Prague marks 120 years of the electric tram

Letná-Straßenbahn

It was exactly 120 years ago this week that Praguers got their first ride in an electric tram. Today they are a staple of the city’s hilly streets and state-of-the-art wagons have long been one of the country’s best products. To mark the occasion and remind the city what its first trams were like, the National Technical Museum has opened up its garage and sent a fleet of historic trams back out into the traffic.

The first electric tram
First out of the station on Monday’s procession was museum wagon 500, which is only out on the streets of Prague on special occasions. About the only similarities it has to a modern tram are the presence of wheels and the colours – gold and red, taken from the city’s coat of arms. I’ll leave the rest of the description to Pavel Fojtík, the head of the archive of the Prague Public Transit Company.

"The first trams in Prague were simple, open carriages without walls. They were closed in the front in a way but there was no glass. So the driver was subjected to every kind of discomfort possible. When it rained, it rained into the tram as well, which was also one of the reasons that these first electric trams were never operated in the winter months."

František Křižík in front of the first electric tram
The first electric trams went into operation in Prague on July 18, 1891, on the first electric tracks in the country. The original, single-track line traversed a mere 800 metres beginning at today’s technical museum, where there was a large wooden depot that also served as a waiting room for passengers. It was the fulfilment of a dream of František Křižík’s, the famous Czech engineer who had invented the arc lamp. Intended as a sign of technological prowess, it was launched at a jubilee exhibition marking mark 100 years of Czech industry and invention.

That first line aroused a lot of curious attention as an attraction, and two years later it was even extended by another 700 metres, but there simply was not the population in the area to make its running practical. After ten years of seasonal operation it had ferried only half a million passengers. But the real purpose of Křižík’s new company wasn’t practical but promotional.

"It was a kind of provocation to get Prague moving, that first line. As soon as Křižík’s ideas about an electric track on Letná became known, Prague started considering the idea that it could build a network of electric tracks, but it took the city many long years."

Pavel Fojtík, photo: Pražské tramvaje / Prague Trams
Křižík was soon asked to build a line connecting Prague with the districts of Libeň and Vysočany. Another line soon appeared between the independent townships of Královské Vinohrady and Žižkov. But still the brunt of Prague’s traffic would be borne by horse-drawn vehicles for almost 15 more years, when the city began to monopolise the electric tram and bus business. Looking at their frequently malfunctioning vehicles back then, could the city have had any idea how busy the network would eventually become? Pavel Fojtík again:

The line between the independent townships of Královské Vinohrady and Žižkov, photo: CTK
“All told, between July 18, 1891 and the end of 2010, all those electric trams have carried more than 36 billion passengers. The trams of Prague’s city transit authority have travelled over 5.7 billion kilometres. When I count that up, it’s 15,000 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon."

The Prague Public Transit Company currently has a fleet of almost a thousand trams, 600 of which travel 33 routes a day. The amount of track is ten times what it was one hundred years ago, with 538 kilometres of track. Of the original track nothing remains, except for a small piece hidden in the grass near the entrance to Stromovka park, where František Křižík laid the ground for the future of Prague transit.