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Romania’s tramway revival – part 1

Providing a layover point for recovery time on big circular routes is always problematical and Bucureşti’s solution for its new trunk route 1 is this rather constricted two-track station at Şura Mare; 4035 and 4019, both former V2A cars rebuilt locally with low-floor central sections, are shown there on 18 April 2015.

In a two-part series, Mike Russell explores the fascinating development, recent reconstruction
and current tramway operations in the eastern half of this central European nation.

As a nation Romania is a relatively recent formation, created in the mid-19th Century from the former provinces of Wallachia and Moldavia that were under Turkish suzerainty. It declared independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1877 and expanded with the acquisition of territory following the second Balkan War of 1878, but its territorial area before the First World War was by today’s standards quite small.
Its contribution towards the war effort on behalf of the victorious allies gave Romania’s rulers, in their view, an entitlement to a major share of the spoils of war and at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference Queen Marie secured major territorial acquisitions at the expense of Hungary. Discord arising from this settlement manifested itself immediately and remains evident in places even today.
The tramways of Romania can be clearly divided into two categories – or, more strictly, one plus another with two sub-divisions. This second group comprises those long-established systems in historic Romania (Bucureşti, Brăila, Galaţi and Iaşi, together with the recently-closed line at Sibiu) and those established formerly in Hungary (Arad, Oradea, Timişoara). The other category comprises those systems inaugurated during the later years of the Communist administration of Nicolae Ceauşescu, namely Braşov, Constanţa, Cluj-Napoca, Ploieşti, Craiova, Reşiţa and Botoşani.
These seven latter-day systems were built in pursuance of the Ceauşescu government’s policy of fuel self-sufficiency to reduce reliance upon imports of foreign oil, but were constructed quickly and cheaply to inadequate standards; three of them have already closed, whilst three of the surviving four are either in the process of complete reconstruction or have emerged recently from such a process.

It may be significant that Botoşani, the only one so far not to be subject to such reconstruction despite the poor state of its track and infrastructure, was the last to open (1991), well after the fall of the Ceauşescu regime, and thus may not yet have reached the deteriorated state of others opened earlier.

A long road to recovery
Although economic conditions in Romania have improved considerably and the country was admitted to the European Union in 2007, years of hardship and austerity dating back to the era of Communist rule have taken their toll. This has had a distinctive effect upon tramway operation in terms of rolling stock.

Before the Second World War, much rolling stock was imported, initially from the former Habsburg Empire, though tramcar construction did take place in Arad, Iaşi and possibly Timişoara. Later equipment was sourced from French manufacturers. It was not until the early 1950s that a truly indigenous tramcar industry was born, initially at Bucureşti in 1951 and from 1954 at the works of Electroputere in Craiova. This firm built around 200 impressive bogie cars for operation in Bucureşti, Oradea and Timişoara, some of which were still in service – albeit heavily rebuilt – until the early years of this century. At around the same time, the works in Bucureşti began building simple metal-bodied two-axle cars which were distributed across the country. Later, the works diversified and built a large series of three-section high-floor articulated cars for Bucureşti and, even more recently, articulated cars with low-floor sections for operation in the capital.

The next generation of bogie cars was produced at Timişoara, in the Dâmboviţa works adjacent to one of that tramway’s two operating depots, and took the form of a series of motor and trailers of identical angular design named “Timis” cars. Whilst cars of this type, first built in 1973, provided a useful stop-gap, performance and reliability were poor and none survive in the passenger fleet of any Romanian tramway. During the last years of the Ceauşescu regime, when everything was in short supply and electricity was rationed, it was not unusual to witness even modern Timis tramcars operating with a slip-board in the front windscreen announcing that the car was suffering from a technical defect and was returning (usually empty) to the depot.

