The Coming and Going of Penang’s Trams

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Once the pride of the state’s public transport, the story of the Penang tramway is worth a revisit.

From Steam to Horse

The first tramway introduced in Penang was the steam tram operated by one Mr.Gardiner with concessions from the government. Commencing operations in the 1880s, barely nine months after Singapore,1 the Penang tramway was one of its kind. Being a light railway, a Kerr-Stuart steam locomotive was used to draw the double-decker passenger trailers and a few wagons for freight purposes.

Its single-metre gauge route began operating from Weld Quay to Ayer Itam Road. Later, a branch line was added to Waterfall Gardens and was used mainly for the transportation of stones from the Western Quarries.

Three new steam locomotives were introduced in 1886: Penang, Johore and Sir Hugh Low, named after the then resident of Perak. These double-decker trailers ran with freight wagons bearing the trademark Penang Tramways, with second-class passengers seated at its lower deck.2 By 1890 there were 11 steam trams running on these routes, managed by the Penang Steam Tramways with its headquarters stationed along Western Road.

Regrettably, their time-consuming services and infrequency, along with the introduction of the jinrickshas, which was a more viable and affordable form of public transport, caused the slowing down of business operations. It was passed on to New Oriental Banking Corporation, which in turn offered it to the municipality in 1893.

However, refusal on the part of the municipality to purchase the company led to its subsequent takeover by Kerr-Stuart, an English locomotive manufacturer. While business resumed under the name of Kerr-Stuart’s Penang Steam Tramways Ltd, the steam company’s revival also witnessed the laying of new metal lines from Magazine Road to Penang Road, down to Chulia Street and Weld Quay in 1898.2

The company similarly experimented with horse trams after the authorities considered steam trams to be hazardous and unsuitable for the streets of George Town. Unfortunately, despite promising a “considerable success” alongside the steam trams, the horses were said to be unable to “stand up under the climate” and the project was discontinued owing to a high rate of mortality.4

The simultaneous operation of two different types of trams also increased the risk of collision. According to a report by Pinang Gazette, a collision between a steam tram and horse tram occurred on May 4, 1899 at the end of Chulia Street, where the Penang Road line met that from Weld Quay, with passengers on the horse tram scattered about the road.

This lack of safety precautions lost patronage and public faith in the use of trams. The company ran at a loss and closed shop in January 1900. The business was later put up for auction.5

With no bidders, and taking into account the interests of the Penang public, a notice was issued by the acting colonial secretary to the government, proposing its acquisition.6 Following the purchase, the entire tramway was leased to Robert Young, a former engineer of the old Penang Steam Tramways, who managed it until the inauguration of electric trams under direct municipal control in 1906.7

The Electric Era

It was not until the acceptance of electric lighting proposals that the Penang tram system was given new life. Tabled by O.V. Thomas, an officer in the Public Works Department, the proposed electrification of the town also covered the tramway, with current supplied from the municipality’s generating system.

It marked another major change in the management of the tramway: the municipality was urged by the government to take over the management of the trams. While the proposal was initially favoured by the municipality, a change in the composition of its commissioners that year led to a contrary decision7 – until J.W.Halifax was appointed president of the municipality in early 1903.

A staunch supporter of the tramway scheme, Halifax reopened the subject and after an audience with the then governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir Frank Swettenham, the municipality was able to acquire the trams free of any cost. A loan of $400,000 was also secured from the Federated Malay States with an interest of 4% for the electrification of the lines.9

By April 1904 the tramway was officially managed by the municipality and work commenced on the relaying of tracks, attaching it with the latest electricity equipment. An overhead trolley system of transmission was adopted and after a successful trial run in December 1905, the electric trams began journeying around George Town on normal scheduled times,10 signalling the birth of the George Town Municipal Tramway.

The George Town Municipal Tramway enjoyed a period of success. In January 1906 regular services commenced on double-track routes between Weld Quay and the Prison. The Ayer Itam route also reopened with an extended line cutting across the coconut plantation on a single track to the villages of Ayer Itam. Tickets ranged from three cents a stage, with a first-class seat costing five cents. In 1906 alone, the municipal trams ferried a total of 1,457,357 passengers with an expenditure of $356,054, running expenses of $33,952 and receipts of $45,832, thereby leaving a balance of $11,881. Considering the fact that its entire length was not fully in use yet, public response was deemed very satisfactory.11

Owing to its popularity, services were extended from the Penang Road terminus along Chulia Street to Penang Street at a cost of $15,000 in 1910.12 The least popular line to Waterfall Gardens was discontinued, and a new branch line in Jelutong opened, stretching from the suburbs of Magazine Road and Weld Quay all the way to Jelutong.

There were a total of 14 trams in operation, each bearing the typical Far Eastern, open-front design. A new depot followed by an office was established off Dato Kramat Road;13 this road is still popularly known as Tramway Road today, denoting its significance to George Town.

The Rise of Trolleybuses and the Demise of Trams

The municipal tram venture was slapped with another difficult period in the early twentieth century – it suffered not only from declining receipts during the slump of 1907-08, but also from the limited supply of replacement parts during the First World War in 1914.

