Some notes complied after a visit in summer 2005, and published in Eagle, the journal of the Cambridge University Railway Club, of which I’m a life member.
If the council is to be believed, Debrecen’s population of around 210 000 makes it Hungary’s second largest city, after Budapest. On the other hand, proud residents of the northern city of Miskolc have other ideas, as they will tell tourists on their narrow gauge railway who let slip that Debrecen is next on the itinerary.
Railways first arrived in Debrecen in 1857 with a link from Pest (now one half of Budapest). Today visitors arrive at a large 1961 replacement for an ornate building which was built in 1900 but destroyed by bombing in 1944. The current station’s main hall contains two vast frescos by Endre Domanovszki, showing happy peasants working in the fields of the Great Plain which stretches for mile after mile across the south and east of the country.
Stepping outside the station and crossing the road brings the passenger to the conveniently-located the terminal loop of the city’s single tram line. Unimaginatively branded Line 1, the standard-gauge route run by city transport company DKV is the sole survivor of six which once crossed Debrecen. The first steam tramway opened in October 1884, electric trams arrived in 1911, but by 1975 all but the one of the lines had been supplanted by buses of the diesel or electric persuasion (and some which are both, merrily carrying on beyond the wires). The remaining line is well used, providing a frequent and useful link along an axis running from the station, through the main square, to the university, park and hospital.
In recent years the local authority has undertaken a major regeneration of the town centre in an effort to raise the city’s national and international profile and to attract the tourist forint. Perhaps as a result of this, each of the 13 tram stops has information in Hungarian, German and English, complete with a route map, details of the service frequencies and the vital information – so often forgotten on even the best-run light rail systems – on how people who aren’t familiar with the system can buy a ticket. These were available from the driver for HUF160, or in advance from various kiosks at a slightly lower price. Few people seemed to need to buy tickets from the driver, and trams are boarded through all doors. There are two DKV offices, one helpfully located within the station loop, which are the only outlets able to sell a HUF500 day pass valid on all the city’s trams and buses.
The stops have passenger information screens on them, built into ‘heritage-style’ signs, which is unusual for a long-established Eastern European tramway. Following the pattern of the Budapest metro, these screens tell you how long ago the last service left, not when the next will depart. This isn’t the most useful way of doing things, but it can be used in conjunction with the frequency information to estimate waiting times, which were short anyway. Services run from 04:30 to 23:00, with frequencies ranging from a peak of 2-4 min down to to 8-10 min at the extremities of the day.
We noticed an interesting modern-looking tram, so decided to let the first service go so we could take a look. It was one of ten six-axle KCSV6 series vehicles supplied by Ganz-Hunslet of Budapest in 1997, after the production of a prototype car (now no. 500) in 1993. Though it felt narrow, the KCSV6 is 2 500mm wide, falling between the 2 300 mm common on many older European systems and the 2 650 mm generally adopted for modern trams and new lines. The Debrecen tram’s interior is designed for standing passengers, having 28 single seats either side of a wide aisle. On-board passenger information displays show the name of the next stop.
The tram was designed in an attempt to produce a cheaper vehicle than the big western suppliers can offer to the Eastern European market, but no further orders materialised. Traditional tramways have so far survived in many Eastern European cities, but they are often in a poor state. There is no money available to purchase new “western” trams from the likes of Alstom, Bombardier or Siemens, but existing vehicles are often life-expired and offer a poor travelling environment as access to private transport increases.
The problem is widespread, and in the former East Germany the Leipzig tram company has developed a tram it calls Leoliner, which keeps costs down by using Tatra-designed tram bogies under a new body. Leipzig is now hoping to sell its Leoliners across eastern Europe, in competition with the big suppliers (Halberstadt in eastern Germany was the first external customer, putting five metre-gauge Leoliners into service in October 2006).
In Debrecen ten older FFV “two-rooms-and-a-bath” trams also remain in use, the surviving examples dating from the 1970s. Nicknamed “Bengálik”, these were developed in the 1960s by Budapest’s tram maintenance depot for use in the capital. The design was then adopted by Debrecen, which also built similar vehicles for Miskolc and Szeged, the two other Hungarian cities where tramways remain. These very dated vehicles are rather noisy, quite worryingly so in one case. Electrification is at 600 V DC, and all DKV’s tram are double-ended, though as the line has turning loops and outside platforms it would seem possible to use single-sided vehicles, as ran in the city in the past.
Along the line
A couple of sidings trail into the turning loop outside the station, while a single track branch from the depot runs in from an adjacent street, linked to the running line by a triangle giving access in and out.
Departures are very frequent, with three or four trams waiting in the loop to load up in a turn-up-and-go service. The line is double track throughout, except a short section round the park, and has 13 stops.
After the turning loop, the line follows reserved track through Petofi Square, which is named after a poet who lived in a house on the site now occupied by the station in 1843-44. The trams continue along Piac Utca, a road shared with other traffic. By the Small Church the trams make a right angled crossing with the city’s trolleybuses, which are also covered by the day ticket. As well as conventional electric trolleybuses, DKV has some Solaris/Ganz-Transelektro dual mode vehicles with diesel engines, and despite the presence of overhead at least one trolleybus went past in diesel mode.
The trams then continue through Kossuth Ter, the city’s main square, which has been modernised and pedestrianised to produce a pleasant car-free area. Money has been spent on public art and generally tidying the city centre up, which produces a pleasant environment which other cities could learn from.
The line then passes to the right of Debrecen’s signature building, the Calvinist Nagytemplom, or Great Church. In 1849 Kossuth declared Hungary independent of Austria in the church. The revolution was defeated by Russian military intervention, but now it is difficult to walk more than a short distance in Hungary without passing a Kossuth street, square, statue or monument.
Trams then continue down the middle of Peterfia Utca and Simonyi Utca to the Nagyerdei park, which the line enters and bisects. The reserved track through the park is double track, but only one line is used, the stops being served in one direction only as all trams travel anti-clockwise.
The route passes thermal baths fed by sulphurous springs, then at the far side of the park it swings left, completing a circuit of the western half of the park on a single track line along the perimeter road. Single platform stops serve the surrounding Kossuth Lajos university and hospital district. With potential traffic generators at either end of the line, and the city centre in the middle, the tramway is an extremely useful way of getting about, providing an excellent way to see the city.
On arriving in the park we went in search of the zoo and its narrow gauge railway. Unfortunately the zoo was closed. Peering over the fence some zebras were spotted [no, any fule kno they were striped] but no trains, so we boarded another tram for the city centre. A return trip, from the station, round the park and back to the station, takes 36 min for the journey of about 9 km.
- There is a impressive amount of bilingual information on Hungarian trams for enthusiasts at Hamster‘s Trams of Hungarywebsite.
- City transport company DKV has a surprising amount of data, including fleet lists and vehicle specifications (in Hungarian).
- Online tramspotting is possible using a controllable webcam in Kossuth Square.
- Plus of course the Rough Guide to Hungary and Lonely Planet Hungary are handy for planning a visit. If I could remember its name, I’d recommend a hotel where a one-armed man served us ham and eggs for breakfast, as their German names were the only food which he and us could all name in a common language.