The need to replace life-expired rolling stock gave rise to a move to import redundant cars from German tramways, a process begun in early 1993 with the delivery of cars from Frankfurt and München to Bucureşti and from Bremen to Timişoara. This process was facilitated by a German tramway sympathiser, Günter H. Köhler, and culminated in cars from Germany (West and East) and Switzerland – and more recently Austria and the Netherlands – finding their way to most Romanian tramways. Even today, a great deal of former western European trams remain in operation and places such as Iaşi exhibit the impression of post-war Germany before the influx of low-floor cars. Romanian engineers generally seem to have adapted well to the relative complexities of western European rolling stock and there is no doubt that these cars have been – and remain – the saviour of many systems.
The tramways, as might be expected, are predominantly urban in nature, but routes serving areas of lower housing density survive in several places and some installations – most notably Craiova – retain lengthy rural sections serving major industrial plants. How long these will survive in the changed economic climate where state subsidies for such industries are much reduced, leading to plant closures, is uncertain.

Our survey begins in the capital, Bucureşti (Bucharest), with a current population of over two million inhabitants. This city has by any measure one of Europe’s most extensive networks, currently with around 150km (93
miles) of double-track and a service network of 24 routes, operated by Regia Autonomă de Transport Bucureşti.An extensive programme of track reconstruction in recent years has seen large sections of the network closed for months or even years at a time, but the majority is now once again fully functioning. A total of 362 three-section and 49 two-section articulated cars were built in the tramway works from 1972 onwards and services are now largely provided by these vehicles, all of which have been refurbished in recent years. The majority of this work was done in-house, with some work contracted to the local Faur engineering company, but a few cars were rebuilt to a striking new design by the Electroputere works in Craiova. The use of second-hand rolling stock from Frankfurt and München has now ceased though some of the latter remain as a reserve. These former three-axle cars were retrucked with locally-built bogies during their time in the capital and the greater wheel diameter gave them a totally changed appearance, with the bodies sitting higher above the track.

A fleet of Tatra T4R bogie cars was supplied in 1973-75 and many are still in operation, mainly from Militari, one of the city’s ten tram depots. The oldest of these, Victoria, close to Gara de Nord, dates from electrification in 1894.

The tramway works has constructed further batches of new or modernised cars in recent years. First came a series of 11 two-section six-axle articulated cars, types V2S-T and V2A-T, known as Bucur, of which the first two were double-ended; these use components from withdrawn Tatra cars. In 2007-10 the works rebuilt a total of 40 V2A cars as three-section vehicles with modernised bodywork as type V3A-2010-CH-PPC – these are largely to be found on route 1. Fifteen three-section articulated cars with low-floor centre sections, type Bucur LF, 401-15, were built new between 2011 and 2013.

One of the tramway’s limitations was traditionally the lack of any track connection crossing the mainline railways north of Gara de Nord and Gara Basarab. This has been addressed in recent years with a massive new viaduct spanning these multiple tracks, with an elevated station for tramway passengers reached by stairways and lifts (not always in working order). The opening of this new link, which features a new track layout at ground level to serve Gara Basarab, has permitted the introduction of a new city circular route (1), replacing various separate routes and most of former trunk route 41. The enormous sweep of this circular route provides interchange with virtually all other radial lines – and also most trolleybus routes – and the nominal terminal point is at Şura Mare, south of the city centre. Various tram types operate upon it but it is also here that the largest number of new low-floor cars will be found.

Many will be familiar with the megalomaniac policies of the former dictator Ceauşescu and his wife, Elena, whose flights of fancy gave rise to some astonishing policy gyrations, from which the tramways were sadly not spared. For example, tracks in Bucureşti north of Piaţa Victoriei were relocated from the main Bulevardul Ion Mihalache to an adjacent minor thoroughfare at the behest of Elena, whose journeys to and from the hairdresser were apparently impeded by the trams’ presence, only for the new tracks to be torn up and reinstated in the main street on the orders of her husband.

