26 January 2011

The Passing of the St Petersburg Tramway


Image via Wikipedia  unidentified location


I’ve always loved vehicles... cars, buses, tramways, trolleys, ferries, ships, trains, airplanes, helicopters... anything mechanical, historical, and full of implied adventure. 

And, on a silly note, tramways hold an  attraction due to their Dagwood ambiance.

Let’s take the tramway!

If you want to have a sense of a city, you need to experience its transit options... including trams.  That experience means waiting at the curb for your tram to arrive, quickly crossing traffic to your tram, grabbing a poll, and swaying with the other riders.  People pack on and usually stand, although sometimes a wooden seat is free.

Take care when getting off, as car drivers may not stop as required!

What’s a tram?  What’s a trolley?

Tramways run on rails in the city streets, get their power from a pantograph that maintains a flexible connection with an overhead electric wire, and have their speed controlled by a lever manipulated by the driver.  At some points a tram may run on a track away from the road. Trams outperform cars and buses in lifetime energy use for each passenger kilometer ridden.1 

1 Edinburgh Scotland trams 

Trolleys have a steering wheel (instead of a lever).  It usually has a trolley pole, which can disconnect from the the overhead wire.  The conductor then jumps off and with a rope makes the connection again.

Some Tram Experiences

In 1965 I remember riding an exhilarating open tramway in Oslo.  Leaning again a passenger railing, I almost feel over and out when it hit a sharp corner.  I remember the clang of the trolley gong as we eased along.

The seventh grade back in my teaching days of the ‘70s made a yearly spring trip from west Jersey to Philadelphia.  My group always saw the most of Philly, as we included a roundtrip on the tramway through the Southside Italian and Black neighborhood in our time on the town.

We’ve been on tramways also in Helsinki and Prague.  But nothing beats having them available in your own city... St Petersburg!  They are nonpolluting, run slowly, but are usually faster than surrounding car traffic on the same road. 

St Petersburg History, with a twist!

Trams were first pulled by horses in the 1800s. The first  tram electric engine in the world was installed in St Petersburg by Fyodor Pirutsky  and operating successfully throughout September 1880.  The monopoly  Horsecar Stock Company had exclusive rights to operate on St Petersburg streets and saw no need to upgrade.

In the winter of 1894, a new tram company using electric power ran on top of the ice across the Neva to and from the islands of St Petersburg.  The Horsecar Stock Company sued but the judge found that running trams on ice, but not on roads, was allowable!


Trams run on the ice of the Neva River.  Karl Bulla, Hermitage museum.

Trams lose out to the car...

Tramways compete for road space with trolleys , buses and cars.  In the USA in the 1950s, General Motors  bought many  streetcar lines to sell motors and oil to them in the short term, but it seems apparent the long range plan was to eliminate this competition to their car and bus products.

People in Smolny (Petersburg city government) and everyday citizens typically view the tramways as potential obstructions, noisy, and  a shaker of riders and the tram itself.  Since the automobile became the top priority around 1995 a large percentage of tramway track has been removed or paved over, especially in the center where the narrow streets make for difficult traffic, and also the close by buildings make echo chambers. 

Well maintained road beds, foundations, and improved tramways would greatly reduce noise and vibration.  My mother-in-law, Tonya, lives near a well constructed, faster, and relatively modern tramway line which is steady and quiet.

More pollution, more traffic problems, little transportation planning...

St Petersburg until the late 1980s had around 340 Kilometers, 211 miles, of track, the largest  length of any tramway system in the world.  Now bit by bit, year by year, it is being destroyed.  Car and bus pollution spoils the air, while car traffic flow is worse than ever.

St Petersburg thinking on tramways is going in the wrong direction!

It’s sad that St Petersburg is giving up an old but constructive technology just as parts of Europe and North America are beginning to appreciate tramways.  Let’s hope attitudes change and tramways can flourish again, at least in those parts of the city with wider roads.


St Petersburg Tramway http://erwin.bernhardt.net.nz/index.html

Let us know what you think!  Just click comments on the very next to last line of this post.






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  1. I love the trams there too!
    Are the any good vehicle museums in St Petersburg?

    if an answer is possible use riabinraider@googlemail.com

  2. Hallo!
    I have found your blog very interesting and as I understood correctly you have been living in St-Petersburg for some years?
    I am just wondering if it is not a secret of course - what do you do here? I mean - in what way you spend you time here.
    I am asking because I came to the conclusion that your Russian is not very good and I suppose you may find living here a little dull

  3. Reply from Rob
    Thank you Harry for your comment!

    St Petersburg has a railway museum at http://www.saint-petersburg.com/museums/central-railway-museum.asp

    We also have a tram museum thathas three related websites... www.pbti-company.ru
    but I am not sure it is open or accessible.

    I'll send you another email once I verify the situation at the tramway museum.

    My good wishes,


  4. Hi Anonymous!

    Yes we've been here since June 2000, and my Russian wife and I have been working on my language skills ever since! I can get around on my own at around an intermediate level.

    I spend my time reading literature, blogging, and cooking... which all keep life from getting dull!

    It's all up to how you view things, so I find with reflection that my time in the USA wasn't any better than now in Russia.

    All good wishes,


  5. Thanks for your answer
    It is really unusual - people (the Russian) always tend to leave this country.
    Bad climate... a lot of things which are bad ))
    I am sure that you have enough experience to write a book about Russia, traditions and our people

    with best regards

  6. Interesting stuff - looks like the same cycle is repeating itself. When I left the UK - Croydon was reintroducing them and Alicanate (Spain) is doing the same. Just back from Paris no sign of them there.

  7. Hi Vitaliy,

    Well, my people were part of a great wave of migration from Scotland, so I understand that some people get impatient for things to get better, or just want a better climate or more opportunity.

    I'm happy you enjoy the blog. Every 10 days or so I write on one main topic based on my experience and observation, with a lot of internet research.

    Thanks and stop by anytime!


  8. Hi Rob,

    That's interesting about Croyden and Alicante now starting tramways. Tourists love them and it speeds you past the road traffic.

    Now we need a tramway from St Petersburg to Spain, so I can stop by and say hi!

    Thanks for commenting!



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