For 113 years, wood-framed, double-deck trams — affectionately known as “ding-ding” trams for the sound of their bells — have clattered through Hong Kong’s urban canyons. Now, they’re getting a do-it-yourself upgrade, making them quite possibly the only artisanal tram system in the world.

As the senior engineering manager for Hong Kong Tramways, Steven Chan’s job is to replace each of the 161 vehicles with new, aluminium-bodied trams that are lighter, faster and longer-lasting — all while looking like they have for more than a century. The new trams, which have been gradually rolling into service since 2012, are built entirely by hand, using DIY equipment and homespun techniques.

As he walks through the Whitty Street Tram Depot, pointing out decades-old bending machines and jerry-rigged wheel cutters, Chan seems like the happiest man in Hong Kong. “The tram is my laboratory”, he says, grinning.

These trams are something of a Hong Kong treasure — and the city’s residents see them as a souvenir of its history. This urban centre has developed at a ferocious pace, and the scarcity of land in its central districts means that many plots have been redeveloped four or five times in the last century. The trams are some of the few visible links to the past.

Last year, when retired town planner Sit Kwok-keung proposed to the Town Planning Board that the “outdated” trams be scrapped in order to improve traffic flow, many citizens were apoplectic. The board was flooded with nearly 22,000 letters in support of preserving the trams. It ultimately rejected Sit’s proposal.

Gallery images courtesy Christopher DeWolf

What’s more, in 2000, the tram company unveiled a new, more streamlined tram called the Millennium model, which ditched the classic design’s open-air second level and defiantly angular shape for a sleekly enclosed front end and rounded edges. People hated it. “They thought it looked like a bus,” says Emmanuel Vivant, the tram company’s managing director. He sees it as a “warning sign” that Hongkongers see the tram not just as a way to get around, but as a piece of the city’s heritage.

This is no novelty operation for tourists, either. Hong Kong’s tram system includes six routes, 120 stations and 30 kilometres of tramway track, carrying 180,000 passengers each day, many of them drawn by the dirt-cheap fare of HK$2.30 (20p) — about a tenth the price of a cup of black coffee in Hong Kong’s central business district.

What makes the ding-ding trams different from other “heritage” transit systems of the world, which tend to be tourist-serving novelties — think San Francisco’s cable cars — is that locals actually use the Hong Kong trams.

So, given all of those factors, it was never an option for Hong Kong Tramways to buy its vehicles from Bombardier, Alstom, Siemens, or any of the other huge companies that dominate the public transport market. City leaders wanted to ensure this Hong Kong icon would be made in Hong Kong.

“It’s a small series, it’s customised, so it would be much more expensive than what we would be able to do in house”, says Vivant. Plus: “There is no better heritage tram builder in the world than us, so why not do it ourselves?”

The system first opened in 1903, with a single track that ran from the Kennedy Town on the west end of Hong Kong Island to Causeway Bay in the east. The line was soon extended to Shau Kei Wan, a fishing village on the island’s far eastern edge. By 1912, demand was high enough that British-made double-decker trams were introduced.

When the Japanese invaded and occupied Hong Kong between 1941 and 1945, they left the tram system in ruins. The end of the war provided an opportunity to rebuild the network with double tracks and new trams that were designed and built in Hong Kong.

These 1950s-era trams are the same in form as those in operation today, with doors on each end, two narrow staircases and windows that can be opened for ventilation. Generations of Hongkongers can recall sitting in the front seat of the tram’s upper deck, wind blowing through their hair as they rumble through the city’s neon-lit streets.

Over the years, the old trams were becoming increasingly unreliable, with teakwood frames that required replacement every seven years and heavy DC motors that drivers said were clunky to operate. In 2010, the company decided to do everything from scratch. It was Chan, who started his career as an aircraft mechanic before joining the tram company in 1996, who drew up the plans to rebuild the trams without outside help.

“That’s the only thing left”, he says, pointing to a bare chassis parked in the tram depot. Nearby, wood-framed trams sat in various stages of disassembly. Walking over to a bare tram face lying on its side, Chan explains how the new vehicles, known as Signature model trams, are assembled.

First, a team of five people takes apart the tram piece by piece and installs new lightweight AC motors on the chassis. Another five workers cut aluminium to make the frame. Next comes the electrical and mechanical work, followed by the installation of seats, stairs and windows. The whole process takes about 10 weeks. “In a year we should be able to produce 12 to 15 trams”, says Chan. “We’ve made 54 so far.”

The new process required engineering ingenuity. The tram’s low fares mean revenues are modest, so Chan had to keep costs down. He adapted sometimes ancient machinery, like a 1920s-era Scottish machine that makes tram wheels, which he turned into a more accurate, computer programmable CNC cutter, increasing the lifespan of a wheel from seven months to 24. “Most of our machines are very, very old,” says Chan.

There was also a learning curve for workers. “Our workers had always used wood, so they didn’t know how to cut metal,” says Chan. “The good thing is that everyone has a sense of pride”, because they make everything from scratch. Since most transport systems use vehicles made by major companies, parts are standardised and easy to buy. Not so for Hong Kong’s one-of-a-kind tram. “Even spare parts — if we need something, we can’t order it. We have to make it ourselves”, says Chan.

On the outside, the new trams are virtually indistinguishable from the old, except for an LED destination screen that replaces a hand-painted placard. Inside, the new trams have softer lighting, automated stop announcements, and more handles for standing passengers. The tram company’s carpenters haven’t been put entirely out of work: each of the new tram’s seats are made from hand-cut teak, an improvement over the flimsy plastic bucket seats that filled most of the old trams.

Chan says the new aluminium frames will last around 40 years before needing an overhaul. It’s hard to say what the tram system will be like in that time.

Ridership dropped by 10% last year when a new subway extension opened in Kennedy Town. Congestion on many parts of the island means that taking the tram can be as slow as walking. But Vivant insists the tram is still competitive on short distances, and its low fare serves a social purpose in a city with an increasingly large gap between rich and poor.

Since joining the tram company, which was bought in 2009 by RATP Dev Transdev Asia, the international branch of Paris’ public transport company, Vivant has overseen the redesign of maps and wayfinding signage, and introduced an app with real-time operational information. The tram company has also convinced the government to synchronise traffic lights in order to speed up tram service, and it is lobbying to restore reserved tram lanes that were long ago removed to accommodate bus and car traffic.

Ironically, Sit Kwok-keung’s proposal to scrap the trams may have been their saviour. The strong opposition to Sit’s plan has bolstered the Des Voeux Road Central Initiative, which aims to turn a major stretch of Hong Kong’s central business district into a dedicated corridor for trams and pedestrians. Vivant says he is heartened by the idea that trams should play a central role in Hong Kong’s streets.

“The team here now feels even more committed than before, because we know that the tram not only belongs to Hong Kong Tramways, it belongs to the Hong Kong people”, he says. “We are proud of it but it carries a great responsibility. We want to be worthy of it.”

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