By Aleksandra Ianchenko (with contributions from Louise Sträuli and Tauri Tuvikene)
If we start thinking about trams, the following range of images will, perhaps, appear in our mind: The night street with the illuminated tram in the middle, a vintage tramcar running through the city, passing by old buildings with decorated facades or, finally, the shiny modern tram finding its way alongside cars and buses on the busy road during rush hour. All these images show not trams as such but rather the urban arrangement that surrounds them. How much are trams then connected to the city and urban environment?
Ossi Naukkarinen argues that trams are inherently urban and that ‘when one sees the tram, one knows one is not in the countryside’ (Naukkarinen 2003, 251). To his mind, trams create a special atmosphere strengthening a sense of urbanity. The tram experience is only possible in an urban setting. With trams often positioned in designated corridors, they have major implications for urban planning. The tramrails form a sort of structural axis of districts. Moreover, because of their rails and wires trams are always visible on the city fabric even when the vehicle itself has already left. Trams can thus have an urban imprint even without actual tram vehicles running.
Well, it seems clear then that trams are intrinsically urban. But can our imagination place them outside cites?
An epitome for such imagination, the coastal tram (in Dutch ‘Kusttram’), ‘a contemporary icon of the Belgian coast’ (De Man, et al. 2010, 11) draws up a new image – the pale yellow tram running through the dunes with the bright blue sea in the background. It drew our attention and inspired us to make a journey in order to imagine the different forms of trams and if this form of transport can really be non-urban.
On Sunday morning after the T2M conference we took a train from Brussels and after two hours hopped on board of the Kusttram at De Panne Station. The prior desk research revealed that the coastal tram is the longest single tram line in the world. It is the only inter-urban tram remaining in Europe and runs from the French to the Dutch border along the Belgian coast. The tram ride promises unique views of the seaside and a variety of historical sightseeing and touristic amenities along the route.
After a short ride we stopped at an old Depot in De Panne, the only museum of the coastal tram. Patrick, the restorer working in the Depot, came to meet us, showed us old vehicles and told us stories about the trams in renovation. The coastal line was inaugurated in 1885. Sitting in the cosy compartments with wooden panels and soft seats reminded us of living spaces rather than transport vehicles. Beautiful flower-shaped art nouveau lamps only enhanced this feeling of visiting someone’s old house. Although, governed and financed by the transport company De Lijn, the Depot seems to live off the enthusiasm and passion of the people working there. They carefully preserve vehicles and historical artefacts related to the Kusttram as well as organize festivals and rides on vintage trams that are loved by the inhabitants of the neighbouring areas and visiting tourists.
Back on the Kusttram, we started observing the other passengers. Who are they? Are they tourists or locals? What are the people doing, where going? We saw many people with dogs. We also saw many older people: the tram seems to be appreciated, at least on Sundays, by a predominantly ‘grey-haired audience’. Contrary to our expectations, people seemed to be merely busy getting to a desired location. Perhaps they talked to their companions, perhaps tried to peek out of the advertisement-covered windows or entertained themselves on their mobile phones. Nobody – apart from us – seemed to be particularly excited about using such a prominent tram line. Spared from tourists and unnoticed by visitors, the modern tram continued to move modestly fast and smoothly along the coast serving its users’ practical needs.
Then, suddenly, the moment of our touristic expectations arrived: the tram left its narrow corridor between the buildings and entered an open space. This is it! The blue stripe of the sea and the wide sand shore to our left side offered a remarkable view, which had been reproduced so often by numerous postcards, or even on a puzzle.
But even this picturesque landscape – the highlight of the coastal tram scenery – did not seem to excite the other passengers in the tram. It was clear that the ride was merely a part of their daily routine and not a sightseeing tour. To be honest, this (at least for us) impressive passage where the tram runs directly along the coast lasted for only about a quarter of an hour. This means that the famous picture of the tram winding its way along the coast between the dunes is not at all representative of the tram. Moreover, regarding the urban-ness of the tram, despite the fact that the nature was that close, we could not get rid of the feeling that we were still in a cityscape. And the next stop – Ostend – only deepened these feelings.
