For the Love of TRAMS, by Mahen Bala

  • 2021/11/1
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For the Love of TRAMS
by Mahen Bala

Trams rarely elicit the same excitement as nostalgic steam locomotives or futuristic bullet trains. If the romance of train travel is to depart from one reality and arrive in another – a physical and emotional journey of change – trams offer a completely opposite experience. It treads familiar ground with little promise of adventure, moving fast enough to outrace cyclists, but slow enough to not threaten pedestrians. Historically, trams came in many shapes and sizes, and with equally varied motive systems; horse, human power, steam, cable, diesel, gas, electric and more recently, hydrogen. In the modern era, trams are synonymous with light rail systems, designed for short distance urban transportation as opposed to heavy rail which covers inter-city long distance and/or carry heavy freight. Its closest modern evolution would be the Light Rail Transit (LRT) system.

Tramways have been running in Asia for a long time. They were the dominant mode of urban transportation at the start of the 20th century for its low upfront cost, flexibility in setting and changing routes, and inexpensive fares. Its popularity gradually declined by the 1930’s and was almost completely gone by the 1960s due to post-war economic growth, modernisation of lifestyle and economic activities in city centres. Today, only a few legacy tramways remain operational in India, Hong Kong, China, and Japan.

Tramway systems typically exhibit a high degree of localisation, with each stop having some kind of social, cultural or economic importance. It is this localized use and ambition that allows us to ‘read’ it as an expression of social values within a particular city. The idea of observing the value of light rail beyond the usual economic markers of ridership and profit was one of the key points I picked up from my meeting with Prof Kiyohito Utsunomiya from the Faculty of Economics, Kansai University. Among his noted publications are studies on the appeal of light rail transit (2008) and on the social capital of local public transportation in Japan (2016, 2018).

A closer to ground-level perspective allows for a different observation:

▶ lively, positive interior: Anyone who has ever been in a tram will understand the unmistakable liveliness to it all. The bustle of traffic and life outside seeps in and mixes with chatter and the intimacy of close proximity, creating a strange sense of comfort, as if we are all in this together, whatever this may mean. Perhaps a sense of belonging?

▶ ease of navigation: This point is linked to high accessibility, but it explores the idea of never really losing your way for two reasons. The environment is always visible making it easy to see where the tram is headed, and unlike buses turning into smaller lanes intersections etc, the path of a tram is fixed. And if you make a mistake, simply get off and change platforms to go the other way. If you miss one car, the next one comes rolling in within a few minutes.

▶ highly accessible stops: being able to simply walk onto barrier-free, street-level platforms make it feel seamless, as if it intimately woven into the fabric of the city. Additionally, the trams themselves are simple to use, with the implementation of simple payment systems (ex: SuiCa card) allowing people to use the system without worry. One example is the flat rate of 120¥ in Nagasaki regardless of distance travelled.

▶ sightseeing: The primary function of trams is to facilitate the movement of pedestrians throughout the city. This makes it very suitable for tourists to experience the city as if they were a moving mechanism of the city itself, grinding and slipping between streets, moving from one boundary to the other. As mentioned earlier, the stops are typically gateways into a different chapter of a city’s narrative. They allow us to understand movement of people and capital; between the historic quarter and new townships, from ports to city centres, and sub-urban residential areas to commercial districts.

▶ the human connection: Now this might come across as a trivial point, but on trams people can see each other as they move between spaces. Passengers are never detached from the physical and social landscape. I remember seeing locals in residential areas, waving at their friends inside the tram as it went past them. The same goes for the people operating these trams. In some larger trams there is a driver in the front and a conductor at the back. It is common to see senior citizens quietly counting their fare before handing over a fistful of coins to the conductor who accepts it with a smile and a slight bow. They know they are in good hands. When the tram makes a stop, the conductor parks himself at the back entrance to make sure passengers disembark without issues. He thanks every passenger as they tap out and they reply with a smile. The driver waits for his signal to know when it is safe to move again.

▶ high visibility and visual charm: Unlike subway stations that are typically underground and therefore invisible, trams are on ground level. Station platforms and the sight of passengers getting on and off adds to the natural cycle of the cityscape. The same applies to the coming and going of the trams themselves. In both cities, I would indulge in the simple joy of sitting and watching the seemingly never-ending trams, each one a different design from a different era.

On a concluding note, the assessment of the value or benefits of any railway system, particularly one that is deeply integrated into the urban transportation network, must also take into account intangible, unquantifiable social values. Specifically, these are values embedded and expressed in daily life as culture. My observations on the social benefit of tramways is located within a larger study of the relationship between railway heritage and the Japanese people. As outlined earlier, it offers an explanation on how and why the railways, particularly rural lines and light railways, plays such an important part in creating a sense of belonging for the people of Japan.


Mahen Bala
Mahen Bala is a Malaysian documentarian and visual artist. His work deals with themes of memory, longing and social history. In 2018, he published ‘Postcards from the South’, a comprehensive documentation of memory and history of the Malaysian railways. In 2020 he completed a Fellowship with the Japan Foundation Asia Center, investigating the relationship between people and railway heritage in Indonesia and Japan.