other forms of power were used to power the tram. Hastings and some other tramways, for example Stockholms Spårvägar in Sweden, used petrol driven trams and Lytham St Annes used gas powered trams. Paris successfully operated trams that were powered by compressed air using the Mekarski system. In New York City, some minor lines used storage batteries rather than installing an expensive conduit current collection system in the street.

Electric trams (trolley cars)

Multiple functioning experimental electric trams were exhibited at the 1884 World Cotton Centennial World's Fair in New Orleans, Louisiana; however they were deemed as not yet adequately perfected to replace the Lamm fireless engines then propelling the St. Charles Avenue Streetcar in that city.

Electric-powered trams (trolley cars, so called for the trolley pole used to gather power from an unshielded overhead wire), were first successfully tested in service in Richmond, Virginia, in 1888, in the Richmond Union Passenger Railway built by Frank J. Sprague. There were earlier commercial installations of electric streetcars, including one in Berlin, as early as 1881 by Werner von Siemens and the company that still bears his name, and also one in Saint Petersburg, Russia, invented and tested by Fyodor Pirotsky in 1880. Another was by John Joseph Wright, brother of the famous mining entrepreneur Whitaker Wright, in Toronto in 1883. The earlier installations, however, proved difficult and/or unreliable. Siemens' line, for example, provided power through a live rail and a return rail, like a model train setup, limiting the voltage that could be used, and providing unwanted excitement to people and animals crossing the tracks. Siemens later designed his own method of current collection, this time from an overhead wire, called the bow collector. Once this had been developed his cars became equal to, if not better than, any of Sprague's cars. The first electric interurban line connecting St. Catharines and Thorold, Ontario was operated in 1887, and was considered quite successful at the time. While this line proved quite versatile as one of the earliest fully functional electric streetcar installations, it still required horse-drawn support while climbing the Niagara Escarpment and for two months of the winter when hydroelectricity was not available. This line continued service in its original form well into the 1950s.

Since Sprague's installation was the first to prove successful in all conditions, he is credited with being the inventor of the trolley car. He later developed Multiple unit control, first demonstrated in Chicago in 1897, allowing multiple cars to be coupled together and operated by a single motorman. This gave birth to the modern subway train.

Two rare but significant alternatives were conduit current collection, which was widely used in London, Washington, D.C. and New York, and the Surface Contact Collection method, used in Wolverhampton (The Lorain System) and Hastings (The Dolter Stud System), UK.

Attempts to use on-board batteries as a source of electrical power were made in the 1880s and 1890s, with unsuccessful trials conducted in (among other places) Bendigo and Adelaide in Australia.

A very famous Welsh example of a tram system was usually known as the Mumbles Train, or more formally as the Swansea and Mumbles Railway. Originally built as the Oystermouth Railway in 1804, on March 25 1807 it became the first passenger-carrying railway in the world. Converted to an overhead cable-supplied system it operated electric cars from March 2, 1929 until its closure on January 5, 1960. These were the largest tram cars built for use in Britain and could each seat 106 passengers.

Another early tram system operated from 1886 until 1930 in Appleton, Wisconsin, and is notable for being powered by the world's first hydroelectric power station, which began operating on September 30, 1882 as the Appleton Edison Electric Company.

Low floor

The latest generation of LRVs has the advantage of partial or fully low-floor design, with the floor of the vehicles only 300 to 360 mm (12-14 inches) above top of rail, a capability not found in either rapid rail transit vehicles or streetcars. This allows them to load passengers, including ones in wheelchairs, directly from low-rise platforms that are not much more than raised sidewalks. This satisfies requirements to provide access to disabled passengers without using expensive wheelchair lifts, while at the same time making boarding faster and easier for other passengers as well. The City Class LRV (Citytram) is one example of a low floored vehicle, 300 mm above rail height, with 70% of the 29 m long and 75% of the 38 m long versions low floor.

The low floor extends across the articulation. The City Class has been designed to operate around 15 m curves and climb 10% gradients, and therefore allow new systems to be built in existing urban streets without the need to demolish buildings.


Articulated trams are tram cars that consist of several sections held together by flexible joints and a round platform. Like articulated buses, they have an increased passenger capacity. These trams can be up to forty metres in length, while a regular tram has to be much shorter. With this type, a[Jacobs bogie supports the articulation between the two or more carbody sections. An articulated tram may be low floor variety or high (regular) floor variety.


Tram-train operation uses vehicles such as the Flexity Link and Regio-Citadis which are suited for use on urban tram lines, but also meet the necessary indication, power, and resistance requirements to be certified for operation on main line railways. This allows passengers to travel from suburban areas into city-centre destinations without having to change from a train to a tram when they arrive at the central station.

It has been primarily developed in Germanic countries, in particular Germany and Switzerland. Karlsruhe is a notable pioneer of the tram-train. This system may have been brought into service in the Paris area in 2005.