One of these policies involved the building of the enormous Parliament Palace, designed to exceed Versailles in size and scope but which succeeded only in razing to the ground huge tracts of historic Bucureşti with its elegant French-style buildings that once caused the city to be dubbed ‘The Paris of the East’. An effect of this construction was the severing, at short notice, of the through tram service across Piaţa Unirii; the current terminal loop at Piaţa Sf. Gheorghe is a legacy of this development. On the western side of the new main boulevard, no room could be found for a turning circle and as Bucureşti’s trams were traditionally of single-ended design a batch of cars had hurriedly to be put through the works and converted to double-ended layout for use on route 32, truncated to a new stub terminus on the south-west corner of Piaţa Unirii. Double-ended cars remained a minority in the fleet after room was later found for a turning circle, yet have proved their worth more recently on temporary shuttle services during track reconstruction, most recently at Băneasa on route 5. Cars 4037-44 are of type V3A-93-2S and are modernisations of V2A-2S stock.

The present fleet totals around 515 cars with intensive services 05.00-01.00 on weekdays; weekends see significantly reduced frequencies. All cars are one-person-operated with tickets that must be purchased in advance. Two-trip tickets must be validated in the onboard machines whilst for the visitor the most useful facility is the day ticket (RON8/EUR1.8) sold from kiosks such as at Gara de Nord. Some kiosks also sell the official transport plan, a comprehensive guide to transport in the city that also acts as a street map.

Around 60km (37 miles) to the north lies the city of Ploieşti, capital of the Prahova district and in the heart of the Romanian oil field. Its current population is a little over 200 000 and the standard gauge tramway here opened in December 1987, the last of several in that year and the penultimate new system of the Communist era. Like all the others built in that period, it was cheaply and quickly constructed and by April 2014 track deterioration had reached the point where the entire system had to be closed. At the time of writing, one route (101) had reopened on 31 December 2015 but the other (102) remains closed but is expected to re-open during spring 2016.

The network initially featured three routes, of which only the two above survive. These start from a common terminus at the hospital (Spitalul Judetean) and branch after about 2km (1.2 miles) to the railway stations at Sud and Vest respectively. At Armoniei on the Gara de Sud line can be found the fossilised remains of a triangular junction that once took trams due east to Uztel, serving the oil refinery district. This route had been closed by 1995 and has not reopened. The first rolling stock comprised a mixture of motor and trailer bogie Timis sets together with some three-section V3A articulated cars of the Bucureşti type; one modernised example of the latter remains in the passenger fleet. The Timis cars had the usual short service life and replacements came in the form of Tatra KT4D articulated cars from Potsdam. These were initially operated in the green/grey Potsdam livery but four later acquired a locally-developed yellow/grey or yellow/white/grey colourscheme; 32 ex-Potsdam cars are included in the current fleet and a new predominantly yellow colourscheme is being applied to the serviceable cars.

There is also a two-route trolleybus system, dating from 1997. The first five Romanian-built ROCAR two-axle vehicles, and subsequent five Berliet E100 vehicles acquired from St-Étienne (France), have all now been withdrawn. They have been replaced by a fleet of FBW articulated vehicles from Genève and, more recently, the 25 surviving Neoplan low-floor articulated trolleybuses delivered to Lausanne in 2002 for which the Swiss authorities subsequently revoked the operating certificate. Their arrival in Ploieşti at the behest of the Mayor provoked a storm of local protest, with allegations that vehicles deemed unsuitable for operation in Switzerland owing to their propensity to spontaneous combustion were supposedly quite good enough for the citizens of Ploieşti. This rumpus seems to have subsided and they now represent the normal trolleybus output on the system.
The current Ploieşti tariff includes single journey tickets at RON2 (EUR0.45) and day ‘rover’ tickets for RON7 (EUR1.55) that allow unlimited travel on tram, trolleybus and local motor bus routes.

A river port in Muntenia on the Danube delta with a population of around 180 000, Brăila is one of two tramways in the eastern part of the country close to the Black Sea coast. Its standard gauge tramway is one of the country’s oldest, having opened in June 1900 and with continuous operation ever since.

