The International Light Rail Magazine
+44 1733 367610

Shenyang: Riding the Dolphin

The high-rise developments of downtown Shenyang dominate the skyline as three-section car 10 heads outwards on street-running track from the town terminus of line 5 at Olympic Centre. Unusually this car has a two rather than three-digit fleet number.

China’s rediscovery of the tram may be quite reasonably compared to the renaissance of the tramway in France – a remarkable story of recovery from a very low base. By the beginning of this decade, China’s total of existing tramways had been reduced to just two – and one of those, Changchun, was along one route a mere shadow of its former glory. However the pendulum has swung and several new systems are scheduled to be constructed in the coming years; the pioneer amongst these is the new tramway for Shenyang.

There are currently more than 20 metro systems in China, most of quite recent construction, and these cater for the intense mass transportation movements in the rapidly-growing urban developments. The new tramways appear to be viewed primarily as a complement to metros and to serve less heavily-trafficked areas.

A growing commercial centre

The city of Shenyang is today the capital of Liaoning province, situated in the north-eastern part of the country known as Manchuria. The current population of greater Shenyang is estimated at around 8.1 million inhabitants, of whom around 6.25 million occupy the developed urban area.
As such, there will be a readily apparent need for good transportation links, which it was found conventional motorbus services were unable to fulfil adequately. The city is an important station on the main trans-Manchurian railway linking Dalian, Anshan, Shenyang, Changchun and Harbin and is rapidly developing into a modern commercial and trading centre.

Many Chinese cities are built on the grid system and Shenyang is just one example, with much of the central area dominated by commercial premises. The Imperial Palace is a smaller version of Beijing’s Forbidden City, largely built in the 17th Century and with Manchu features. The North Pagoda, one of four that at one time marked out the city boundaries, has been thoughtfully restored; this, too, dates from the mid-17th century.

The city was once better known in western European nations as Mukden, the former name assigned to it from the mid-17th Century. It has attained historical notoriety through being the scene of the so-called Mukden Incident of September 1931, during which Japanese troops seized the city in defence of what they perceived to be threats to their country’s special rights in Manchuria, enjoyed for many years to act as a neutral buffer to protect their colony of Korea.

This incident turned out to be a prelude to the Japanese occupation of the entire province of Manchuria, a situation not resolved until Japan’s capitulation at the end of World War Two, and which indirectly led to the Chinese Communist Party’s takeover of the whole country in 1949.

Shenyang was one of only a small number of Chinese towns and cities that possessed an urban tramway network before World War Two. An electric tramway was in operation between 1907 and 1973, and from 1951 an extensive trolleybus network of almost 200km (125 miles) was created, becoming one of the biggest provincial systems in the country. Despite this, the entire network was abruptly abandoned without warning in June 1999 following a serious accident. From that point forward, the city has been without electric traction.

Rebirth of Chinese tramways

Of the ‘first generation’ of Chinese tramways, only Changchun and Dalian survived into the early 21st Century. It is therefore remarkable that these two have recently been joined by completely new systems, of which several more are under construction or planned for opening in the coming years.

The first of this new generation was Shenyang, on which construction began in February 2012 on a projected system of 55km (34 miles). Construction and commissioning took just 18 months to complete.

It was intended to complement an equally new metro system of two lines, and plans envisaged four tram routes, radiating to the south-eastern quarter of the city on the south side of the Hunhe river. The first three of these lines opened on 15 August 2013, in time for the start of the Twelfth National Games of the People’s Republic of China, due to be held in the city starting later that month. The network is currently located largely in the Hunnan New District, a focus of the city’s current urban development programme.

The fourth line was built at the same time and equipped with on-street infrastructure, but during a visit in late August 2014 was found still not to be in operation; no opening date has yet been announced.

This tramway is a joint venture between the city of Shenyang (with a majority shareholding of 51%) and French operators Transdev and RATP Dev (49%), with an initial three-year contract valued at EUR41m, and operates under the Anglicised brand name of Hunnan Modern Trams.

It is quite conceivable that extensions to this initial four-route network will in due course be opened but although studies are understood to be underway, no firm plans are currently known.

The new system

The three new routes serve a total of 52 stops and all start from two adjacent terminal stubs at Olympic Centre, a short walk from the line 2 metro station at Aotizhongxin. The metro pedestrian exits and tram termini are not intervisible, and those unfamiliar with the layout may need to seek directions from those with local knowledge.

The terminal points are linked by a single connecting track, used only by special and depot workings, and the two regular termini are effectively at 90 degrees to each other in adjacent streets, which together form two parts of the three-sided open rectangular central track layout.

