On August 24, 2023, the Tallinn tram will celebrate its 135th anniversary. Tallinn is the only city in Estonia with a tram network. During the long history of the city’s tram services, Estonia has undergone eight regime changes, the tram company’s name has been changed 15 times, and the company has had 26 directors. What has not changed once, meanwhile, is the track gauge: 1,067 mm, exactly as it was first laid in 1888.
Tallinn’s tram services have been through two world wars. Towards the end of the Second World War, on 9 March 1944, the Soviet air force commenced the bombing of Tallinn, as a result of which nearly 40% of Tallinn’s housing stock was destroyed, and tram services, too, did not escape unscathed.
The first trams in Tallinn were horse-drawn – a system that prevailed for 30 years. Horse-drawn tram routes ran along the main streets of the city: Narva, Tartu, and Pärnu maantee. Even today, trams still operate on these routes. In 1902, horse-drawn tram routes totalled 7.24 km in length. In 1917, passengers were served by 37 tramcars.
The next tram line was opened in the Kopli district of Tallinn in 1915. It was built by the factories situated there (the Russo-Baltic Shipyard and AS Böckler ja Co) to provide transport to their employees. The route was initially served by steam locomotives, which were soon supplemented with internal combustion locomotives. The track was built with a wide gauge (1,524 mm) so that it could also be used for transporting freight to and from the Kopli railway freight terminal. When the First World War put an end to horse-drawn tram services in 1918, the Kopli tram route continued operating. The war did not make it easy, but it was still the main means of transport connecting the Kopli Peninsula with the city centre.
After horse-drawn tram transport was disrupted in 1918, tram services stopped running in downtown Tallinn until 13 May 1921. On that date, petrol-powered trams put together from the cars of the old horse-drawn trams were launched on the newly repaired track.
Electric trams were introduced in Tallinn on 28 October 1925, when they were put into service on the Narva maantee route. The trams were powered by 600 V direct current. The cars of the trams were assembled in Tallinn’s local factories, using parts and sub-assemblies from Germany and Sweden.
In 1931, the Kopli track was converted to 1,067 mm gauge and given over exclusively to petrol-powered trams.
By 1940, Tallinn’s tram routes measured 13.4 km in total, including the 5.1-km-long single-track route in Kopli, which ran from the Tallinn University of Technology to the Baltic Station. The Kopli track had not yet been electrified. At the time, there were a total of 54 tramcars in use, including 20 electric tramcars, nine petrol-powered tramcars, and 25 trailer units. In 1939, Tallinn’s trams transported over 143 million passengers.
The next step in the development of Tallinn’s tram network came in 1951, when the Kopli route was made into a dual-track route and was electrified. In 1953, the Kopli route was linked up with the routes serving the city centre in Viru Square. In 1955, the Tartu maantee route was extended to Ülemiste. From then on, changes were mostly of local relevance. In March 2014, before reconstruction work began on tram route No. 4, the city’s tramways, when measured one way, totalled 39 km. Trams currently run on four routes: Kopli – Kadriorg (route No. 1), Kopli – Ülemiste (route No. 2), Tondi – Kadriorg route No. 3), and Tondi – Ülemiste (route No. 4).
During their long history, Tallinn’s tramways have carried a number of very different tramcars. The cars of the horse-drawn trams were made in Belgium, while the locomotives and cars of the city’s steam trams were acquired used from St. Petersburg. The five different factories that operated in Tallinn built several types of tramcars. In 1930, a tram snowplow was bought from Sweden. Between 1951 and 1954, Tallinn’s tram depot manufactured 15 electrically driven tramcars and 23 trailer units.
In 1955, more modern trams started to be sourced from the Gotha plant in Germany. From 1955 to 1964, 50 tram locomotives of various types and 50 trailer units were purchased from there, plus another 50 G4 articulated trams in 1965–1967. From 1973, trams started to be procured from the Czechoslovakian manufacturer CKD-Tatra. Between 1973 and 1990, a total of 60 T4-type trams and 73 KT-4-type articulated trams were acquired from Prague. During the last 11 years (2004–2013), 47 used, but functional, KT-4D trams have been purchased from various cities in Germany (Gera, Cottbus, Erfurt, Frankfurt am Oder) to grow the fleet and replace trams that have become unserviceable. The trams that are in operation today are numbered from 133 to 180. Between 2001 and 2004, 12 low-floor central tramcar segments were purchased and fitted onto KT-4 trams, whereby they were converted to type KT-6.
Between 1953 and 1997, a total of 39 various special-purpose trams were built at the tram depot, of which nine are still in use today: snowplows and rail grinding trams, overhead line repair trams, a shunting tram, a training tram, museum tramcars, etc.
The golden years of tram transport in Tallinn were: 1975, when a total of 162 tramcars were in operation; 1979, when the city’s trams travelled a total of 6.9 million kilometres; and 1988, when tram services were used by 109 million passengers. In 2006, Tallinn’s trams drove 3.15 million kilometres and carried 26.2 million passengers. At the beginning of 2007, 83 KT-4 trams were in service, plus 12 KT-6 trams with a low-floor central segment. This allows for a departure interval of 4–5 minutes during peak hours.
In 2013, TLT AS purchased an additional five refurbished KT-4 trams from Germany. These are all still in service today. At the beginning of 2014, a total of 77 trams (65 KT4 trams and 12 KT6 trams) ran on Tallinn’s routes.
On 7 April 2014, major reconstruction work started on tram route No. 4, as a result of which the entire route and its infrastructure was modernised. This included the upgrading of the underground utilities, as well as roads, sidewalks, and greenery along the route. The entire tramway was given a concrete base and fitted with new overhead lines, the depot on Pärnu maantee was upgraded, and the traction substations were renovated.
The tram route reconstruction project was completed in late 2015, after which 20 new modern trams manufactured in Spain by CAF started running on tram routes No. 3 and 4.
2016–2017 saw the reconstruction of the Kopli tramway and depot. In total, 16 kilometres of the tramway were reconstructed, from Viru Square to the Kopli depot. The rails were moved to a concrete base and the overhead line and electricity towers were replaced. On the section between Suur Rannavärav and the Baltic Station, the tramway was moved closer to the Skoone Bastion in consideration of the potential closure of Rannavärava Street to car traffic. Three traction substations were fitted with new equipment. At the Viru Roundabout, the new vision for the central street of Tallinn was taken into account. Waiting platforms and shelters were installed at all stops. Road junctions were made safer by installing traffic lights and redesigning traffic logistics solutions. The Kopli tram depot was given parking facilities for new CAF Urbos trams. From autumn 2017, trams run directly from the city centre to the airport. To make this possible, the tramway was extended from the turning canyon on Peterburi maantee up to the terminal.
Today, Tallinn’s tram services are kept running by 130 tram drivers, five engineering and technical staff at depots and workshops, 45 qualified tram maintenance and repair workers, and 20 track repair and maintenance workers.