The unusual town layout features a central area of concentric crescent-shaped arteries, two of which are served by trams. In all, five routes are operated, broadly on a north-south axis, with one of the two depots situated beyond the northern terminal loop at Vidin. The second depot, which contains the maintenance facilities, is at Radu Negru, effectively at the limit of the urban development on the south side of the town; beyond this the relatively infrequent route 24 continues to the industrial complex at Celhart Donaris, though in the summer season extra services operate as route 25 to a turning circle at Lacul Sărat for bathers visiting the nearby inland lake.
From 2010, the majority of the tramway was closed for complete reconstruction and in 2011, for example, only a small section between Parc Monument and Lacul Sărat remained in operation. At the time of writing, line 22 was temporarily closed for partial reconstruction. The rebuilding works have been nothing if not thorough and tracks have been completely reconstructed, with the roads excavated well below base course to provide solid foundations for the future. The result is track of exemplary quality, fully up to best western European standards, with consequently impressive riding characteristics. The most recent section to be rebuilt, the western branch to Chercea used by route 23, reopened at the beginning of 2015.

Today’s Brăila tramway is served entirely by second-hand rolling stock; despite the small working fleet (28 motor cars and one trailer) these come from no fewer than three different nations. The first series was a batch of ten Grossraumwagen motors and trailers from Nürnberg (West Germany) but these are all now withdrawn save for one pair (237+1610) retained primarily for private hire but which also see occasional service use. Others remain in outdoor storage at Vidin depot as a source of spare parts.

Later acquisitions from Germany came in the form of two-section Tatra KT4D articulated cars released by Berlin. These retain the latter-day Berlin orange/ivory livery and are predominantly used on routes 23 and 24 but may also be found on the trunk routes 21/22. The latter are mainly served by two further batches of articulated cars: ten E1 cars built by SGP that originated in Wien (Vienna) and retain that city’s red/white livery together with the characteristic circular route-number at the front nearside, and ten Werkspoor cars of 1968 from Rotterdam. Unlike their compatriots in Galaţi (q.v.), the Brăila examples are all finished in Rotterdam’s white/green livery.
The Rotterdam and Wien cars provide the basic services on the two north-south trunk routes 21 and 22, linking Vidin and Radu Negru with alternative city centre routeings via Bulevardul Independenţei and Bulevardul Dorobanţilor respectively. These routes operate 05.00-23.00 daily; lines 23, 24 and 25 feature slightly earlier finishing times. The fourth route, 24, is normally served only by one car on an hourly frequency between Parc Monument and Celhart Donaris; often this is an ex-Berlin KT4 car, and this route was historically the last haunt of a small number of Timis bogie cars.

Land south of Radu Negru is largely undeveloped, though people living rough in the area adjacent to the industrial complex may often be found travelling onboard the cars.

Brăila trams are one-person-operated with single tickets at RON1.5 (EUR0.33) available in advance from kiosks. A separate RON1.5 ticket is required for route 24. There are no day tickets available.

The electric tramways of Galaţi, a major city on the Danube delta around 35km (22 miles) north of Brăila and with a population of around 250 000, opened just one day after those of their neighbour in June 1900, but in contradistinction were laid to metre-gauge.

A network of routes was built up serving the surroundings of the central area but the last closed at the end of 1975. In the meantime, a completely new standard- gauge system was created, with the first line opening in 1969. The purpose of the new system was to link the huge new steelworks complex to the west of the city to the new housing estates built on the outskirts of the old town to house workers and those displaced from rural villages under central government policies. A large network developed, with convoluted routeings, many special services operated only at shift-change times, and the creation of outer-suburban links avoiding the city’s commercial centre.
It  is currently operated by Transurb S.A. An impression has been created over recent years – perhaps unfairly – that the tramways of Galaţi do not really know their own mind. For example, a completely new street-running route opened in 1993 from the established terminal loop at Gara CFR (the railway station) to the Danube river station (Gara fluvială) but this was already out of service by 1995. Tramway operation is retained to the eastern docks terminus at Bazinul Nou (from which views of neighbouring Ukraine can be enjoyed across Lacul Brateş) despite the fact that the last 3km (1.9 miles) or so of the route are effectively undeveloped. Long-term re-routeing during track reconstruction in the steeply-graded Str. Basarabiei during the 1990s and early 2000s resulted in a lengthy diversion via Str. Bucoviniei; some of the latter track has since been lifted following completion of the reconstruction works. Traffic to and from the steelworks, now operated by Arcelor Mittal, has traditionally been of great importance but a significant change in fortunes took place in September 2014 when all operation to the steelworks abruptly ceased. This was mainly the result of major faults detected in the long viaduct spanning the valley and main railway line that linked Str Basarabiei with the works, as a result of which there was a fear that the structure was in danger of collapse. The entire viaduct closed to all traffic except cyclists and pedestrians and tram service was curtailed to a turning circle at Liceul-9 at the eastern end, a short distance from the main operating depot near Piaţa Energiei. The steelworks itself is under threat of closure and has been subject to reduced employment for some time. Following emergency repairs to the viaduct, however, limited tram operation resumed on 29 June 2015; a local shuttle route within the area of the steelworks, requiring double-ended or coupled cars, was discontinued at an earlier date.

