This January, just four years starting operations, Tram Line 1 in the southern city of Zhuhai officially suspended services. The line was recording fewer than 3,000 passenger journeys per day and its per-kilometer daily ridership was less than one-twentieth of planners’ expected figure. At a May hearing, only one of the 16 specially appointed panel members voted in favor of preserving the streetcar. It is now set to be the first — though possibly not the last — reform-era tram project to be dismantled in China.
China’s first tramline opened in Beijing in 1899. In the ensuing years, trams appeared on the streets of major cities across the country, including Tianjin, Shanghai, Fushun, and Dalian. Their high fare prices and slow speeds, however, gradually alienated riders. Over the course of the second half of the 20th century, most tram systems were phased out of operation in favor of buses, bicycles, and private cars. Eventually, only two streetcars, in the northeastern cities of Dalian and Changchun, respectively, remained in use.
But trams have made a comeback in recent years. After China’s central planning authorities instituted new controls on costly subway projects in 2018, urban planners in many cities have embraced streetcars as a less expensive, easier to build alternative form of mass transit. At present, 22 cities on the Chinese mainland have tramlines, most of them built after 2010, and more than 10 lines are under construction nationwide. Reflecting on the experiences of Zhuhai and other cities is crucial when planning future streetcar projects and investing in urban infrastructure.
In Zhuhai, it didn’t take long for the tram line to become a financial burden on the local government. Stretched over 9 kilometers and 14 stations, Tram Line 1 cost 2.6 billion yuan ($402 million) to build. After opening to the public in 2017, annual maintenance costs over the ensuing three years averaged 91 million yuan, offset by ticket revenue of just 1 million yuan a year. Even after receiving an infusion of over 170 million yuan in public funds, the line was still far from breaking even.
The route’s troubles were in part a natural outcome of inappropriate planning. The line was installed along one of the city’s main roads, and population density along the line was too low to make it financially sustainable. And with just one line, the tram couldn’t benefit from the “network effect” of public transit or take passengers elsewhere in the city. Worse, because it did not have exclusive right of way, it needed to wait at traffic lights like other vehicles, failing to meet passenger expectations for a system occupying already limited road resources.
The Zhuhai tramline’s implementation of new technologies was another factor in its downfall. Originally touted as one of the project’s strengths, the ground-level power supply technology made by Ansaldo STS was plagued by problems, and caused several injuries as a result of electricity leakages. In 2020, after three years of operation, the failure rate of the power supply system had risen to nearly three times the industry standard.
A tram in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, Nov. 17, 2019. 500px/People Visual
These issues are not unique to Zhuhai. Tram systems in some Chinese cities fail to comprehensively consider either urban land use plans or interlinks with other forms of transportation. This makes it easy for cities to fall into the same trap as Zhuhai, investing billions into projects that will never recoup their costs.
Technological issues have also affected tramlines in other cities. The construction and operation of modern trams in China generally relies on technology from overseas, and local staff sometimes struggle to master the core technologies and lack experience maintaining their components. This problem has no easy solution, as domestic tram technology has not yet reached a mature stage of development. Currently, the northeastern city of Shenyang is the only city in China that has adopted domestically developed and manufactured trams.
Meanwhile, there is also a lack of national standards guiding the design, construction, and operation of tram systems. Although the central government issued a document on “Basic Conditions for the Trial Operation of Urban Rail Transit” in 2013 and some regions have outlined construction standards to serve as a reference, there are no systematic standards for the tram industry at the national level, which increases cities’ risk exposure during both the construction process and the operation phase.
The failure of Zhuhai’s tram project may put the brakes on the development of China’s tram industry, at least for now. Other cities will likely review their transport plans and instead shift resources to alternative modes of transit, including car-centric freeways. But the problem is not so much trams as it is their application. While freeways are more mature, they also pollute more, reduce demand for public transport, and sever the organic links between different parts of a city.
And while trams have low traffic volume compared to some other forms of public transit, such as subways, they are easier and less costly to build, while also being environmentally friendly. These features make trams suitable for use in small- and medium-sized cities and suburban areas, which have a need for rail transit but are either barred by regulations from building subways or lack the funds to do so.
The tram systems in the eastern city of Huai’an and Shenzhen’s Longhua District offer examples of how a successful Chinese tram network might look. Huai’an, a third-tier city in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, has a 20-kilometer tram route with 23 stops that connects the city’s business, commercial, and administrative centers. Benefitting from its placement, the total passenger flow of the tramline exceeded 10 million in 2019, with an average of 27,000 passenger journeys per day — more than nine times the ridership of the tram in Zhuhai.
Longhua District’s trams, on the other hand, function more as an extension of Shenzhen’s already vast public transport network. Comprised of two lines stretching a total of 11.7 kilometers, it connects Shenzhen’s Metro Line 4 with the densely populated suburbs in the surrounding area. Just one link in the city’s “large-volume subway, medium-volume tram, and low-volume bus” transit strategy, it was carrying an average of 31,000 passengers a day as of August 2020.
As China ramps up investment in green transportation, the examples of Huai’an and Longhua show that trams can work in Chinese cities of nearly all sizes. But if this success is to be replicated elsewhere, local governments and residents first need to properly understand the applications of tram technology, as well as how a potential tram network fits into the city’s broader transportation strategy. Then, those in charge of the system should focus on acquiring equipment and technology which is mature and safe, rather than flashy and expensive, in order to prevent incidents that endanger public safety and affect rider confidence.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: A tram in operation in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, Sept. 17, 2020. Zhao Yanxiong/Southern Metropolis Daily/People Visual)