Budapest, the famed Hungarian city is well-known for world-famous opera houses, relaxing baths, local brews, its imposing Parliament Building and of course, the historical Chain Bridge. But what really gets the people of Budapest moving, is the impeccable punctuality of the city’s tram network. It’s ages old, still functional and very fascinating. So sit back and buckle up for one of the most interesting history lessons in the world of trams…
WORDS BY- AMOG
To talk about the tram network of Budapest, we have to go back some 120 years. And Budapest from that long ago was very different from the Budapest that we see now. Back then, from the tram windows, the residents would have seen the Great Boulevard under construction, the House of Parliament growing out of the earth on the right side bank of the River Danube, new bridges spanning over the River to connect Buda and Pest or the birth of the first underground railway of the continent. There were times when trams were kept count of as an extremely modern means of transportation, and a very long time ago, carts pulled by horses were the coolest vehicles in Budapest on their cobbled streets.
Budapest came into existence in 1873 with the amalgamation of Buda, Pest and Óbuda after the Austro-Hungarian Agreement of Compromise. By the end of the 19th
century, Budapest became Europe’s youngest metropolis. The number of its residences tripled, the number of its buildings doubled. During the years of the amalgamation, the construction of the Margaret Bridge, the second bridge over the Danube, had already started making impressive progress.
With the merger of Buda and Pest, Budapest Public Iron Road Company was born and they launched a horse tramway service on the bridge a year later. In 1866, the streets of Pest were one of the first in the world to establish horse tramway traffic. By 1885, a network of as many as 15 horse tramway lines was operated.
Different flags on the carriages distinguished the different lines. As time passed, the omnibuses and horse tramways were not enough in satisfying the ever-increasing travel demands in the quickly growing capital.
The electric tramcars manufactured by Siemens created a great sensation. Due to their success, another public tramway system was ordered and built in May 1882 near Berlin. The great global electrification wave began only in the 1890s, so it you won’t be wrong in concluding that the Budapest tramway led this revolution.
That’s when the city decided to high engineers to set up the construction of a public railroad with carriages of electric traction in the city. The city issued permission for the establishment of a test-line and in September 1887, the Ministry of Commerce and Transport began the licensing process. As the Municipal Council of Public Projects did not approve the construction of overhead catenaries in the inner city, Siemens developed a conduit system for them.
It was hardly seven years or so since the first public electric tramway line had been inaugurated in May 1881 at the Gross-Lichterfelde, near Berlin. The electric tramcars manufactured by Siemens created a great sensation. Due to their success, another public tramway system was ordered and built in May 1882 near Berlin. The great global electrification wave began only in the 1890s, so it you won’t be wrong in concluding that the Budapest tramway led this revolution.
And on 1st October 1887, the Ministry issued the permission for the 1 km long tram test-line between Nyugati Railway Station and Király Street. By the end of the following month, it had already been put into operation. On the next Monday, at around 2:30 in the afternoon, the first tram rolled out on to the street amongst great cheer and excitement of the people.
A temporary tram depot was built in front of the Nyugati Railway Station. On the 1000 mm gauge track, two motor carriages and a tow-car carried the passengers. The speed limit was set to 10 km/hour, but Andrássy Street had to be crossed at even a lower speed. And they took this really low speed limit very seriously.
A mounted policeman was posted there to watch if this speed limit was kept. After dark, like most vehicles, a white lamp had to be lit at the front of the train and a red lamp at the rear.
In 1888 Mór Balázs, Lindheim & Partner and Siemens et Halske founded Budapesti Városi Vasút, BVV or better known as Budapest City Rail Road Co. everywhere else. The first normal gauge line of Budapest which was 1435 mm in width was put in operation on the route of Egyetem Square – Stáció Street – Köztemető Street. In the same year they handed over a line in Podmaniczky Street, too. And after its successful execution, BVV demolished the track of the test-railway on the Great Boulevard and built a normal gauge track on its place. In the following year the Company under the name of Budapesti Villamos Városi Vasút Rt. i.e. BVVV (Budapest Electric City Railway Ltd.) continued its activity. This Company put the first steam-propelled public railway in operation in 1891 on the route of Rókus Hospital – Salgótarjáni Street – Újköztemető.
This was the birth of the Budapest tramway. At the beginning of the 20th Century, there were as many as seven tramway companies in the streets of Budapest. They proved to bring about healthy competition in terms of prices and service that in turn, helped the passengers. In the last years of World War I, there were 1072 electric railroad vehicles in operation in Budapest and on its outskirts. This rolling stock carried more than 382 million passengers in 1918.
In the era between the two world wars a unified number system on the vehicles was introduced. As the increasing passenger traffic created a growing demand, even in the first years a number of vehicles gone obsolete were modernized and new vehicles were purchased. In the 1930s, development of the maintenance plants, depots and traffic operation plants took place together with the modernization of the traffic operation technology and the network, as well. The economic crisis, the financial state of the country then World War II put off the realization of the great conceptions. During the siege of Budapest – when the Soviet army and the German Wermacht were fighting a desperate battle in the streets of Budapest – the rolling stock, the track network and the facilities suffered enormous damages. 84 per cent of the overhead line network was destroyed. In 1962 new articulated test vehicles were developed from UV types 3235 and 3258. Based on a programme in the 1950s, the old wooden frames of the tramcars were changed to steel frames.
During the street fights of the revolution of 1956, more than two thirds of the overhead lines were destroyed, 109 tramcars were damaged or became completely useless. Ten years after the end of World War II, the streets and transport of Budapest were still in a deplorable state.
Today BKV Ltd. is operating in the form of a privately held corporation. The rolling stock of the tram mode consists of 120 Ganz type, articulated cars, 1 Hungaroplan type, 40 Combinos, 76 TW 6000 Hannover tramcars, 240+80 i.e. 320 vehicles of Tatra T5C5 and T5C5K types are in operation in passenger transport on 24 routes.
If you were to ever visit, you’d still see these bright yellow trams passing through the city. And if you are a curious cat, you can head to one of their many museums to take a look at all the types of trams that lined the city in the yesteryears.