Initial rolling stock for the standard-gauge system came with Tatra T4R cars delivered new. A small number survived on the roster until recently, while other Tatra T4D bogie cars were later acquired from Dresden and Magdeburg but all are now withdrawn. Other early acquisitions were five motor and trailer Grossraum sets of class L bogie cars from Frankfurt-am-Main and it is perhaps surprising that three of these motor cars remain; one has been adapted for works duties but at least one other was receiving workshop attention in April 2015 for continued service.

The majority of today’s fleet consists of Düwag ZGT6 models from Rotterdam, most in the older livery of yellow with orange and grey relief; around 30 remain in stock but only a few are needed for daily service. Around seven serviceable former Berlin KT4D articulated cars also remain available for traffic.

Following re-opening of the viaduct the following regular routes were in operation: 6 (Arcelor Mittal – Bazinul Nou); 7 (Micro 19 – Piaţa Centrală) and 39 (Cimitir Israelit – Micro 19) (Micro is the Romanian term for a housing estate composed of high-rise flats). Line 39 is the only route to carry a frequent service. The section beyond Bariera Traian to Cimitir Israelit had been out of use for many years and was only recently reinstated. In addition, at steelworks shift changes cars operate on lines 1 (Arcelor Mittal – Comat), 3 (Arcelor Mittal – Micro 19), 5 (Micro 19 – Bazinul Nou) and 42 (Comat – Bazinul Nou).  Galaţi also has a two-route trolleybus system, recently re-equipped with three Astra 415T vehicles assembled in Romania and ten MAZ 203T trolleybuses built in Belarus. It is intended to buy 14 new vehicles.

It may seem surprising that a visitor to Galaţi could spend time in the city and remain blissfully unaware of the existence of the tramway, even at its full extent. None of the routes penetrate the city centre proper, the terminus at Piaţa Centrală (currently out of use due to reconstruction works) being some way north of the parts frequented by visitors. The network, developed primarily as an adjunct to the steelworks, would not be visible to any but the most intrepid visitor.

Tickets can be pre-purchased from kiosks or drivers and are priced at RON1.5 (EUR0.3) for a single journey and RON5 for a day ticket giving unlimited journeys on all public transport.

Nestling amongst the foothills of the scenic north-eastern region of Romania, only a short distance from the borders with the former Soviet republics of Moldova and Ukraine, is the historic and attractive city of Iaşi, today with a population of around 290 000. It also features one of the country’s finest tramways, laid to metre-gauge, and which, with its large fleet of former German articulated tramcars, now recreates the atmosphere of a German city in the 1970s and ’80s before it was swamped with the products of the low-floor revolution.

Electric tramways came to Iaşi in March 1900. They were the first public transport in the city – many of the streets were too steep for horse-drawn operation. A compact five-route network developed, with latterly intensive operations by two-axle cars serving traditional areas of this old city; some wooden-bodied four-wheel cars built in the local tramway company’s workshops in the inter-war years survived until the mid-1970s.

