Wednesday March 29, 2006
Glorious days of Penang’s trams
By SIOW YUEN CHING
PENANG once had an impressive local transport system. There were steam trams, horse trams, electric trams and trolleybuses.
There is even an obsolete tram-way track at the Chulia Street-Penang Road junction in inner George Town.
The 50m tramline was unearthed about two years ago during works at the junction to facilitate the replacement of old public utility cables and pipes.
Realising the significance of the discovery, the Penang Municipal Council left the tramline intact where they were found, so as not to compromise their authenticity.
Today, the tramway tracks are one of the few reminders of Penang's impressive local transport system of yesteryear.
History records have shown that George Town was one of the first urban centres in Southeast Asia to operate steam trams, horse trams, electric trams and trolleybuses.
The city also once had the smallest trolleybus in the world – a nine-seater with the size of a large private car.
According to the book on ‘Penang Trams, Trolleybuses and Railways - Municipal Transport History 1880s-1963’ by Ric Francis and Colin Ganley, these small trolleybuses were specifically built in 1934 for shuttle service from the Lower Station of the Hill Railway to Air Itam main road, about 1.6km away.
Penang's first recorded tramway and steam tram were run in the 1880s by a Mr Gardiner.
It was more of a light railway than a tramway, which ran from Weld Quay jetty to Air Itam Road with a branch to the Botanic Gardens.
When the authorities considered steam locomotives as being too dangerous to be used in town streets, horse-drawn cars were introduced to ply Magazine Road, Penang Road, Chulia Street and Weld Quay.
However, the “horse tram” fast lost its popularity among commuters due to lack of speed and safety.
The George Town Municipal electrical trams were subsequently launched in December 1905 and were reaping high profits until World War I. The war had hampered the supply of replacement parts for the vehicles.
In 1925, the first trolleybus, with a maximum of 24 passengers, started its operation from Magazine Road to Weld Quay jetty via Chulia Street.
Although the Tramways Work-shop increased the number of trams in an effort to improve their service, the company also faced intense competition from private buses.
Also known as “mosquito buses”, the private buses operated with much flexibility without regular schedules and moving as fast as a private car.
Suffering from tremendous losses over the years, the trams were eventually scrapped and replaced by trolleybuses.
By 1951, George Town was well covered by municipal trolley and motorbus services, which charged a 10-cent fare per passenger from any one point to destination or terminus.
The starting point of the routes was Victoria Pier in Weld Quay and from there the visitor can go by trolleybuses to Pulau Tikus, Bagan Jermal, Air Itam, the foot of Penang Hill, Sungai Pinang and Jelutong.
The municipal motorbuses provided supplementary services around Jelutong, Gottlieb Road and Pulau Tikus while privately owned motorbuses operated regular services beyond the municipal limits.
In 1956, the new George Town Municipal Transport board purchased five former London Tran-sport double-deckers.
However, the novelty wore off quickly and the vehicles soon became uneconomic with relatively low fares and three crewmembers onboard.
Being cast-offs from the London Transport, the double-decker buses were also disintegrating rapidly.
At the beginning of 1957, the City Council had a fleet of 55 public vehicles, comprising 41 trolleybuses and 14 diesel buses.
When the council came under the Socialist Front's control, the Transport Department under the then chairman councillor Lim Kean Siew made a change to an all diesel fleet despite having many new trolleybuses.
Starting November 1959, the trolleybuses were gradually replaced and by 1961, George Town lost its last electric vehicle when the trolleybuses passed into history.
The last runs along Jelutong route were made unceremoniously on July 31, 1961, and were quickly followed by the dismantlement of the electric wiring.
By August 1962, the only wiring left were the few pieces of overhead in Jelutong, which are now used for street lighting.