Halfway along the tramline lies the port city of Ostend (Oostende in Dutch; Ostende in French). This city urbanized already in the late 19th century, due to its important function in the international train network and transformed into a seaside resort. At that time, the touristic value of the coastal tram was highlighted. The extension of the steam tram line in 1888, connecting Ostend to the exclusive holiday resort of Blankenberg, unveiled ‘the beauty of the dune stripe for millions of people.’ (Van Acker 2010, 94). Strolling along the embankment next to a variety of holiday resorts from the post-war period, modernist and occasionally brutalist architecture, we almost forgot about the tram that winds its way somewhere behind the buildings.
Despite the stormy weather and the off-season, Ostend distinctly reminded us that we were still at a tourist destination: its many restaurants and entertainment facilities promised an interesting place for visitors. This encouraged us to visit the tourist information centre in order to get more information about the tram. We wanted to know if and how much the tram is part of tourist attactions.
‘No, this tram is just a useful means of transport. It is fully practical.’ – sharply said the lady behind the counter at the tourist information centre. We attempted to insist that the tram might have some symbolic meanings or touristic attractiveness. ‘No. As I said, it is fully functional.’ – the lady made her point clearly and without any hesitations. Although defeated in this debate, we were not fully convinced and continued our explorations.
The next stop was De Haan aan de Zee. This place which translates as “the rooster by the sea” appeared in our list because of the remarkable tram stop pavilion. The well-preserved building with its façade with decorative wooden and stone elements, reminds its visitor of the times at the turn of the twentieth century, when the coastal tram was part of a larger network of cross-country trams – the Buurttrams (neighbourhood trams). As with Ostend, the arrival of the tram turned the small fisherman hamlet into the flourishing seaside resort and entailed the construction of hotels and casinos.
We wanted to know more about the symbolic potential of the Kusttram, so we approached a person working at the kiosk nearby the station to ask whether the tram can be considered as a symbol of De Haan. We received an instant refusal of our expectation – ‘No, not at all! It is just for transport!’. The historical significance of the tramline seemed to occupy little space in his understanding. This was also confirmed by our short enquiries of travellers we met at the tram stop. They were generally sceptical about the symbolic value of the tramline number 0 and were surprised when we told them about the uniqueness of this tram: a young family from Belgium did not even know that with the length of about 70 kilometres, this is the longest tram line in the world.
We finished our journey at Blankenberg to take the train back to Brussels. During this last part of the trip we exchanged our experiences and discussed what we had seen through the day.
First, the tram, despite its unique history and decisive influence on the development, wealth and growth of the coast region remains very practical and functional for those who take it on a daily basis. It almost seems like Kusttram somehow resists to be a heritage despite its huge potential.
Second, the local administration seemed not to have any intentions to emphasise the symbolic value of the tram. This is visible in the lack of using the tram line, for example, on souvenirs. In contrast to the late nineteenth century, when the tram fulfilled an important touristic function, today this function is limited to a few days of a festival, exclusive heritage rides and some touristic websites that advertise the coastal tram journey in connection with ‘combo tickets’ that offer reduced entrance fees for museums or amusement sights.
Finally, the tram line, its historical development and significance today has fuelled our discussion about the urban character of the tram. While only a short part of the present line runs along the sea coast, the rest of the route has throughout years become increasingly embedded into the growing urban environment. However, this is a proof of the idea, posited by Naukkarinen, that trams have the power to create a sense of urbanity and urban atmosphere. The coastal tram, famous enough for us to undertake a wonderful day trip, runs through ten different municipalities and thereby turns the whole Belgian coastline into a unified city that extends along the tracks.
The supposedly non-urban coastal tram is actually a very urban one.
De Man, Luc, Mieke Renders, Yvan Bellaert, Dirk Schockaert, and Carla Tavernier. 2010. “Introduction.” In The Coastal Tram: A multifaceted view of development along the Belgian coast, by Dirk Schockaert, 10-13. Tielt: Lannoo Publishers.
Naukkarinen, Ossi. 2003. “Mobile Cities: The Tram and the Uses of urban Space.” In The Urban Identity: The City as a Place to Dwell , by Eva Naripea, Piret Viires and Andres Kurg, 249-261. Tallinn: Estonian Academy of Arts.
Van Acker, Maarten. 2010. “Tram infrastructure and urbanisation at the coast.” In The Coastal Tram: A multifaceted view of development along the Belgian coast, by Dirk Schockaert, 90-103. Tielt: Lannoo Publishers.