Relics of the Future

The sociotechnical functions of secondhand trams in Romanian cities.

This post is the first in a three-part series on Romanian Mobilities: Vehicles of Migration in New Europe.

The tram on line 39 in Galați, Romania rumbles past a block of communist-era apartment buildings, festooned with an advertisement for mineral water. While the advertisement is a sure marker of departure from communism, the tram itself is from another time and space, too. It is a Dutch Duewag ZTG model, constructed between 1985 and 1987, and brought to Galați from Rotterdam in the 2000s. In Galați, this tram and ones similar to it are still often referred to as “the new ones” (cele noi). Newness, in this case, is not found in the year of production, but in the year of introduction, and in the material qualities that made this transport system feel innovative.

Trams, or street cars, are hardly new to Romania; rather, they were central to the communist project. In a country in which car ownership was rare, trams ensured the independence and mobility of the citizenry. Thus, the state invested heavily in developing tramlines and other forms of public transportation. But by the turn of the millennium, with Romania still reeling from its postcommunist “transition,” the communist-era trams were antiquated. To aid Romania, Western and Central European countries, notably the Netherlands and Germany, donated their old vehicles. As of 2016, in most Romanian cities, including Galați, secondhand trams comprised 100 percent of the local fleet; buses, trains, and airplanes were also often acquired, used, from abroad.

A Tatra KT4D tram in Galați, previously of Berlin. After German reunification (1990), trams from the former East Germany were sent to other countries from the former Eastern Bloc. In Galați, locals refer to these trams as 'the old ones,' and those from the Netherlands (see the Duewag above) as 'the new ones.' Both, however, are secondhand. Photo courtesy of the author.
A Tatra KT4D tram in Galați, previously of Berlin. After German reunification (1990), trams from the former East Germany were sent to other countries from the former Eastern Bloc. In Galați, locals refer to these trams as “the old ones,” and those from the Netherlands (see the Duewag above) as “the new ones.” Both, however, are secondhand. Andrey Vozyanov

The presence of Dutch and German cast-offs in Romanian cities points both to the country’s postcommunist modernization, as well as its distress. Consider the city of Galați, an industrial center with a population of 250,000 to 350,000 inhabitants that has had a tram system since the early 20th century. The tram network grew rapidly in the 1960s with the construction of the largest Romanian steelworks. During communist times, Galați was regularly provided with new tramcars: the 1970s were defined by the Romanian-manufactured “Timiș”; the following decade saw the arrival of Czechoslovakian “Tatras”, which were purchased new, and the standard throughout much the former Soviet Bloc. However, in the 1990s, reeling from postcommunist “transition,” Romania’s tram factories had virtually stopped production, conserving their resources for renovation and repair of the existing fleet. Since the early 1990s, not a single tramcar has come to Galați direct from the manufacturer. Rather, service has been maintained with secondhand trams from Dresden, Berlin, Frankfurt-am-Main, Magdeburg, and Rotterdam.

The idea of rolling stock transfer is not new, and has a fascinating history in and beyond Europe. However, recent years have seen an acceleration of transfers driven by progress in tramway technology. Inherited vehicles, among other goods, have become so mundane in Romania that in colloquial speech, English “secondhand” is pronounced simply “sah-ush,” (“sh”). Countries on the European periphery, including Romania, Bulgaria, and recently, Ukraine, are provided with rolling stock not solely because of their need, but because this stock has been recognized as obsolete in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, and so on. The flow of humanitarian artifacts from wealthier European countries to poorer ones is preconditioned by regional disparities in standards of comfort, quality, and, simply, what is perceived as modern or innovative. Tramcars may be in service for decades— much longer than buses, for example—and significant technological improvements may occur during their lifetimes. As a result, quite different tramways of different generations’(whether physical or perceived) co-exist across Europe, or even within single cities.

Such unevenness can yield frustrations for those who maintain the trams. Unlike vintage, antique, or retro objects, secondhand trams are rarely valued for their individuality and uniqueness. Conversely, it is far easier for mechanics when tram systems are identical, and one can turn some cars into donors whose parts can be swapped or harvested as needed to maintain the fleet. Additionally, mechanics’ familiarity with certain types of older trams may actually deter updates: learning to maintain new models can be time-consuming; as such, managers may prefer transfers of even older secondhand stock to newer castoffs.

For those who ride the trams themselves, the practicalities of fleet maintenance are less of a concern. Rather, passengers experience secondhand transport as part of larger temporalities of inequality that generate meaning in postsocialist Romanian life. Discourses surrounding secondhand vehicles exhibit tensions between the diachronic and local, as well as synchronic and translocal. The former, in which Romanians compare their transport systems to those that currently exist in the donor nation, are often critical. For example, Galați locals lament: these trams ran in Germany in 1970s and we ride them now. On the other hand, appreciation can be heard in the invitation to use the same trams as residents of the Dutch city of Rotterdam. Tensions also emerge in the secondhand trams’ materiality. Door-opening buttons, glowing-green electronic displays, and streamlined designs provide a smooth ride that is nothing like the eternally humming and frequently trembling trams of yesteryear. However, Dutch signage—such as the old fares, payable with chipcard even then—serves as a reminder that the tram was built for another time, place, and people. Compared to what they replaced, the donated trams are highly modern; however, compared to what replaced them in the donor nations, they are obsolete. Their presence in Romania both calls attention to outdated infrastructure, as well as masks it.

Compared to what they replaced, the donated trams are highly modern; however, compared to what replaced them in the donor nations, they are obsolete. Their presence in Romania both calls attention to outdated infrastructure, as well as masks it.

Temporalities of inequality are thus inflected by perspectives on technological evolution, and in the intersections between technologies and the people who use them. For Romanians, daily commutes on secondhand trams invite questions about the management of difference: Should Romania follow the path of its wealthier co-members, gratefully accepting its cast-offs but always feeling a step behind? Or shall it venture on its own, and risk upsetting the current order?

Romanian public transit networks undoubtedly owe their survival to secondhand trams, but there are some early indications that Romania’s tram factories may churn again. In 2015, six tramcars produced by the Siemens factory in Arad started running the city streets. Siemens is a German company, but the Arad factory is now working to implement its own designs independent of Siemens, using Romanian inputs and labor. Meanwhile, the oldest trams are reaching retirement age, and spare parts for them are limited. As such, it won’t be long until Romanian cities will face the necessity of buying new trams—unless, of course, some newer generation of secondhand tramcars from Western Europe becomes available. Given Romania’s rapidly growing economy, however, it seems quite possible that manufacturers like those in Arad will find success in producing new trams, and even exporting them abroad. If this happens, Romania may not only satisfy its own citizens’ demands for newness, but those of other countries where secondhand trains currently run.

Read the second article in this series here.

Read the third article in this series here.

Andrey Vozyanov is a PhD Candidate at the University of Regensburg (Germany).

Deborah Jones is contributing editor for the Soyuz Postsocialist Studies Network’s AN column.

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