Cargo trams

Main article: Cargo tram

Goods have been carried on rail vehicles through the streets, particularly near docks and steelworks, since the 19th century (most evident in Weymouth), and some Belgian vicinale routes were used to haul timber. At the turn of the 21st century, a new interest has arisen in using urban tramway systems to transport goods. The motivation now is to reduce air pollution, traffic congestion and damage to road surfaces in city centres.

Model trams

Models of trams are popular in HO scale and sometimes in 1:50 scale. They typically are powered and will accept plastic figures inside. Common manufacturers are Roco and Lima (models) with many custom models being made as well. The German firm Hödl and the Austrian Halling specialize in trams in 1:87 scale.

A number of 1:76.2 scale tram models, especially kits, are made in the UK. Many of these run on 16.5mm gauge track, which is incorrect for the representation of standard (4ft 8½ins) gauge, as it represents 4ft 1½ins in 4mm (1:76.2) scale. This scale/gauge hybrid is called OO scale.

There are some Russian tram models available in 1:48 scale.

Trams in literature

One of the earliest literary references to trams occurs on the second page of Henry James's novel The Europeans:

From time to time a strange vehicle drew near to the place where they stood - such a vehicle as the lady at the window, in spite of a considerable acquaintance with human inventions, had never seen before: a huge, low, omnibus, painted in brilliant colours, and decorated apparently with jingling bells, attached to a species of groove in the pavement, through which it was dragged, with a great deal of rumbling, bouncing, and scratching, by a couple of remarkably small horses.

Published in 1878, the novel is set in the 1840s, though horse trams were not in fact introduced in Boston till the 1850s. Note how the tram's efficiency surprises the "European" visitor; how two "remarkably small" horses sufficed to draw the "huge" tramcar.

Gdansk trams figure extensively in the early stages of Günter Grass's Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum). Then in its last chapter, the novel's hero Oskar Matzerath, along with his friend Gottfried von Vittlar, steal a tram late at night from outside the Unterrath depot on the northern edge of Düsseldorf.

It is a surreal journey. Gottfried von Vittlar drives the tram through the night, south to Flingern and Haniel and then east to the suburb of Gerresheim. Meanwhile, inside, Oskar tries to rescue the half-blind Victor Weluhn (a character who had escaped from the siege of the Polish post office in Danzig at the beginning of the book and of the war) from his two green-hatted would-be executioners. Oskar deposits his briefcase, which contains Sister Dorotea's severed ring finger in a preserving jar, on the dashboard "where professional motorman put their lunchboxes". They leave the tram at the terminus, and the executioners tie Weluhn to a tree in Vittlar's mother's garden and prepare to machine-gun him. But Oskar drums, Victor sings, and together they conjure up the Polish cavalry, who spirit both victim and executioners away. Oskar asks Vittlar to take his briefcase in the tram to the police HQ in the Fürstenwall, which he does.

The latter part of this route is today served by tram no. 703 terminating at Gerresheim Stadtbahn station ("by the glassworks" as Grass notes).

[Reference: The chapter Die letzte Straßenbahn oder Anbetung eines Weckglases (The last tram or Adoration of a Preserving Jar). See page 584 of the 1959 Büchergilde Gutenberg German edition and page 571 of the 1961 Secker & Warburg edition, translated into English by Ralph Manheim]

Trolleys for Industrial Use

The word trolley is used to describe a trolley-like device running on elevated rails or suspended from a steel beam. This type of industrial trolley typically supports a electric hoist or dipping machine. They also are commonly mounted on a crane or gantry crane in shipyards or factories, or even a railcar repair shop. These trolleys run almost exclusively on railroad rail. If not, they are mounted on a steel bar track that functions exactly like railroad rail. Typical gauges are 6' or 6.5'. Another industrial trolley is a coil cart. These are ground-mounted trolleys that transfer steel coils from one place to another within a factory. These coil cart trolleys are always track mounted, whether it be rail, bar, or v-track.

Trams in popular culture

  • The Rev W. Awdry made a small Y6 tram called Toby the Tram Engine which starred in a series of books called The Railway Series along with his faithful coach, Henrietta.
  • A Streetcar Named Desire (play)
  • A Streetcar Named Desire (film)
  • The film The Italian Job features Benny Hill lewdly assisting a woman into a Turin tram
  • The central plot of the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit involves the Judge Doom, the villain, dismantling the streetcars of Los Angeles.
  • "The Trolley Song" in Meet Me in St. Louis (film) received an Academy Award.
  • The 1944 World Series was also known as the "Streetcar Series".
  • Malcolm (film) - an Australian film about a tram enthusiast who uses his inventions to pull off a bank heist.
  • In Akira Kurosawa's film Dodesukaden a mentally ill boy pretends to be a tram conductor.

See also


  1. Denver Post, Tram cuts station wagon in half, November 2, 1994
  2. American trolleys or streetcars were electrified through a single trolley wheel and pole and were grounded through the wheels and rails. The motorizing circuit must be designed to allow electrical current to flow through the undercarriage. Electrified busses with their rubber tires required dual trolleys for positive and negative anodes.
  3. Bellis, Mary. History of Streetcars and Cable Cars. Retrieved on 2007-01-10.

External links

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