SUNDAY MAGAZINE

On wheels of history

Meticulously restored: The trams in their yards.

Meticulously restored: The trams in their yards.   | Photo Credit: Photo: Aparna Karthikeyan

APARNA KARTHIKEYAN

Vignettes from a vintage tram ride in Amsterdam.

Polished wooden seats, lovely brass handles, old-fashioned light-bulbs, leather hang-straps, rich felt screens beneath the seat…it certainly feels like I’ve travelled back in time. But then, I was quite literally doing that, in a handsomely restored vintage tram (nearly 80 years old) commuting elegantly between Bovenkerk, a suburb south of Amsterdam to Haarlemmermeer station, in the city. With mellow sunshine filtering-in through the coloured glass-panes, a tramline flanked by lush suburbs and a real forest, the ride was truly enchanting!

The Electrische Museumtramlijn Amsterdam (EMA) that owns, restores and runs the vintage tram-cars is unique in many respects; with a tram-line a little over seven km, it probably has the longest museum tram-lines in all of Europe; and most importantly, it is run entirely by volunteers. Whipping out my camera every few minutes I click pictures of other vintage trams, the riotously colourful back-gardens by the endearing canals, little girls gathering posies of wild summer flowers… Clearly, they aren’t lying when they call it, “De Mooiste tramlijn van Nederland” (the most beautiful tram-line in The Netherlands).

Addictive experience

What they do not mention is that the ride can be addictive! I’m back the following Sunday, raring for another go. Since it’s the tramline’s annual day, several magnificently restored trams are out in the open. I pop into the tram we rode the previous week — an elegant, blue tram, which is now displayed as the “trouwtram” (wedding tram)! Inside is an exhibition (pictures of beaming, newly-wed couples aboard that very tram!) being put together by Tim Castricum, an ardent tram-enthusiast and volunteer for the past 14 years. “Oh yes”, he says, laughing at my look of surprise, “at least four weddings a year happen in our trams, while several others use it to ferry them to and from the church/council.”

As the publicity, website, admin co-ordinator, Castricum sets aside, five hours a day for his passion; and he talks eloquently about his favourite subject. “It was in September 1975 that the first restored vintage trams ran in Amsterdam,” he recalls. “Tram enthusiasts had been working on restoring old Amsterdam trams since 1968, and in 1975, they commemorated 100 years of trams and 700 years of the city’s existence by a 1.5-km tram ride on the privately owned, licensed rail-road!” Over the years, with the dedication and unstinting hard work of a pool of nearly 250 highly skilled volunteers, vintage trams dating from 1904 to 1954, from several European cities were lovingly refurbished; tracks were then laid, overhead wires put into place and the trams clanked away!

I then hop on to the Groningen-tram with Robert Logger, a volunteer since 1982, and currently the chairman of the Rijdend Electrisch Tram Museum (RETM). Outfitted in the traditional navy uniform, he dispenses tickets from an old-fashioned metal box, rings a brass-bell to signal to the driver, changes tracks manually, and hops on-and-off to wave a red-flag at intersections.

What’s especially striking about the trams is the authenticity, the old-world charm — so far removed from the soulless, moulded-plastic and steel present-day trams! I walk along with Castricum to watch the actual restoration process in the shed, where the smell of old wood and varnish is pervasive. “All this,” he says pointing to a roomful of old wood, “are old benches from scrapped trams that were too far gone. Now, you don’t get old teak that easily; and even if you do, it costs a pretty packet!” But how do they finance all their good work? “Well, we get donations, while ticket-sales take care of about 1/4th of the expenses. Tram rentals, however, remains our major money-spinner; it’s hugely popular, and we have weddings, birthdays etc. organised aboard our trams” says Castricum.

We then walk back to the Haarlemmermeer station, for a cup of coffee, passing the control tower, from where volunteer Frans Alders co-ordinates the movements of the trams, a very important task, given that the railroad is single-track for most of the way! At the café, I meet Caroline Henre, who’s been part of the movement since she was six years old, when she used to come there with her father. “When I turned 16, I started to volunteer, and for the past 22 years I’ve done everything — technical stuff, been conductor, driver, co-ordinator and now I work in the kitchen!”

Great ambience

Sitting there, listening to the friendly banter between the volunteers, it’s easy to understand why the movement is so successful…they’re remarkably committed, passionate about the trams and as Henre puts it, almost “one big family”. The air is thick with jargon — there is talk of axles and brakes, motors and inspection pits; its here that timetables are drawn, collections counted and events planned. We’re joined by more volunteers, and among them is William Ballman. “Talk to him, he’ll have some really fascinating things to say,” I’m assured. And fascinating it certainly was! Ballman was the first conductor of Amsterdam tram No. 465, on Septeber 20, 1975, the day the first vintage tram ran! His association with trams began the day he was born. He says, “I have nostalgic memories of the 1940s and 50s when these old trams plied the city and it gives me great pleasure when we put them back on track!” And that’s a sentiment that’s shared by the whole group. “These trams are museums that are alive; museums that move, make a sound; and they’re a Dutch heritage that I’m incredibly proud of,” adds Castricum.



At a glance

The tram runs between Easter and October; but trams can be rented for a private event any time of the year.

A ride on the tram costs two euros for kids and four euros for adults

(round-trip) and lasts about an hour and a half.

Amsterdam is well connected to several Indian cities by direct flights.

Summer (July/August) is the busiest tourist season, when temperatures hover in the mid-twenties; but if you want to catch the celebrated bulb-fields in action, Spring (April/May) is the best time to visit.

There are hotels to suit every budget in and around the city; good rooms in three star hotels can be had for 75-100 euros, while youth hostels cost between 15-30 euros.

With 51 museums, 165 canals, 1281 bridges, 21 markets, the (in)famous

red-light district and coffee-shops, Amsterdam has plenty to offer to visitors. But then, if bustling cities are not your thing, you can always bike down the dikes, take-off to Delft, Edam, Medemblik and explore a small, charming

Dutch-town.



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