As for the business of how these historic trams interface with busy daily life, this is a duty that falls on the shoulders of the tram drivers.
In İstanbul, you can grab a ride on a tram from eras long gone on two different routes; one on the Asian side and one on the European side of the city. The better known of these two lines is the one that runs the Taksim-Tünel route; this line has become one of the symbols of the city. The other route is a comparatively new one -- though many decades old -- and runs the Kadıköy-Moda line. There are exactly nine tram wagons on each of these lines. These wagons were produced in East Germany in the earlier part of the 20th century.
Considering the age of the trams, the work of the tram drivers does not seem easy. Which is why we headed over to talk to them, curious about their work. There are 17 drivers for both lines. And although they are not in charge of the upkeep of these nostalgic wagons, they are required to understand them as much as the technicians do.
If during a trip down one of the lines something happens to the tram wagon, these drivers are the ones who need to respond to any technical problems. Of course, this is not the only unique or difficult aspect to what they do on a daily basis. Keep in mind, they drive vehicles which are old and not fully automated in some of the most crowded spots in the city -- Istiklal and Moda -- where thousands of people ride every day. Sometimes, for example, they are forced to bring the tram to a complete halt, for minutes, in emergency situations. As one driver said, “Your senses need to be completely in place, and you must have good reflexes.” And of course, drivers need to have a desire to make their passengers happy.
The passengers come from all walks of life: Some ride these nostalgic trams purely for pleasure, or touristic reasons, taking their time. Others are actually trying to get to work on time and sometimes complain about the slowness of the trams. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, there is a very different atmosphere in the two neighborhoods where these historic trams run. Beyoğlu hosts a more tourism-oriented crowd, while Kadıköy’s tram passengers are generally trying to get somewhere. And while Kadıköy residents did not want the historic tram when it first arrived in their district in 2003, they have now embraced its presence.
On another front, the ongoing dialogue between tram drivers and passengers is very lively. Some of the older district residents know the drivers by name and greet them as they ride each day, sometimes even entrusting the drivers with items they have picked up at the open markets to hold them for a while.
And so, that is a brief glimpse into the world of İstanbul’s nostalgic trams, and the important people who drive them, wending their ways back and forth on two scenic routes in İstanbul.
The Kadıköy-Moda tram line begins at the İDO (İstanbul Deniz Otobüsleri) docks, and is a wonderful spot from which to observe life. This is a tram line used mainly by the elderly and high school students. The relationship between the tram drivers and the passengers here is very good, since it is such a regular crowd using this mode of transport. When we take a day watching things unfold on this line, we see a retired military officer greet the wagon saying, “Today I’m late, but still, let me say good morning.” Apparently, this retired officer heads every day to an association for former military officers, and during the ride he spends the entire time talking to tram driver Mustafa Mentese, who has been working this route for nine years. He is a graduate of trade school, specializing in electrical engineering. He learned his current trade by simply getting this job, a job he loves. “This is both more difficult than a normal tram, but so pleasurable because you are always surrounded by people,” he says. Over the course of a 10-hour shift, he makes around 15-20 trips up and down his route. There are three pedals under his feet, and a hand brake he uses to stop the tram. He can speed up or slow down the tram, and though it was very difficult in the beginning, because of all the pedestrians on the street, it is easier now. He recalls that Tuesdays used to be the hardest day for driving as there was an open street market on those days. But today that particular open market has gone, and it is easier for everyone on the route.
Menteşe notes that the Kartal metro has increased interest in this nostalgic line. He says that on eids and other special days, there are many more people riding the tram for touristic purposes. He asserts happily, as he passes the Mühürdar stop, “When you really devote yourself to your work, time passes by so quickly.
If only it weren’t for that cooking oil!
One of the biggest complaints of the tram drivers is the difficulty in stopping these old wagons in rainy weather. When this occurs, a system called “kumlama” is used. What this means basically is that the driver gives a signal from above, and sand (“kum”) is dropped in front of the tram. Simple, but it really helps these nostalgic trams to come to a halt. The drivers on the Beyoğlu route have a different sort of complaint, though: Some of the restaurants located right on the route have the habit of pouring oil from their döner kebabs so that it gets onto the rails. As you might imagine, this makes it very hard to stop the vehicle.
“You might not see anything different, but the oil on the tracks makes it very hard to stop. The tram slides, and you try to drop the sand and you pull the alarm. You wind up having to take care of seven or eight things all at the same time. Thank God our arms are used to all this. Sometimes without the brain even giving the command, we do what we need to do,” says Cengiz Kibaroğlu, a driver on the Istiklal route, where he recalls the biggest problem is one that has not to do with cooking oil or sand, but rather the many kids who love to hitch a ride on these nostalgic trams.