Iconic red and cream Prague trams get new lease of life in Pyongyang

Czech tram in Pyongyang, photo: www.pyongyang-metro.com

The Prague Transport Authority announced on Tuesday that the first of twenty reconditioned trams would be shipped to North Korea this week. The North Korean government are paying about 13 million crowns – that’s just over 800,000 U.S. dollars - for the second-hand trams, one of Prague’s most instantly recognisable symbols. But as Rob Cameron reports, they’re not the first Czech trams to be sent abroad, and not even the first to be sent to North Korea.

In the unlikely event you were to find yourself waiting for a tram at Pyongyang’s Mangyongdae station, you might well be surprised to see a Czech tram trundling along the rails towards you. But Czechs trams have long been a feature of life in the North Korean capital. The first – a fleet of new T4 trams - arrived in 1991, in time for Kim Il Sung’s 79th birthday. (The T4 is the chunky, rather boxlike model from the 1990s that runs on the number 3 line in Prague, for example.)

But the latest consignment heading for Pyongyang this week are reconditioned T3s, the older, iconic red and cream trams that date from the 1960s. The T3s were first produced by the CKD Tatra Smíchov factory in Prague (the T stands for Tatra). In all, a staggering 14,000 T3s were produced in Smichov and exported all over the Soviet bloc, as part of the Comecon system of allocating entire industries to individual communist countries.

Today you’ll see variations of the T3 throughout the world, from Sarajevo to Tashkent. Ondřej Pečený is the spokesman for the Prague Transport Authority.

“I think the T3 is the most remarkable tram in all post-communist countries anywhere in Europe and also in other cities of the former communist bloc. It was quite a good product for its day, and the economies of the Soviet bloc were centrally-planned, so this is why they are so common in post-communist countries.”

In fact there are a number of T3s already operating in Pyongyang – second-hand T3s from the former East Germany that were shipped off to North Korea when they were taken out of service. But as the T3 gets a new lease of life in Pyongyang, it will gradually become less common here in Prague. The Transport Authority is slowly phasing old the creaky old T3s and replacing them with newer models, the latest designed by Porsche.

Oh, just one last word of warning about using Pyongyang’s public transport system. Whilst researching this article I came across the following, rather alarming piece of (albeit unsubstantiated) information on Wikipedia: “There is a 150km-long network of trolleybuses in Pyongyang,” it says. “But tourists have heard that few locals use them due to the high and frequent risk of electrocution.”