The Peculiar Personalities of Trams

It’s one of those spring days which are warm or cold depending upon whether or not you’re standing in the sunlight or the shadows. I have somehow managed to secure both, with my head in the bright sun and my butt cooling in the shade. My soon-to-be fellow passengers are mature, with the average age, including me, some teenagers, and a woman with a gaggle of children, resting somewhere in the high 230s.

As the 1 tram approaches the mature passengers halt any conversations and edge towards what they know to be the spots where the doors will open. The tram gets closer and the tension is palpable. Who will get the Class A seats by the door, the ones in the shade? Wrinkly elbows begin to wield and I let them go. Last week I was clipped by a suspiciously well-placed walker to the shin. In any event, I’m still getting used to the personality of the trams out here. And I don’t want to overstep my bounds.

If you spend time riding around on Prague’s transportation system, you learn quickly enough that each tram has something of a personality. More than the metros and far more than the buses (the recognized bores of the transport world), trams have a feel, a personality, and these are fostered by their routes.  

The number 1 tram is sort of like an old man. It takes care of the residents from the oldest Paneláks in Prague, and carries a conspicuously geriatric clientage. It skirts the busy parts of the city, sneaking up across the hump of Prague’s back. It crosses two bridges which entail slowing its gait down to a crawl. The rest of the trip he takes like an old guy who’s in no rush. He chugs through squares, revs a little and sighs as he inches past the parks, almost taking them in. The drivers assigned to the route are mellow, slow, and steady. There are no aggressive dudes with the heavy bell fingers you’ll experience on the Žižkov lines. They are there to soothe the mature hearts of its passengers. About a month a 1 tram driver with a heavy bell finger shocked and upset the riders; the disapproving looks were overwhelming. The oldest woman in Prague shouted at him as she got off the tram. And then so did her older sister. We never saw him again. He’s probably thronging his aggressive way through one of the Smíchov lines.  

It’s taken me a while to get used to the 1 tram. Before moving to Petřiny, I spent more than a decade riding the river tram lines, the 3, 17, and 21. These guys have been on the front line of river traffic for years. They get the summer Podolí swimming pool traffic and the traffic to the center. They get tourists up and down the river, and bring them over to Letna and into the city to Masarykovo train station. They do a loop into gritty Anděl. In the winter they get pounded with winds getting across the bridge and they have been there for each of Madam Vltava’s grumpy eruptions. By the time spring rolls around, they are crusted and grimy, their numbers almost invisible. These guys have the aggressive drivers.  

Then there are the old giants of the Prague tram world, the 9 and the 22. These are like the old guard lone bull elephants. The Tree Beards. They have the hard routes right through the center. Their floors and stairs get beat down by thousands of feet each day. They see the most traffic, detours, and delays. But yet they chug along with no complaint. When they rumble through the center, people step aside, there’s almost a moment of respectful silence. I might even tip a cap occasionally.

Now you’ve got the trams that have routes through shady, shifty, secret Vršovice. The 18, 14, and sometimes, apparently, the 6 go through those grimy back neighborhoods and stalk those back streets. They deal with the morning drunks in Nusle, go beneath the luckless Suicide Bridge.

And from those backroads comes the 7 onto the river. The 7. The enigma. But only when it wants. Nowhere in Prague is there another tram that is so off its proclaimed schedule. The 7 tram can be four minutes late or six minutes early. Its driver will offer no apologies. The passengers looked spooked, changed, shellshocked. The whole feel is as if it’s coming from somewhere out of a Stephen King story.  

Today the 1 tram pulls alongside an 11 on the way into Spojovací. For a moment we are looking directly into each other’s windows. The feel is that of two eighteenth century warships about to engage in cannon battle. I lock eyes with a young guy who has also looked up from his book. I assess. The 11 tram is Hollywood, goes past the famous cemeteries into the popular area of Vinohrady. It sees some havoc as it goes through IP Pavlova and heads into Vršovice. The man looking back at me is no doubt considering the qualifications of my 1 tram. The stare off is relatively good natured, with a hint of mutual respect. We nod and go back to our books. At least it wasn’t a 12. Those guys are crazy.

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