It’s been more than 110 years since Hong Kong Tramways first rolled out its electric trains on the streets of Hong Kong island in 1904.
Connecting the eastern and western sides of the island, the mass transport system has witnessed the city’s transformation from a local port to a cosmopolitan city and international financial center.
The tram, aside from being one of the earliest forms of mass transport in the territory, has also become a tourist attraction.
Though much faster mass transport systems have emerged, and some people now consider it a slow, antiquated vehicle unfit for the frenzied pace of life in a modern metropolis, it remains a part of our living heritage.
We should be proud of it, and maintain it.
So it comes as quite a shock to learn that a consultancy firm called Intellects Consultancy Limited is urging the Town Planning Board to remove the trams from the streets of Central to ease the traffic congestion in the district.
While the firm is not suggesting that the entire tramway operation be terminated, its proposal to cut its service line would lose its role as a transport system linking the eastern and western ends of the island.
Many observers believe that the suggestion made by Intellects Consultancy is groundless since the main reason for the traffic congestion in Central is the congregation of private and business vehicles in the central business district as well as the rising number of public buses that enter the area.
In fact, the tramway has become a victim of traffic congestion as cars and buses often occupy its tracks, obstructing its routes and delaying its service.
According to the consultancy firm’s submission, the tramway’s function of linking the east and west of the island has been taken over by the MTR since it inaugurated its Island Line.
It also noted that the tramways’ tracks and stops occupy around 30 percent of the road of Des Voeux Road in Central.
Therefore, removing the tramways from the streets of the central business district would greatly enhance the transport efficiency of the road from Admiralty to Central.
The tramway’s continued existence has been challenged since the Hong Kong government adopted a “railway first” policy, which makes the MTR the city’s dominant mode of mass transport.
The tramway has been suffering a steady decline in patronage, with the number of passengers declining by 10 percent to an average of 180,000 a day since the MTR West Island Line opened two months ago.
But amid the serious challenge posed by the MTR and other transport systems, the tramway company, which has been acquired by Paris-based Veolia Transport, continues to seek ways to improve its service and efficiency.
Such initiatives would be for naught if the government continued to pursue a mass transport policy that would allow the unchecked growth in the number of vehicles in the central business district and take the tramways out of the streets.
The least that urban planners could do is allow the tramways to use its own tracks and not be blocked by motor vehicles that can easily gain right of way.
The Hong Kong Tramways is facing the same hurdles confronting the car-hire platform Uber, whose innovative business model is being hindered by a government that refuses to change its mindset.
For example, Tramways suggested that it be allowed to build additional tracks in selected portions of the road in Admiralty and Causeway Bay to ease traffic congestion during peak hours. But the proposal was cold-shouldered by the government who saw no urgent need for such an arrangement.
The proposal of Intellects Consultancy regarding the tramways may not represent government policy, but the fact remains that the government continues to neglect the development of the tram system.
This, despite the fact that the tramway is now owned by a French company with capital commitment to improve its services and expand its business to other districts.
Hong Kong Tramways, for example, suggested building an environment-friendly streetcar system in the East Kowloon commercial district and the newly developed Kai Tak district, noting that the fare could be as low as HK3 for a single journey to break even.
However, the government has rejected the proposals, noting that the existing Kwun Tong and Kowloon Bay are highly developed districts and the available space in the existing road network in these districts is already very limited.
As such, it said, building a tramway system in these districts would seriously affect other road users.
But what the government is most concerned about is that the tramway may not be able to bring in passengers for its MTR system.
Last year the Development Bureau said “connecting an at-grade level system to the existing elevated MTR stations at Kwun Tong and Kowloon Bay would be difficult and make it highly inconvenient for passengers to interchange between the two systems and, hence, undermine the overall accessibility of the central business district in Kowloon East”.
The official response indicated that the government has no plans to extend the tramways beyond Hong Kong Island, and, in fact, it may use the consultancy firm’s recommendations to put pressure on Hong Kong Tramway to scale down its operation.
Hong Kong people should voice out their opposition to this slow but steady effort to strangle the business of Hong Kong Tramways.
It is not out of nostalgia or sentimentality that we should preserve one of our city’s oldest and still viable means of transport, but out of respect for our heritage.
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