At 5.38am on July 16, a sleek silver tram set off on its full maiden voyage. It marked the inauguration of Florence’s new T1 Leonardo tramline, extending the service between Villa Costanza in the east to the main Careggi hospital in the north. Consisting of 26 stops, 11.5 kilometres and 1.50 euro for a single journey, Florence just got closer. But this is not the first tram network the city has seen.
A carriage service had been in service for some time when in 1873 a city commission presented plans for a circular tramline along the city’s ring roads designed by architect Giuseppe Poggi, plus a web of radial lines that could be extended to outlying areas. The tender was awarded to the Bank of Brussels, with the specifications signed on June 11, 1874, although it took several years for work to get underway. The original tender was transferred to the Belgian Société Générale des Tramways (the country’s national rail company), while in 1881 the Società Anonima Les Tramways Florentins (TF), a spin-off of the SGT, merged with the Société Générale des Chemins de Fer Economiques (SGCFE), a Belgian company that operated in various European markets, such as France, Belgium and Italy. That Francophone connection continues today as Florence’s contemporary tram network is managed by GEST, a subsidiary of the French RATP Dev public transport company.
In the 1880s, Florence’s tram routes began to extend to outlying areas. Tram lines were introduced to the streets of Sesto and Castello, a steam-operated tram took passengers to and from Prato and trams became operational to Rovezzano, Bagno a Ripoli, Settignano, Fiesole and even Chianti. By 1895, 92.782 kilometres of steam-driven tram lines were in place outside Florence city centre and horse-drawn trams accounted for 27.895 kilometres: their management was split between Les Tramways Florentins (Signa, Prato and Poggio a Caiano) the Società per le Tramvie della Provincia di Firenze (Chianti and Fiesole).
Commuters caught the tram to Sesto outside Santa Maria Novella railway station, while—much like today’s number 7 bus—the tram to Fiesole left from piazza San Marco. In 1896, these stops were moved within breathing distance of the Duomo, apart from the Signa line, whose departure point was in the Oltrarno. When the network was electrified (the first was the Bagno a Ripoli line in October 1898, swiftly followed by the piazza Duomo-piazza Beccaria-piazza Zuavi—now piazza Vittorio Veneto—line that November), passengers soared from 7.8 million in 1899 to more than 9 million in 1902.
Picking up steam
That wasn’t all. In 1908, Florence and Scandicci became connected by tram and the Bagno a Ripoli line was extended as far as Grassina in 1909. In 1914, at the height of its glory before the First World War took its toll, 18 million people were riding the metropolitan tram network. At that time, the company was worth about one million francs, totalling over eleven per cent of SGCFE’s investments in Italy and more than three per cent of its business globally. So positive was the situation that efforts were made by the city council to bring the public transport system under municipal ownership, but the World War I reared its ugly head and the plans were set aside. Gone were the profitable days as the firm finished 1919 with losses in excess of four million francs and liquidation loomed large. The Italian government stepped in, granting tax breaks to public transportation companies in 1922, which helped the Les Tramways Florentins to stabilize its situation, albeit with job cuts and a company-wide restructuring.
What became clear in the 1930s and ‘40s, however, was that the city council intended to replace the trams with buses in the near future. On September 27, 1934, Les Tramways Florentins was declared bankrupt and the Municipality of Florence subsequently agreed a loan with the Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze bank to the tune of 18,500,000 lire (9,554 euro today) to purchase and invest in the city’s public transport network. In March 1935, the council approved the purchase of “all the concessions for the operation of electric and steam-powered tramways in addition to electric and internal combustion engine buses owned by the bankrupt Società Les Tramways Florentins, even those not in operation”. By June of that year, the Turin-based automotive company FIAT—specifically the engineer Mancinforte Tancredi—was chosen to manage Florence’s transport system under the initials GTF. Within the first two years of its mandate, FIAT presented plans to reduce the tram service, introduce trolleybuses, and replace old buses with oil-fuelled ones. All this would have required changes to the 1935 convention, hence the mutual annulment of the FIAT contract in 1940 and new management by Società Trasporti Urbani (STU) in Milan. But the efforts were thwarted by the outbreak of World War II in June 1940.
When the war was over, the damaged tramlines were fixed and the service resumed under the aegis of the Azienda Tranviaria Automobilistica e Filoviaria, the modern-day ATAF. It quickly became clear that the system was outdated, which explains the decision to remove gradually all of Florence’s tramlines as part of the 1955 Operazione Strada, which called for the resurfacing of the roads in the old city centre. On January 20, 1958, Florence’s first tram network ran its last service, grinding to a poignant halt in piazza Puccini.
What’s next for Florence’s trams?
Line 2 is expected to open before the end of the year and will run from piazza dell’Unità to Florence Airport via the Novoli neighbourhood. A possible extension to Castello is being studied. Another two lines are being planned from the Fortezza da Basso via piazza della Libertà towards the residential southeast suburbs of Rovezzano and Bagno a Ripoli. Before the summer, financing (47 million euro) was confirmed by the Italian Government for the westbound Le Piagge tramline.