The Opicina tram – the world’s only tramway of its kind and located in Trieste, Northern Italy, has been shut nearly five years now. The metre gauge line closed in August 2016 following an accident on Via Commerciale in the vicinity of Conconello between Trieste and Opicina. The Trieste authorities had said it would reopen by March 2020, but we know what happened then – COVID. Currently it looks like it could well be 2022 before the line reopens – which essentially means it’ll have been closed for eight years out of ten years as it had just reopened after a two year upgrade programme! Its quite sad as there’s no other railway in the world like it. Meanwhile the delayed reopening has the signs of becoming a scandal of sorts – and probably the hallmarks of being a music hall joke too… More about that later.
First some pictures of the accident that occurred on 16th August 2016.
The two trams collided head on where the route takes a quite sharp bend. 405 was in service heading towards Opicina and 404 was on a test run as far as Vetta Scorcola, the upper terminal of the funicular section. Ironically the test run was to ascertain whether the tramcar’s brakes were working fully… Source: Il Mattino
The accident occurred at a blind spot just before a passing loop near Conconcello. There doesn’t seem to be any in detail explanation (at least not in English like a comprehensive report on what went wrong – plus I have tried searches in Italian too…) This being the very reason why the accident happened. Was it because one of the tram drivers had entered a section of line without authorisation? Was it line control that had made an error? Or some other factor that hasn’t been disclosed?
Front page headlines of the tram’s crash in 2016. Source: Twitter
Indications are that it seems to have been a communications error. Trieste Trasporti stress that stringent precautions were in place for when an extra tram was out on the line – generally just three are in use at any one time. Further, Trieste Trasporti assert the trams should have passed at Banne – the next passing loop up the line. But again, exactly whose error that is does not so far seem to be revealed.
Seven passengers and both drivers were injured but thankfully none very seriously. All needed hospital treatment however. The Trieste municipality has spend millions on improving and upgrading the line thus this accident was a considerable setback and that in large is why the tramway has remained closed. As this page shows (its in Italian) the line has had quite a fair number of accidents thus Trieste Municipality evidently does not want to reopen the line until it is sure such things cannot happen again.
Aftermath of the accident. Source: Twitter The accident took place at this location in the hills above Trieste.
That is not the end of the story though. Since the 2016 accident the municipality has allocated more than three million Euros to bring the tramway up to 2021 standards. This work includes altering lines of sight (including trees that may be critical in obscuring driver’s viewpoints etc) adjusting the tracks and upgrading these and providing a more advanced safety system and so on. Nevertheless the work to reopen the line has been a disaster too and the people of Trieste and Opicina are getting fed up with it. Even though the damaged tramcars have now been repaired the sobering fact the tramway isn’t running at all is due to a series of ongoing mishaps costing the city’s municipality 1.3 million Euros every year in lost revenue!
The scene of the accident at Conconcello. Source: Google Streets
The spot where the trams could have passed, just 60 metres from the accident scene. However Trieste Trasporti insist this should have taken place further up the line at Banne. Source: Google Streets
Since that moment, a series of technical, bureaucratic and economic mishaps have followed one another with the result the tram is still stationary – with all due respect for those who, especially with the arrival of the summer months, would like to reach the karst plateau and enjoying the beautiful views without having to use a car. But tourists are mostly left with a dry mouth and uncertainly, and for the city this is a sore point the tram not just being one of its main attractions. (Source: Dire Agency)
The Opicina tram and why it is famous….
But first, for those who are not familiar with the Opicina tram, it is an extremely unusual system. Opened in 1902 its a conventional tramway of course however in order to overcome the steep height difference between Trieste and Opicina, it in fact becomes a funicular railway, thus its celebrated as being a one off hybrid system. Its in fact the only example left of its kind in the world. The funicular section is considerably steep being graded largely at 26% with a climb of 160m or 524 feet in total. Its not just that the views from the tram over the Italian coast, the Gulf of Trieste and the Adriatic Sea are most spectacular. The total rise from Trieste to Opicina, sited on the Karst plateau, is more than a thousand feet (340m/1118ft) which is very substantial in terms of the line’s length – just 5km or three miles long.
Spectacular views of Trieste and the Adriatic Sea as the tram makes its way to Opicina. Source: Twitter
The tramway is in fact operated on the steeply inclined section by what are termed cable tractors. These are unmanned rail vehicles permanently attached to the steel cables, the system operated is indeed a funicular, and the tramcars merely get pushed uphill or lowered downhill by these cable tractors. In earlier years these cable tractors were manned in order to ensure the trams and tractors were properly matched. Nowadays the system operates by way of the tram driver at the bottom confirming to the controller at Vetta Scorcola at the upper part of the funicular section that his tram has matched up to the cable tractor. The tram entering the upper end simply draws forward to match the cable tractor there and control can see when its been done. In addition the controller also has CCTV coverage of the upper and lower levels.
