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Trieste: Hundred years of loyal service

John Gillham records the centenary of the Trieste—Villa Opicina tramway.
His article is based largely on information kindly supplied by Dr. David Jelercic

Approaching the top of the funicular section, old cable car 1 in charge of tram 405 on 14 October 1969.(M. R. Taplin

Trieste is an ancient and very important seaport, at the head of the Adriatic, some 115 km east of Venezia (Venice). Its history shows why the city has such a cosmopolitan character.

It started as an Illyrian village back in BC days, but in AD 9 it became by conquest an important Roman colony (Tergeste). It was later an independent republic for many centuries. In 1382 it came under the Hapsburg monarchy and Austrian rule, which it twice lost and regained, being briefly occupied by Napoleon. Triest became the only outlet to the Mediterranean of the vast Austro-Hungarian empire, and was declared a free port in 1719.

It remained Austrian until 3 November 1918, when it was given, together with its surrounding territory and the Istrian peninsula (stretching for 90 km to the south), to Italy, in the victory settlement after the First World War. The area to the east of Trieste had already passed from Austrian rule to the newly-created Yugoslavia on 8 April 1918.

In September 1943 German troops occupied the area, and the city became an integral part of the so-called Adriatisches Küstenland (operational zone of the Adriatic coastal territory), a province under direct German rule. In 1945 the victorious Yugoslav partisan troops, backed by Russia, invaded Trieste and freed it from German occupation from 1 May 1945.

A profusion of boundaries
From 1946 to 1954 Trieste was occupied and governed by a joint British/US military force as the so-called independent Free Territory of Trieste, or Zone A. Disputed rural territory for about 30 km south of the city was known as Zone B and administered by Yugoslavia. With the London memorandum of 5 October 1954, Zone A with the city of Trieste was handed over to Italy and Zone B became part of Yugoslavia. But the precise location of the border between the two countries was not agreed until 10 November 1975, when by the Treaty of Osimo, Zone A became legally Italian. With the political break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s the boundary between the independent countries of Slovenia to the north and Croatia to the south was on 25 June 1991 fixed at 16 km south of Trieste, or just over halfway down what had been Zone B, but this was not recognised by other states until May 1995. The Slovenian frontier is just 8 km from Trieste city centre.

But this was only effective until 12 June 1945, when the partisans withdrew and Allied troops from Great Britain and New Zealand took over. There then started a period of disputed territories, with many complications (see box) that were not resolved in a practical sense until 5 October 1954 (the city became Italian again) and in a legal sense until 10 November 1975 (the precise border with Yugoslavia was finally agreed). The break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s created another border on Trieste’s doorstep, between Slovenia and Croatia (Slovenia’s only outlet to the sea is a 16-km strip of Istria with the towns of Koper and Pirano, just south of Trieste).

Trieste today is firmly part of Italy, but at the east end of a narrow coastal strip, nowhere more than eight km wide, and thus practically surrounded by Slovenian territory. Its population is about 207 000. Immediately behind the city there are high limestone hills, rising to over 700 m, with many caves, and known further north as the Giulian Alps, but locally as the Karst. As with most hills near urban areas, a commercial opportunity was seen to take tourists up to vantage points, and the advent of reliable electric traction at the turn of the century provided the means.

Thus on 9 September 1902 the Trieste—Opicina light railway was inaugurated, and has recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. The line is well known by many LRTA members; it was covered in Dr. Aldo Ancona’s article ‘Tramways in Trieste’ in Modern Tramway for December 1967, and there was an official visit to it on 14 October 1969, when a large party led by J. H. Price called there en route from Wien (Vienna) to Roma. Not only is the line a technical curiosity, but there can be few other tramways that have been through so many political upheavals during their history.

