Friday, 18 February 2011

Trams under the rain, Lisbon

After negotiating the steep, narrow and winding streets of the Mouraria and Alfama districts, tram 558 has an easy run through Baixa, the lower part of the Portuguese capital rebuilt to a grid pattern after the 1755 earthquake. On that rainy evening, it was on the last stretch of its circular journey to Praça Figueira.

The first tram service, pulled by mules, opened to passengers in November 1873. Over the following years, the Companhia Carris de Ferro de Lisboa (Carris, the municipal operator of transport services since then) extended the original line and opened new ones but animal traction limited operations to the flat parts of the city. From 1884 several funiculars (Lavra, Glória and Bica) and the Santa Justa lift began serving some of the hills around the centre. Five years later steam traction was introduced between Cais do Sodré and Belém, along the bank of the River Tagus. In the 1890s three cable tram lines were opened in the hillier part of Lisbon. However it was only with the introduction of electric tramways in 1901 that most natural obstacles were overcome and over the following six years, the network expanded rapidly. The 1910s and 1920s witnessed few developments, with the exception of the replacement of the cable trams, the relaying of some lines, and the extension to the suburbs of a couple of lines. The most important change took place on July 1, 1928, when Portugal switched from left-hand to right-hand drive. By then the trams supplied by Brill during the first decade of the century were showing their age and Carris took the decision to renew almost entirely its fleet. In the 1930s the population of Lisbon grew at a rapid rate and new lines were built to serve the new suburbs. Actually the period 1929-1960 corresponds to the golden age of tramways in Lisbon. The first regular bus services were introduced in 1944 but at least in the beginning they complemented rather than competed with the trams. It was the inauguration of the first subway line in 1959 that dealt a serious blow to the tram network. Indeed the two branches of the subway competed directly with two of the four north-south lines at the very heart of the tram network. These became rapidly redundant and were closed although two new transversal lines were built to feed the subway. In other parts of the city throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, road improvement schemes led to the replacement of tramways by buses.
The "Carnation Revolution" of 1974 and the sudden rise of oil prices in the second half of the 1970s halted temporarily the decline of the tram network. The growth of the capital was another element. To keep people moving, Carris needed all the resources it had at the time, including its ageing trams.
However in 1990 Carris decided to close almost entirely its tram network. Several reasons explain this move. As standards of living improved, many passengers switched from public forms of transport to cars. At the same time, the authorities had not anticipated the growth of traffic on the roads and as a result, the main thoroughfares of Lisbon became some of the most congested in Europe. Stuck in traffic, tramways were unable to move. Additionally improvements in the design of motors made buses cheaper to run.
Nowadays only five tram routes are still in service. While modern articulated trams run on route 15, the other four, 12, 18, 25 and 28, are operated by historic vehicles built in the 1930s and renovated in 1995-96. These small yellow and white trams (when they aren't covered with ads) provide more than just an essential service for the inhabitants of the higher parts of Lisbon (but not necessarily an adequate one since only 45 were restored and some are regularly out of service): they have become one of the city's main attractions.

Route 28 is certainly the most popular one as it passes by or near some of the city's most famous sights and districts, including from east to west the Graça viewpoint, the castle of São Jorge, the Alfama, the Santa Luzia viewpoint, the Cathedral, Baixa, the Bairro Alto, the Portuguese parliament and the Basílica da Estrela. It is also, with its steep climbs followed by abrupt descents, the most spectacular journey.

A packed tram on route 28, on its short flat run along
an empty and wet Rua da Conceição. At the corner with
Rua dos Fanqueiros, shortly after a downhill ride
from the Cathedral, it crosses the tracks of route 15.
Soon it will take its passengers uphill towards the Bairro Alto.

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