From a terminal situated in the east-west street that is the southern arm of this rectangle, two routes – designated 1 and 2 – depart. The terminal setting-down and picking-up point is at an island platform and cars proceed empty west of that point to take layovers, reverse and use the intermediate crossover to gain the outbound track. Moving forward takes place only shortly before departure time, leaving intending passengers waiting under the limited shelter afforded, one reason possibly being to avoid obstruction to any car moving between the two lines along the connecting track.

Cars of lines 1 (18.7km/11.6 miles) and 2 (15km/9.3 miles) share common track until reaching the 12th intermediate stop, at a junction known as Xingson Intelligence Park. At this point they divide, cars on line 1 – the less frequent service – turning west and eventually reaching a terminal at Expo Centre, a suburban hinterland wilderness clearly ripe for future development and surrounded by distant tower blocks of housing. End-to-end journey time on each of routes 1 and 2 is around 50 minutes.

Line 2 continues its generally southerly trajectory from the junction, eventually reaching a terminal stand outside the main Terminal Building at Taoxian Airport; the last few hundred metres are laid as single-track. For those accustomed to finding fixed-track surface transport systems terminating some distance from the real hive of activity at international airports, Shenyang’s contribution to the genre will come as something of a revelation, with the cars ending their journey just a few metres from the entrance to the Terminal Building.

Returning now to the city centre, the trams of line 5 depart from a terminal platform in the short street at right angles to that used by lines 1 and 2, on the western arm of the rectangle. This is the most frequent of the three tramlines, cars operating in peak periods at ten to 12-minute intervals, and again the line is a long one (21.1km/13.1 miles), extending in a broadly north-east direction to a terminal point at Shenfu Xincheng, on the city’s easternmost border with neighbouring Fushun City. Single journey running time is slightly less than one hour.

Published maps confirm that this terminal is viewed as a temporary one, with trams currently stopping on the western side of a major road junction and a connecting motor bus service starting from its eastern side. Buses take onward passengers to suburban estates beyond the tram terminus, whilst tracks to the south lead to one of two maintenance and storage depots.

Despite this provision, enterprising local ‘tuk-tuk’ owners provide a popular service shuttling passengers between the trams and the buses, obviously for a very small charge given that the length of their ‘route’ is less than 100 metres! Also, the tuk-tuks are delightfully oblivious of the road markings on the unnecessarily grand multi-lane dual carriageway junction, and drive on it as if they were on a quiet country lane.

The system is laid to standard gauge and the great majority is centrally reserved, much being on grass track with artificial turf sections noted over bridges. There is a limited amount of on-street running in the central area and the in-town section of line 5 has lanes dedicated for use by trams only in peak-periods, on a tidal-flow basis.

Rolling stock and operations

To operate the new system a fleet of 30 double-ended articulated cars was built by CNR in Changchun, in two distinct batches. The first 20 (001-020) are 28.8m long three-section cars with a 70% low-floor section and a capacity for 300 passengers. These cars appear in two livery variants: one is an all-over mid-blue, whilst the other is all-over off-white with a minimal degree of blue relief.

The other ten cars (021-030) are all in the predominantly blue livery and are 34.4m long five-section 100% low-floor models, mainly to be found in use on lines 1 and 2; these vehicles have a nominal capacity of 360 passengers. The cars have stainless steel body sections and are nicknamed Dolphins on account of their sleek design by German transport specialist büro staubach.

Both underfloor heating and air-conditioning are fitted to counter the effects of the wide seasonal climate variations experienced in this part of the world. Plastic seating is provided in both vehicle types, with cushions added in the colder months.

All cars are fitted with single-arm pantographs for current collection at 750V dc, but are also equipped with Voith supercapacitor energy storage for overhead-free operation. Recharging is carried out during overhead running and at charging points with overhead power rail sections where trams normally wait at terminal points. This facility enables the cars to proceed without any loss of normal traction speed and the frequent raising and lowering of the pantograph by the driver in the course of a journey is a feature of this system.

All track junctions are unwired, as are some wide major road interchanges not laid out as tramway junctions, and this function is also employed judiciously elsewhere, such as at curves and termini.

Similar use of onboard energy storage has recently been widely introduced on Beijing’s extensive trolleybus system (in this instance via Lithium-ion batteries), permitting a reduction in complicated overhead wiring at major road junctions and thereby allowing drivers to make use of any available traffic lane at multi-lane intersections.

Line 3

The fourth tramline of this initial development, line 3, had still not opened by late August although the track was apparently complete and platform infrastructure was in place; this could be because of a shortage of rolling stock.

This line will also operate to Expo Centre, where it will have a common terminal with line 1, but start from a dedicated terminus at the Century Building, close to Shijidasha line 2 metro station two stops south of Aotizhongxin. It will intersect with line 1 at two points – Huamao Centre and the north-eastern University – but there will be no commonality with the present routes in the central area or vicinity of the metro.


Grateful thanks are given to Dennis Schulz for additional information.


This feature originally appeared in Tramways & Urban Transit – March 2015 issue (927).