Under the Communist era, Iaşi expanded with large high-rise housing developments to the west of the old city for workers in the newly-developed industrial zone to the south and east. The old tram system was greatly enlarged to cope with these increased transport needs and eventually a network of 12 routes was in operation. The old depot close to the railway station was complemented by a new facility a few hundred metres beyond the new terminus at Dacia, one of the new multi-storey housing developments, and both remain in use today.

Parts of Iaşi are hilly and the trams provide useful connections. Between the city centre at Târgu Cucu and the intermediate turning loop at Tatăraşi Nord, a steep declivity takes the cars first down to a crossing with Bulevardul Tudor Vladimirescu and then up again on reserved track towards Tatăraşi. On the northern line to Copou, which climbs continuously after taking the junction west of Piaţa Unirii, high volumes of traffic are generated from the university quarter through which this route passes on its way to the terminus.

As elsewhere in Romania, extensive track upgrading has taken place in recent years. The link along Str. Anastasie Panu, passing the impressive Palace, reopened in 2014 after a lengthy closure, whilst planned track reconstruction through the industrial zone of Calea Chişinăului has also been finished. The future of the segment from Tepro to Ţuţora, currently closed, is uncertain.

Often the route layout and provision of alternative tracks on this system allows for maintenance of operation on unaffected sections by judicious temporary service reorganisation. Features of the system include the bridge of Bulevardul Alexandru cel Bun spanning the railway line south of the main station, offering panoramic views of the city. The most recent development has been the reopening of the southern line to C.U.G. 2 (a terminus now known as Tehnopolis), closed in 1997 following an accident. The line has been totally rebuilt and was ceremonially reopened in December 2015.

Iaşi was quick to acquire GT4 articulated tramcars from Stuttgart, released in the course of that city’s regauging programme, and seems to have embarked on something of a love affair with the type: over 100 have been acquired, including examples released by Halle, Nordhausen and Augsburg, such that the centre of Iaşi at times resembles the Stuttgart of old. One GT4 (302, ex-Stuttgart 469) has been extensively rebuilt by Electroputere VFU Pascani but is no longer in use owing to a dispute between that firm and the operator. Additional German cars have come from the HEAG at Darmstadt, but examples of the unusual MAN five-axle configuration operated in Augsburg have now been withdrawn and all but one scrapped.

From Bern (Switzerland) have come a small number of Swiss Standard motor cars and trailers that retain their original livery and are usually to be found on route 3 (Gara to Dancu). Some of Bern’s later articulated cars of 1973 have also found their way here, whilst the most recent fleet additions have been GT8 cars from Augsburg with their deeper, Mannheim-style windscreens. Until arrival of the first cars from Germany, Tatra T4 bogie cars dominated the local tramway scene but just one has been retained for museum purposes.

Iaşi has a well-developed enthusiast movement in the local Tramclub. Pride of the historic fleet is car 1, a replica built for the tramway’s centenary in 1998, with AEG controllers and unvestibuled bodywork. The undertaking has also restored one of the once-ubiquitous Romanian standard two-axle cars built by ITB in Bucureşti in the 1950s and 1960s. Set aside at Dacia depot for future display are several cars of types no longer operated: an ex-Augsburg five-axle articulated car (354), and 365, a V2A articulated car built in Bucureşti, originally numbered 352, which enjoyed a relatively short service life. Iaşi had the only metre- gauge examples of this design.

In Dacia there is also an ST7 from Darmstadt (103) and a Tatra T4R (262) saved for a future museum project, while the other depot near the station has a Timis motor car and trailer.

In addition, the workshops at Depoul Gara developed a thriving restoration business for western European museums (especially Mariazell in Austria) and the creation of replicas for operators’ own cars. Unfortunately, this enterprising sideline has now ceased.

In addition to the single RON2 (EUR0.45) tickets, which must be bought in advance and validated on the cars, Iaşi offers a day ticket which at RON8 represents a bargain for those wishing to explore one of the most interesting of Romania’s 11 tramway systems.

Iaşi also developed a six-route trolleybus system from 1985 but this was progressively closed, the last route operating in 2006.