The street tramway section in Trieste with car 404 on duty 1 serving route 2. (M. J Russell

The metre-gauge 5.2-km electric tramway, single track with passing loops, was constructed in 1901-2. It ran from Piazza della Caserma (now Piazza Oberdan), on the northern edge of the city centre, up the hill to the village of Villa Opicina, a residential and tourist area, where it terminated at Piazza Monte Re in the village centre. The section of line from Piazza Scorcola (405 m north of Piazza Oberdan) to Vette Scorcola climbs some 160 m in a horizontal distance of 869 m, and need the Strub rack system to cope with the maximum gradient of 26%. The rest of the line is adhesion worked.

Restored museum tram 1 at the Piazza Oberdan terminus on centenary day, 9 September 2002. (A. di Matteo

The bottom 405 m, along Via Martiri Della Liberta, was a street tramway. The upper section has a few lengths of street track, but is mostly on roadside reservation or private right-of-way. At first there were only eight intermediate stops, all but one (Sant Anastasio) with passing loops. Three more stops were added later. The upper line is still mostly in open rural country, with Obelisco (a large old posting inn and hotel) at what is today an important road junction. The obelisk was erected in 1830 to commemorate the completion of the first proper highway across the Karst, permitting a connection between Triest and Wien.

There is an attractive terminal building at P. Oberdan, and another at Villa Opicina. The main depot is alongside the latter: originally with two tracks, it was extended to five tracks in about 1910. A smaller depot for the rack locomotives was located at the Romagna stop. Current collection was originally by trolley pole, but soon changed to pantographs.

The original owner and operator of the tramway was the Societa Anonima delle Piccole Ferrovie di Trieste, which kept it for almost 60 years. On 29 October 1961 it was taken over by the Trieste municipality, and traded first as Servizio Comunale Trenovia and from 31 December 1970 as azienda Comunale Elettricita, Gas, Acqua e Tranvie (ACEGAT). On 1 July 1977 this became Azienda Consorziale Trasporti (ACT), and on 1 January 2001 Trieste Trasporti SpA.

When the line opened in 1902 passenger service was provided by five two-axle double-ended conventional trams supplied by Graz with UEG equipment. Each tram was 9.9 m long, 2.52 m wide, 3.3 m high, and with a 3.25-m wheelbase. Unladen weight was 10 t, and the maximum speed 10 km/h. The open platforms were fitted with windscreens in about 1908. 28 seated passengers and 10 standing could be accommodated on cars 1 and 2; 32+12 on 3-5, although rebuilding increased these figures subsequently. 2-4 were of the open-sided type for use during the summer, and had only metal bars along the window space. Three more (6-8) were ourchased in 1903/8/13, while 1903 also saw the delivery of an un-numbered freight car fitted with a six cubic meter water tank.

The crossing loop on the funicular section with cable buffer cars 1 and 2 in charge of passenger trams. (A. di Matteo

These eight trams were pushed up the rack section by one of a pair of electric locomotives, with rack-and-pinion drive, and bow collectors for current collection. A third arrived in 1903. All were built by SLM in Switzerland with UEG equipment to the same design as those for the Rittnerbahn between Bozen and Oberbozen (Bolzano). The 3.69-m long cars had a wheelbase of 1.95 m and weighed 10.6 t. Maximum speed up and down the rack section was 7.5 km/h. In the spring of 1906 one of these rack locos was transferred to the Rittnerbahn to assist in the construction of the Renon light railway.

On 10 October 1902 passenger car 2 ran away just after the Cologna stop and went straight down the Scorcola incline before ending up embedded in a house just above he small depot at the Romagna stop. A song in the local dialect was written about the accident, and is still famous today. As a result of this incident, and other minor setbacks, the company installed rack rail for braking purposes on the upper adhesion section where the gradient exceeded 7%, and the trams were fitted with a rotating pinion wheel to engage this.

In 1906 the main line of the Imperial Royal State Railways (kkStB) was opened linking Triest with Gorizia and Villach, with a station and marshalling yard on the northern edge of Opicina village. The tramway was extended on 19 July 1906 by 1285 m from the depot to a little beyond the railway station. It is believed that the extension was worked as a one-car shuttle service. The extension was closed in April 1938.