Here’s a You Tube video starting with a driver’s eye viewpoint of the tram matching up to the cable tractor and then the tram beginning its journey down towards Trieste. The start of this other You Tube video shows a nice clip of a tram coming up the hill with Trieste harbour in the background. Here’s another You Tube video and one that shows the system in 1995 with the older manned cable tractors in use.
The tram was actually rack operated until 1928 however that was changed as it was thought a funicular system would speed up journeys between Trieste and Opicina. After all, the tramway was built to compete with the main national railway line (originally the Austrian Southern Railway) which has to take a considerable detour of fifteen miles or so through the hills to reach Opicina – and the tram was of course intended as a far quicker means of transport between the two centres.
Tram Opicina route map. The line’s funicular section is between Piazza Scorcola and Vetta Scorcola. The line’s summit (343m) is at Obelisco, just over 4km from Trieste. The accident happened just north of Conconcello. Source: Wikipedia
Tramcar 2 (no.401) has just arrived at the top of the incline at Vetta Scorcola and is about to make way towards Opicina under its own power after having been pushed up the hill. The line’s current third generation cable tractor can be clearly seen. Source: Imhd
The previously used second generation cable tractors with an operator manning these. Source: Enacademic
The first generation cable tractors in use on the line. Source: Flickr
The tram’s woes continue….
Locals getting fed up with the delays to reopen the tram. A banner put on the side of tram 407, which had sat at the bottom of the funicular at Piazza Scorcola for several years after the 2016 accident. The message is directed at the Trieste Municipality’s apparent incompetency getting the line reopened… Source: Trieste Prima. Video at Il Piccolo.
A boy’s plead to Santa to get the tramway reopened! The message reads ‘Dear Santa, could you please repair our tram?’ These were duplicated and placed at a number of stops and on the line’s OHLE masts. Source: Trieste Prima
Anyway back to the misfortunes of the tramway. Late in 2019 a local company had been contracted to replaced most of the rails and sleepers and well as undertake other necessary works that Trieste Municipality had stipulated should be done. No sooner than some of the work had begun and the company had asked for an advance of 230 thousand Euros, the work was abandoned leaving rails cut up or chucked to the side of the trackbed formation, as well as leaving an huge pile of brand new sleepers and rails untouched in a depot that was established for this work – the depot was due to be cleared by January 2020. The reason for the company reneging the task is because it had previously been convicted of criminal activities – and municipal authorities cannot use companies that have a criminal record.
Partial track removal works left unfinished by Juliafer Sri at the scene of the accident, and visible on Google! The municipality wishes to see the entire line brought totally up to modern standards including a heavier type of rail and concrete sleepers. Source: Google Streets
How that came about is Trieste Municipality had invited fifteen companies to tender for the work and only one of these, Juliafer Sri, came forward. The company’s criminal conviction was somehow missed out until it was too late. Now the municipal council has had to seek an extension to the rental of this depot where all the new tram tracks and sleepers are stored – and ensure there is a new contractor that is able to undertake the work required as well as procure extra finance that will now be necessary to complete the task.
There are in fact new contractors – the Fenix Consortium – who have been awarded the work however there has been no sign of any work being done. I’m not sure what’s gone amiss in this latest episode… maybe its still the coronavirus situation that’s precluding any work being done? The local news media doesn’t seem to think so for it ran a headline on January 12th 2021: ‘Opicina tram, another joke. There are no workers and the resumption of work fades.’ Evidently there’s a great disappointment things are still not going well. The Facebook group which covers the tramway’s misfortunes has suggested it looks like it will be 2022 before services are restored.
Opicina tram, another joke. There are no workers and the resumption of work fades. News headlines just three weeks ago. Source: Il Piccolo
Tram 402 was seen at the bottom of the line in the streets of Trieste during line testing in November 2019. Source: Il Piccolo. A report and video of the testing can be seen here. Also another test run in January 2020 – a fascinating video in which the authorities are seen measuring the tracks to ensure the rails are still in gauge, also clearing out the track grooves etc…
Il Piccolo has a dedicated series of news articles it has run these past few years on the mishaps of the Opicina tram entitled The Historic tram of Opicina. They are all in Italian though and some articles are behind a paywall.
There’s a Facebook group called The Misfortunes of the Opicina Tram and this keeps the news up to date, sometimes quite sarcastically. Its in Italian though.
Technical information and other details on the tramway at Trieste Trasporti S.P.A.
A good You Tube video showing earlier works to upgrade the line during a two year long closure between 2012 and 2014 – and the celebrations following that reopening.