Although their gross profit reached 10.9% in 1917, the trams were in a declining state and were having fewer passengers. When the Great Depression of the 1920s hit Malaya, the tram lines were left in a dire state; derailments were common with standbys in workshops to deal with potential breakdowns. The lines of Penang Road and Chulia Street suffered the worst and were subsequently abandoned; two Thornycroft motorbuses were supplied by the municipality to cater to the transport needs of those areas.14

By early 1922 talks to replace the trams with trolley buses were raised as an economic measure. Although the public had anticipated the trams to be replaced by Thornycroft motorbuses, the municipality favoured trolley buses instead; this was especially so after their successful experiment in servicing the route from the railway station to Magazine Road along Weld Quay, Chulia Street and Penang Road with Fleet No. 1, a Brush-bodied Clough-Smith.

In 1924 the second trolleybus, a Strachans & Brown with electrical equipment from British Thomson Houston, arrived in Penang and its usage was formally adopted in 1925. More interestingly, the Penang municipality was ahead of London in the introduction of trolleybuses, and many who came from England to the East were said to have experienced their first trolleybus in Penang.15

This relatively new form of transportation casted doubt over the relevancy of trams. After all, trolleybuses were a better alternative compared to the overcrowded and slower trams. In 1926 three new trolleybuses from Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies Ltd of England arrived and by 1928, profits from trams dropped by $2,916. The Jelutong tram routes were scrapped and replaced by trolleybuses; this change apparently regained “a large majority of passengers previously lost to hired cars”. The trolleybus service was well-received by all classes and the arrival of five more trolleybuses in 1929 allowed for the opening of the Bagan Jermal line.16

Tram usage further declined in the 1930s. With increasing losses ranging from $5,725 in 1932 and $17,085 in 1933, it was decided that they would be permanently replaced by an expanded trolleybus coverage. This endeavour was also sought as a solution to protect municipal interests in transport matters given the increasing number of private buses and taxis.

According to a report by T. Rogers, the then municipal engineer and tramways manager, all of the old tram lines, except the Ayer Itam line, had been gradually converted into trolleybus routes since 1928, and the use of trolleybuses was favourably described as “more comfortable as well as more economical to operate”,17 thereby concluding the fate of tramways in Penang.

Nevertheless, the state’s sole remaining tram line, the Ayer Itam route, continued its operations until the arrival of 14 small, light Ransome trolleybuses in November 1936. Coupled with a vote of $20018

Today, eight decades after its demise, the idea of having trams in Penang was revived in 2015 as a featured proposal in the Penang Transport Master Plan.19 An eminent feature of pre-war Penang, its potential reinstatement as part of the state’s public transport system and, perhaps, as an alternative solution to traffic woes within George Town, might yet become reality.

Koay Su Lyn reads and writes of the past to make sense of the present. She is a research analyst in the History and Heritage Programme of Penang Institute.

1Untitled, The Straits Times, 3 May 1920, p.8
2Ric Francis & Colin Ganley, ‘Penang Trams, Trolley Buses & Railways: Municipal Transport History 1880s-1963’, Area Books, 2006, pp. 10-12
3Ric Francis & Colin Ganley, ‘Penang Trams, Trolley Buses & Railways: Municipal Transport History 1880s-1963’, Area Books, 2006, pp. 10-12
4‘The Only Trams in the Country’, The Straits Times, 9 January 1932, p.18
5‘Penang Steam Tramways’, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 15 January 1900, p.3
6‘Penang Tramways’, The Straits Times, 31 October 1900, p.3
7‘A Link with Old Penang’, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 13 May 1932, p.7
8Ric Francis & Colin Ganley, ‘Penang Trams, Trolley Buses & Railways: Municipal Transport History 1880s-1963’, Area Books, 2006, p.14
9Ibid.
10‘Penang Electric Tramway’, The Straits Times, 23 December 1905, p.4
11Ric Francis & Colin Ganley, ‘Penang Trams, Trolley Buses & Railways: Municipal Transport History 1880s-1963’, Area Books, 2006, pp.16-18
12‘Penang Tramways’, The Straits Times, 16 April 1910, p.7
13Ric Francis & Colin Ganley, ‘Penang Trams, Trolley Buses & Railways: Municipal Transport History 1880s-1963’, Area Books, 2006, pp.16-18
14Ibid, p.23
15‘Malaya’s Last Tramway’, The Straits Times, 31 August 1935, p.10
16‘Strongholds of Snobbery’, The Straits Times, 27 June 1930, p.8
17Ric Francis & Colin Ganley, ‘Penang Trams, Trolley Buses & Railways: Municipal Transport History 1880s-1963’, Area Books, 2006, p.39
18Ibid, pp.26-39
19‘Trams making comeback under RM27bil Penang plan’, The Star Online, 15 Aug 2015, www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2015/08/15/trams-making-comeback-under-rm27bil-penangplan/#pOHpLVm4qsHc6KhJ.99 , accessed on 10th August 2018



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