Thursday, June 16, 2011

A New Life for Bogotá's Last Trolley

Don't expect it to take you anyplace. The Trolley Cafe, near the Centro Internacional. 
In a parking lot beside the Centro Internacional there is now a vehicle which never moves - an old trolley, which sat abandoned for many years. Its owner, Nelson, salvaged and repaired the trolley and has turned it into a cafe.

Nelson in his trolley. 
The old electric trolley, which ran on rubber wheels on the street, makes interesting historical contrast with the Transmilenio line on neighboring Ave. Caracas - whose buses move faster and have much greater capacity than trolleys, but also belch out diesel fumes - and the chaos and contamination of Seventh Ave, just one block east.

The trolley's sign, perhaps
indicating its final run.
The city set up trolley lines after the 1948 bogotazo riots destroyed the old streetcars, called tranvias. Many of the buses came from communist Eastern Europe, and some may have been imported from Russia in exchange for Colombian coffee. Trolley fare was cheaper than that of gasoline-powered buses, but some criticized the trolleys as unreliable. Sometimes the pantograph, which connects the car to the electrical line, would become disconnected, obliging the driver to get out and reposition it. Other times, the electricity would be cut, halting the whole system. And the ride often wasn't smooth, and many passengers and their shopping bags got knocked around by the powerful accelerations and sudden stops.

A trolley bus in their heyday. (Photo by Barry Blumstein)
Scrapped trolleys in a Bogotá field.
(Photo by Pablo Serra.)
Bogotanos apparently soured on the trolleys and during the 1980s they were scrapped in favor of 'modern' diesel buses. The last ones ran on Seventh Ave. until 1991, Nelson said. Undoubtedly, the interests of private companies who wanted to collect bus fares also influenced the decision. A visit to today's polluted and chaotic Seventh Ave. shows that bogotanos got the worst of all the options: a transit system without organization, whose buses stop unpredictably and stay stopped for much of the time, not because of lack of fuel, but because of chronic traffic jams.

Chronically congested Seventh Ave. today. 

TM on Caracas Ave. 

Bogotá is debating what sort of transit system to put on Seventh Ave. The sitting (suspended) Mayor Samuel Rojas wants a 'light' version of the Transmilenio system. But others have proposed light rail or trolleys. Electrical-powered vehicles are less expensive to operate and require less maintenance than internal combustion vehicles and also don't pollute. Here's someone's fantastical concept for Ave. Septima.

Modern high capacity trolleys in Hong Kong. 
Looking into Bogotá's past - and perhaps its future as well. 


Here's a great history in English of Bogotá's trolleys.

Find lots of history and photos, in Spanish, here.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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