The Old Tramway of Tenerife
The ‘Tranvia’ tram service that runs every few minutes between Santa Cruz and La Laguna is not the first electric-powered rail transport on Tenerife. Over a hundred years ago electric trams travelled between those two cities and beyond to Tacoronte.
In common with tram systems in Britain and much of the rest of Europe, the heyday of the original Tenerife tram was before the First World War, after which it began to feel the impact of competition from road vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine. Then it gradually withered away, old-fashioned and progressively out-of-date until its demise in the 1950s, just like the Britain where for many years the only trams to survive were in Blackpool.
To go back to the beginning; by the end of the nineteenth century the Canary Islands were prospering due to their fruit trade and an increasing number of wealthy tourists. This was also an age of expansion for railways, but, as a Victorian publication for English visitors to the Canaries, entitled “Brown’s Guide to Madeira and the Canary Islands”, in its 5th and Revised Edition of 1898, noted, no railways had been built in the Canary Islands. However, it went on, “Surveys have been completed for the construction of a narrow gauge railway from Santa Cruz to Orotava, a distance of 42 kilometres (27m.) by road. The cost has been stated as about 14,000 dollars per kilometre. The gradients must necessarily be steep.” As we know, this wish was not fulfilled, but there was an alternative.
The population of Tenerife was increasing, as were its towns and cities and their suburbs. The suburbs of European cities in general were expanding, people had longer distances to travel from their homes to their places of work, and, in common with the rest of Europe, Tenerife found a solution to this transport problem in trams. The first tram to run in the Canarian archipelago was a steam-hauled tram that had begun operation in 1891 and ran from Las Palmas to Puerto de La Luz in Gran Canaria. It converted to electric power in 1910. In Tenerife the idea for a tramway was put forward in January 1897. With support from the Belgian Consul a scheme was approved on 12th November 1898; the contractors for construction were Belgian, with a company based in Belgium specially set up for the job. On 28th September 1899 the ‘Societe Anonyme des Tramways Electriques de Tenerife’ was constituted in Belgium.
Construction began on site very soon afterwards, on 29th October 1899, and the first rails were laid in Santa Cruz in February 1900, reaching the central station of the route in La Cuesta on 2nd August. Progress was rapid and the whole line was opened to the public on 7th April 1901. After initial teething troubles, such as problems with the timetables and passengers’ objections to the high cost of fares, the line settled down to a routine service.
In its early years the tramway was something of an attraction and an island feature to be proud of. In Brown’s Guide of 1903 (7th and Revised Edition), there was a quite a full description of the “Electric Tramway”. It started from the pier at Santa Cruz, where it met inter-island ferries and other passenger ships, and ran to La Laguna. A single journey took 45 minutes, with cars travelling up and down every hour. In this edition of the guide, construction work on the proposed extension to Tacoronte was reported as “shortly to be commenced.” For fares the readers were advised to see the advertisement.
In that age of new technology, the wonder stuff of electricity, complete with baffling scientific terms, the tramway’s generating station could be viewed by the public. Brown’s Guide read, “The power works, to view which apply at the office, are situated ½ way up, at the Cuesta. The installation is very elaborate and up to date. Two engines (direct action) drive the dynamos (Dulait system), which works up to 200 kw. Galloway boilers. Green economisers. Tudor accumulators. The condensing water is cooled by a tubular refrigerator (Koerting system).
On account of the steepness of the inclines, the cars are each provided with 2 motors of 50 horse-power. Apart from the actual beauty of the journey, the ride is most interesting as an example of modern electric engineering.” It sounds like an unmissable experience and, although the “beauty of the journey” disappeared long ago, today’s Tranvia is still an interesting and impressive ride.
Work on the extension to Tacoronte, which had been proposed as early as December 1900, started in April 1904 and by 1905 trams were running every two hours. The journey from Santa Cruz to La Laguna took 45 minutes for 11 kilometres (7miles), while to Tacoronte it took 1½ hours to travel 20 kilometres (12½ miles). The fare to La Laguna was 1.45 pesos, and to Tacoronte 2.80 pesos. The manager of the ‘Electrico’, as it was described in a Spanish directory, was Nicolas Marti Dehesa. In 1905 there was a proposal to continue the tramway to Orotava, but this proved to be too optimistic.
By 1910 the electric tramway was no longer a novelty. Brown’s Guide had a much shorter description of the tramline, without the description of the power station and no suggestion of an extension to Orotava. It did inform the public that the tramway also took luggage, and if there was sufficient need “a special luggage car may be chartered.” But even as early as this date the writing was on the wall for the trams, because, Brown noted ominously, motor buses ran to Orotava and Icod. However, at the time all was well and thriving for the trams because new tramcars had to be ordered that arrived from Belgium in 1912.
After the First World War (in 1922), the fares were the same but the travelling time had strangely increased; La Laguna was 1 hour away from Santa Cruz, while the journey to Tacoronte took 1¾ hours, but the trams still ran each way every hour.
The system ran into difficulties after the First World War. Constant, heavy use was taking its toll in wear and tear, in addition to which developments in technology required it to modernise. Because of the large amount of capital investment required to do this, the Cabildo took over running of the tramway with effect from 12th April 1927, and more new cars came from Belgium between 1931 and 1940. But as early as 1936 there was discussion about changing trams for ‘trolebuses’ (trolleybuses), or a more effective system in which rails would not be necessary.
Again, like the cities and tram systems in Britain, the suburbs of Santa Cruz and La Laguna continued to expand but the tram lines did not. They covered their original routes and atrophied, they failed to
reach the populations of the growing cities that were now served by buses. The tram became old-fashioned, it was out-of-date, expensive to maintain, and inconvenient to other road users. In 1953 proposals were made for the substitution of trams with buses. On 15th November 1956, the tram services were suspended and then, after a stay of execution, official authorisation for the substitution was finally given on 26th February 1959.
The old tramway of Tenerife did have its moments of glory. King Leopold II of Belgium visited Tenerife twice, first in 1900 to view construction of the works in progress and again on 27th July 1904 for the inauguration of the line to Tacoronte. Another royal tram journey occurred in 1906 when King Alfonso XIII of Spain came to the island. At the very end of its life, images of the tramline were included in the 1956 publicity film, ‘Summertime in Tenerife’. But today the only physical evidence of the old tramway is the chimney of the electricity generating station that still stands as a landmark, a memorial, and a curiosity in La Cuesta.
Apart from the chimney, everything was scrapped (although it’s possible that one or two of the cars may have survived), but then, sixty years later, following the example of other major European cities, the value of a modern tramway for Tenerife was realised. The present Tranvia was constructed and services commenced in 2007, and the amount of use it gets makes one wonder how on earth people got around before.
(Main references for this article were ‘El Antiguo Tranvia de Tenerife’ by Rafael Cedres Jorge, published in 2013, and ‘Brown’s Guide to Madeira and the Canary Islands’ for the years 1898 to 1922 in the library of the University of La Laguna. I’d like to thank ‘Rima’ photographers of Calle Cruz Verde in Santa Cruz for the photo’s.)