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Sunday, 2 May 2010

Not Quite As Old As It Seems

The tram network in Lisbon is a shadow of the system of half a century ago – before the city’s Metro began operation. Only five routes remain, with one not operating at weekends, and another working a part route Saturday afternoon and Sunday. But the routes that climb into the Alfama district might be difficult to replace with buses – and they draw in the tourists in, well, tram loads.

So those tourists wait patiently at a stop down in the Baixa, or at the Largo do Chiado, then climb aboard the little four wheeled cars for the circuit of the Alfama and Graça – or out to Estrela and Prazeres – in the belief that they are travelling on a little piece of history. Well, yes and no: the tram’s body is indeed elderly, but under the floor it is usually modern.

City operator Carris had 45 trams rebuilt in the 1990s, using “donor” bodies from 1930s “standard” cars, mated with new running gear. As four wheelers go, they are remarkably smooth running – you only have to journey north to Porto, where you really can ride on a 100 year old tram – to experience the difference (the giveaway is the modern pantograph on the roof).

There are still a few 1930s trams around, but you are unlikely to find them running in normal service. Most of today’s drivers have been trained on the “remodelados”, and the big people mover trams that will take you to see the sights out at Belém. This is also true of the red and white cars that provide a reassuringly expensive tour of the city, with commentary and guaranteed seat.

But the UK does it too: you can journey across central London on what looks like a Routemaster bus, but the old technology AEC engine has been replaced by something modern and clean. It’s a sort of heritage experience.

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