When the fascists took over in 1924 they renamed Piazza Caserma as Piazza Oberdan, and this became the new name of the lower tram terminus. Gugliemo Oberdan was a young Italian martyr who had been imprisoned nd executed about 40 years earlier by the Austrians in the barracks there.

On 26 April 1928 the rack railway was replaced by cable haulage, using two ‘new’ cable dummies equipped by Theodor Bell of Kriens, Switzerland (another source says the rack locos formed the basis for these). They were 4.71 m long, and fitted with a pantograph, to supply current for lighting rather than traction. These tractor cars were known in Italian as carro scudo, literally shield cars.

Trieste’s city trams
There was an extensive urban street tramway system, with horse cars from 1883 and electric trams from 1900, growing to 11 routes totalling some 26 km. The electric trams were built by a Belgian company, but municipalized in 1921. During its history there were about 220 two-axle trams, plus 48 four-motor bogie cars built in 1933-38, some of which finished their lives with STEFER in Roma. Trolleybuses replaced all but four routes in 1951-58, and the rest survived until motorbus replacement in 1970. Trolleybuses, which peaked at 84 vehicles, disappeared in 1975. More recently Trieste was the site for an experimental electric-powered bus using magnetic induction for pick-up from a rail laid in the street along Via Mazzini, marketed by Ansaldo as STREAM. This seems to have been unsuccessful.

The cable section of the route is 799 m long (869 m between the bottom and top stations), and the traction cables are 950 m long with a 42-mm diameter containing 186 wires. At the top of the cable section there is a winding house containing the control equipment and winding drum. There is an inspection pit between the running rails. At the bottom of the cable section there is a short spur track to enable the dummy car to retreat from blocking the running line, while just above the top there is a section of three tracks to permit one car to overtake another, also two short runaway trap sidings.

In 1935-6 the original passenger cars were replaced by five new steel-bodied four-axle bogie trams of conventional appearance, numbered 101-5. They were built by Officine Meccaniche della Stanga (OMS) of Padova, with electrical equipment by Teconomasi Italiano Brown Boveri (TIBB). Each of the 50-seat trams is 13.37 m long, 2.5 m wide and 3.45 m high, with an unladen weight of 16.8 t. The Brill-type BF3/1 bogies have a 1.82 m wheelbase and the bogie centre separation is 8.92 m. Four 25 kW motors permit a maximum speed of 35 km/h. The TIBB hand controllers are equipped for rheostatic braking. There are also air brakes, hand-wheel operated mechanical braking, and electro-magnetic shoe brakes.

Two more similar trams arrived in 1942; due to wartime shortages the seating is more spartan, window corners are square instead of rounded, the air vents above each window are missing, and the controller covers are not of brass. In February 1974 the fleet was renumbered 401-7, to avoid clashing with maintenance vehicles owned by the city transport authority.

Of the original passenger trams, 2 and 7 were scrapped in the late 1930s, 3/4/8 were converted into freight cars for a public freight service that ran until 1955. 1 was converted to a combined breakdown/towing/overhead repair car, and 5/6 were also used as works cars, or when needed as a balancing weight on the incline if a regular tramcar was missing.

Today car 1 survives as a museum piece after being restored by the local tramway staff in 1992, and carries the green livery of the 1920s. It was renumbered 111, and more recently 411, and is now claimed to be the oldest tram still running in Europe today. Car 6, later renumbered 412, has been displayed for over 10 years in the Railway Museum of Trieste at Campo Marzio station, but is now undergoing complete restoration to running order by the naval workshop Quaiat, together with the third rack locomotive.

Winter snow is a regular feature at the top of the hill. 401 waits in the passing loop atConconello in November 1999. (A. di Matteo

The Opicina tramway suffered only minor damage during the Second World War, the allied bombing being concentrated on the docks area. In 1944 the partisans put a mine on the track, and one tram was damaged. During the 40-day Yugoslav rule in 1945, the trams had red stars painted on their sides and displayed Yugoslav flags.

