Tramways and Trolleybuses

One of the later-model trams in Moscow. Nevertheless, the vehicle is by and large quite similar to other trams in Moscow and those elsewhere.

As I studied the Russian language my freshman year, I ran across a chapter in our textbook about how to talk about different modes of transit. A curious one, I thought, was the tramvay, somewhat unhelpfully translated as “tramway.” My professor explained that perhaps “streetcar” was a more useful translation, though even this left me a bit fuzzy on exactly what this tramvay was.

Upon arriving in Moscow, it quickly became clear to me just what the word was intended to mean. The tramvay is a vehicle that runs on rails embedded within the street (with the exception of a few dedicated right-of-ways in places). Usually they are one- or two-car trains powered by overhead catenaries. These serve as the heaviest-duty surface transport in both Moscow and St. Petersburg, eclipsed only by metro systems in speed and capacity. In smaller cities such as Tula, which lack subway systems, they are the primary means of long-distance intra-urban transit.

Nevertheless, even in Moscow the tram network is extensive: some 482 kilometers of lines (more than twice the length of Metro lines). (Khorovich 124) Further, (as of 1984) there were 110 cities in the Soviet Union served by trams, compared to only 10 with subway systems. (Kaple 39) One might consider the development of tramways as a parallel with the development of subway systems: they both represented an improvement in efficiency and capacity over buses or individual cars, while simultaneously decreasing pollution emitted (a major goal of Soviet transit planning, see White 9), and so, it is hardly surprising that the Soviet planners invested so heavily in them.

A typical Russian/Soviet trolleybus running in Moscow

Nevertheless, the construction of rails does signify a substantial upfront cost in constructing tramways, and so many former Soviet cities developed trolleybus systems instead of (or in addition to) trams. Trolleybuses run on electricity from catenaries (sometimes sharing these with trams running on the same road), but are otherwise quite similar in appearance to conventional city buses. This gives them the advantage of being able to share the same roads used by cars and buses, but the increased efficiency and reduced emissions of trams.

Despite these advantages, though especially in cities that have metro systems and are less dependent on trams, the overall ridership is decreasing steadily, and has been doing so since well before the demise of the Soviet Union. Even then, they were often in poor repair, overcrowded, improperly ventilated, and suffered from frequent breakdowns and derailments. Moreover, spare parts were insufficiently provided to municipalities, repair tools were often lacking, and vehicle designs obsolete more than twenty years ago. (Morton 189–181)

In the post-Communism era, there have been some attempts to modernize tram service. For example, in 2005, St. Petersburg tram service was able to turn a profit for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, helped in part by the construction of low-floor trams and new sections of tram line. Nevertheless, prospects for St. Petersburg trams seem bleak: the increasing automobile traffic is causing ever-increasing delays, the existing tram network is in dire need of improvement and preventative maintenance (which is next to impossible to carry out due to constant traffic and a lack of alternate tram lines), some critical sections of tram line have been closed to make way for car traffic, and derailments and breakdowns are increasingly common. (Walden 183–185)

These data seem to be confirmed by what I saw in Moscow and St. Petersburg: trams were most often nearly vacant, were quite often stuck in traffic, and seemed to be in a poor state of repair, usually in need of a new coat of paint. Much the same was true of trolleybuses, which were even more likely to be jammed between other vehicles, and generally seemed to be an unpopular form of transport.

A Tula tram, representative of the rather poor condition of most of the public transit vehicles in that city.

In Tula, trams and trolleybuses seemed more widely utilized, probably due to the lack of alternative forms of transit; their mechanical state, however, seemed even worse, making me wonder what the future of transportation in Tula was likely to be, given what seems to be a distinct lack of funding for transit that the residents rely on heavily.