flickr image by peaco

Heliopolis Trams

Cairo, Egypt

One of the oldest tram systems in Africa, the Heliopolis Metro owes its existence to an eccentric Belgian Industrialist named Baron Empain, who, in 1905, decided to build one of the most lavish tourist resorts in the world just outside the Egyptian capital Cairo. Empain’s model city was furnished with grand palaces, ornate hotels, palatial villas and manicured gardens, with each building designed in an eclectic signature style that blended Hindu spires and Moorish domes with Persian revival motifs and the attention to detail of Belgian Art-Nouveau architecture. In order to service this sumptuous retreat, and draw in visitors from the nearby Pyramids, an 18.6 mile network of 6 tram lines from Kollyet El Banat to Nasr City was built. The lines provided efficient travel around Heliopolis itself, while also linking up with Cairo, some 6 miles to the south and separated from Heliopolis by unspoilt desert. The trams offered a capacity of 96 passengers and ran at top speeds of 18 kilometres an hour, very slow by modern standards.

Today the area has changed beyond recognition, with Cairo’s urban sprawl surrounding the formerly isolated planned city. Yet much of the grand architecture still exists. The Heliopolis Palace Hotel, once Egypt’s premier hotel boasting 400 rooms, elegant dining halls and bespoke furnishings, is now Egypt’s official Presidential Palace. Tram riders can still travel past this enormous building and admire the fine Italianate marble columns, Moorish arches and neo-classical pediments decorating the imposing facade.

The trams, currently dating from the 1950s and designed in striking streamline moderne colours of green and cream, still ply the old lines through now busy streets. Yet the top speed still remains an inefficient and sluggish 18 kilometres an hour, though tickets are incredibly cheap, costing 25 piastres each way, equivalent to around 5 American cents. From Ramses Station in Cairo’s city centre travellers can sit on the old red seats, their feet scraping against the worn and ripped-up linoleum flooring, and reach Heliopolis in just 40 minutes.

In order to improve journey times, and bring the Heliopolis network into the 21st century, the Egyptian government has called for expressions of interest to replace these vintage vehicles with faster, air-conditioned streetcars, in order to ensure the popularity, safety and viability of Cairo’s last remaining tram network.

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