In 1948 the tramway carried its maximum number of passengers, 3.16 million, but with the expansion of competing bus services and the rise in private motoring the number of passengers has reduced dramatically. However some feeder bus services have now been introduced from Villa Opicina to surrounding villages. In September 1955 the freight service ceased.

There is an excellent Railway Museum located in part of Trieste Campo Marzio railway station on the waterfront, and no longer used for passenger services. Trams are included in the collection, although the rolling stock exhibits stand outdoors and suffer from the weather. 1901 Opicina car 6 has been moved out for restoration, leaving ACEGAT 194 (Savigliano 1926), 427 (Stanga 1934) and 442/6 (Stanga 1938) on display. 446 came back from Roma. The museum custodian (tramway section) is Andrea di Matteo, who kindly supplied many of the photos used to illustrate this article, helped with advice from Dr. David Jelercic, who kindly supplied most of the information to the author. Signor Matteo is anxious to enlarge the displays and is searching for further photographs of both the Trieste system and the Opicina line, plus local trolleybuses, buses and railways. If anyone has any material to offer please contact Sig. Andrea di Matteo, Sezione Tranviaria, Museo Ferroviario, via Pacinotti 2, I-34131 Trieste, Italy (tel/fax 39 040 310582).

After almost 60 years of company ownership, the line was taken over by the Trieste municipality in 1961. In the summer of 1966 the basic service was reduced to the three-car 20-minute headway that is still provided today. In 1969 there was an intention to cut back the lower terminus from Piazza Oberdan to the base of the funicular (in conjunction with the final abandonment of the city tram network), but it met with such strong opposition that the idea was dropped.

There was a serious accident on 28 November 1975, when car 403 ran away down the hill and was so badly damaged it had to be scrapped. Towards the end of 1976 the line was closed for 18 months to permit complete reconstruction and relaying, re-opening on 6 March 1978. The cable buffer cars were replaced by two new carro scudo, numbered 1 and 2, and of very different appearance, with only a short control cabin in the centre of the 4.98-m long chassis, instead of the full-length box-type bodywork of the 1928 cars. They were built by BELL Maschinenfabrik in Switzerland, with bodywork by Chinetti of Varese. Four centrifugally-triggered brakes act on the rails in the case of a cable snapping, or can be pedal operated. Work in compliance with Ministry regulations for the funicualr section, with the introduction of an automatic running and control system, was completed in June 1984. Speed on the funicular section is now 9 km/h.

Today, with the three-car service, only one of the two tracks is used at Piazza Oberdan terminus, and only four of the former seven passing loops still survive. These are at Romagna (on the funicular section), Cologna Campo Sportivo, Conconello and Campo Romano. The normal service passes only at Romagna and Conconello, and the other two loops are used only if extra cars are running. Trams run every 20 minutes from 07.00 to 19.00, with departures from Piazza Oberdan at 11, 31 and 51 minutes past the hour, and from Villa Opicina at 00, 20 and 40 minutes past the hour.

Six of the seven blue-and-white trams are still running today, making 39 round trips/day compared with the 70 provided 40 years ago. Their seating does not make any allowance for the steep gradient of the cable section, and the unwary passenger will slide off the seat. The upper end of each car is equipped with hooks for carrying bicycles. At the lower end there is a stout runner buffer where the tram makes contact with the bright orange cable cars.

The scene at the Villa Opicina terminus in snowy November with the depot, and tram station to the right. (A. di Matteo

As the Opicina tramway celebrated its centenary on 9 September 2002, there were four different exhibitions in the city focussing on the line and its employees. Two small booklets were published for the occasion, and a set of medals issued, both in bronze and silver. Museum tram 1 was placed on the spare track at Piazza Oberdan as an information point with a side banner ‘The First Century of the Tram of Opicina, Trieste: 1902 — 9 September — 2002.

The future seems assured. Discussion has started on re-opening the former extension to the railway station at Opicina, and (perhaps with an eye on European enlargement) even extending it by 10 km across the border to Sczana in Slovenia. There are also suggestions that the Trieste terminus should be somewhere along the waterfront, by means of an extension from Piazza Oberdan.

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