The Trams of Riga: A History

The Trams of Riga: A History
20 July 2023

For the English traveller, the trams of Riga are among the city’s most distinctive features. It is, for us, a novelty to have these train-like carriers gliding speedily through cobbled streets. In England, a country with a population of fifty-six million, there are just six tramway systems; in Latvia, with less than two million residents, there are three. But the trams of Riga are special in another respect: the fleet constitutes both the slick glass boxes of modern invention, and the colourful tin-cans of the Soviet era. This reflects the constant development of the network over the last century and a half.

Laying the Tracks of the Riga Trams

Before the age of electricity, trams were horse-drawn. Horse-drawn public transport didn’t start in Riga with the tram: in 1852, the first horse-drawn buses began operation. But it wasn’t long before the tram caught up.

In fact, it wasn’t a Latvian—or even a Russian—who was to be instrumental in this development. Rather, the engineer Louis-Eugene Dupont was a son of Geneva, from the suburb of Troinex now fittingly home to the local Tram Museum. Dupont studied in Zürich and contributed to the construction of a tramway in his own city in the 1860s, before setting his sights on foreign shores.

In 1874, Riga City Council signed an agreement with Dupont allowing him to install tramlines and operate trams. And on the 23rd August 1882, the Riga tramway opened on three routes. The street names these trams ran along have all changed with the rise and fall of empires. But the steel of the tracks, hunkering down among fine-fettled cobbles, has remained.

The Network Grows

But horsepower was a second-best in the industrial age. And as the importance of Riga grew and became a manufacturing centre within the Russian Empire, the time came to do away with the horses. Under modernising English mayor George Armitstead, the system underwent electrification. In 1901, electric trams were running on seven lines, and by the end of Armitstead’s tenure, they had adopted the numbering system we are familiar with today.

During the interwar and Soviet period, the network was successively expanded and the technology updated. Many of the trams—such as the Tatra T3 model—were bought from Czechoslovakia. Soviet-era trams can still be seen in the city today, marked out by their steep stairways for entrance. They are painted in picturesque bright colours that stand out against the wooden façades in the older parts of the city.

The Riga Tram Network Today

The modern Riga transport system, Rīgas Satiksme, is fully integrated with later public transport developments—the buses and trolleybuses. That means that with just one ticket, you can travel on all three. Since 2010, the tramways have been updated with low-floor trams to improve accessibility and ease of use.

If you stand by the National Opera, you can watch all the trams of the last five decades pass by: old and new glide along the same tracks. What’s more, I can personally attest to the large-scale works going on to maintain the network today. My daily journey from the Central Market to Balvu Iela is interrupted by the drilling and hammering of workmen, making sure that the trams are still running in a decade and a half from now!

Luke is a history and languages student interning at Liden & Denz, Riga.

Image credit to author.

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