Most of you might not know that there was a streetcar running through the heart of Seoul in the last century because today there are no traces of rails or anything else left in the city. From the end of the 19th century until 1968 there were several tram lines running through the town. They got replaced by private vehicles and a subway system. A description how it was over 100 years ago gives us Andrei Lankov with his article “The rise and fall of the Seoul tram”. The article says that, as the first tram started operating on May 17 in 1899, Seoul became the second East Asian city with trams.
History of the Seoul Tram
The trams drove slowly and there were no stations, which means that everybody hopped on and off anytime. Lankov describes the events of a tragic incident as a very interesting episode of the early days:
And naturally it was not long before the first traffic accident occurred. On the 26th of May, just 10 days after the spectacular inaugural trip, a five-year-old child was struck by a tram near Pagoda Park on Jongno Street. At the time all tram drivers were Japanese. Koreans at the time invariably thought the worst of anything the Japanese did. Therefore when the bystanders witnessed the accident they considered it the deliberate murder of an innocent child by the horrible Japanese. The tram was attacked by an angry mob but the driver and his conductor made a lucky escape, chased by the boy’s father who had armed himself with an axe. The carriage itself was burned to a crisp.
The article mentions that there have been 37 tramcars in 1910 and 154 trams by 1935. The number of daily passengers was around 150,000 people in 1935! But after the Korean War, Seoul’s population exploded and the tram wasn’t dynamic enough to keep up with the changes in the city. On November 30th in 1968 the tram stopped operating.
Ancient Tram Network
At Wikimedia is a map of 1937 with the network of trams and the dimensions of Seoul. Back than, Seoul didn’t spread further than the northern area from the king’s palace to the foot of the mountain Namsan. The river Han is also shown in the map, quite far away from Seoul. Two lines went from West to East, both parallel to Cheongyecheon. And then at least four or five lines from the North to South.
It’s really sad that private vehicles won in the conflict with trams. Actually, something like this is always a very political decision. The grounds for it have been, of course, that the technology of cars developed fast and it was favored by domestic economy and citizens. Another reason was that after the Korean War, Seoul grew rapidly and the tram system wasn’t able to cope with the dynamic processes. If only then they knew, how trams can look like today and that they can be very comfortable, fast and a sustainable mode of transport. Under the suspect of sustainability and minimizing pollution, the concept of trams experiences a renaissance nowadays.
I recommend a visit to the Seoul Museum of History because they show a lot of images of the trams. One image that stuck in my mind was off the Jongno-Street, how all buildings have been traditional Korean Houses, Hanoks, and the mud road along them had the rail and a tram. In front of that museum is an old tram and it is even possible to examine it from the inside! I took some pictures to share it with you.
Visiting an Old Tram
This tram was built around 1930 and this type was in operation until 1968.
Oh no! Somebody forget to take his lunch-set! And there is a girl waving her hand towards her brother, who is late to school A scenery like this wouldn’t be possible in a subway or a bus in modern Seoul. Next to the tram is a information table about the history of the tram. And a real highlight is a digital information screen which takes you on a ride with a streetcar through Seoul of the 1930s.
This map inside the tram shows the extended tram network. Of course, it’s not comparable to the network of Seoul’s subway but that’s also not the main goal of trams in my personal opinion. Trams build a relatively small-sized network in a high-dense, inner-city area.
There are four doors in the tram, two on each side. The doors are arranged offset because if I remember it correctly, the tram can drive in both directions.
I hope you enjoyed the pictures. The tram is standing there the whole time, but it is only open from 10am to 5pm (closed on Mondays).
This post is actually the beginning of a whole series about trams in South Korea. There are some very interesting plans in the making and I’ll introduce further development up to plans for the revival of streetcars in Seoul.