Many sources agree that the tramway Vevey-Montreux-Chillon, built in 1888 was Switzerland's first and Europe's second electric tramway. However, sources are contradictory on which was the first electric tramway in Europe!

French Wikipedia says it's Sarajevo's tramway.

Le premier tramway électrique est mis en exploitation à Sarajevo (Empire austro-hongrois) en 1885, tandis qu'en Suisse, la première ligne (Vevey-Montreux-Chillon), sur la Riviera vaudoise, est ouverte en 1888.

However this site about the history of public transportation in Geneva says the first electric tramway was in Berlin.

C’est en 1881 qu’est mis en service le premier tram électrique du monde, à Berlin. Il faut attendre 1888 pour voir circuler le premier tram électrique de Suisse, sur la ligne Vevey – Territet.

English Wikipedia mention the first electric tramway was in Saint-Petersburg and the second in Berlin.

The world's first electric tram line operated in Sestroretsk near Saint Petersburg, Russia, invented and tested by Fyodor Pirotsky in 1880.[30][31] The second line was the Gross-Lichterfelde tramway in Lichterfelde near Berlin in Germany, which opened in 1881. It was built by Werner von Siemens who contacted Pirotsky. This was world's first commercially successful electric tram.

So which of those sources is correct?

  • Would the Berlin line be classed as first in Europe or first as a paying enterprise if the Russian one was just a test? – Solar Mike Dec 30 '18 at 23:09
  • 2
    Yeah, indeed I guess whether tests counts or not is part of the answer. IMO tests definitely shouldn't count as this is part of the development process, and only lines that were opened to customers for long-term should count. – Bregalad Dec 30 '18 at 23:18


  • The Lichterfelde line (Berlin, May 1881) was the first long-term, non-experimental electric tram line.
  • Sarajevo's first electric tram was not until 1895 and is definitely not the oldest (as claimed by the Wikipedia source cited by the OP).
  • The Vevey-Montreux-Chillon tram (Switzerland, 1888) is definitely not the 2nd oldest in Europe. There are several which predate this in, for example, Austria and the UK.


This would seem to boil down to whether you count the August - September 1880 Sestroretsk / Miller's line (Fyodor Pirotsky) near St. Petersburg or not. This did carry passengers, but very few it would appear, and it only operated from the 22nd of August to sometime in September 1880. It also appears that it was at least partly experimental (see also here). Christos N. Pyrgidis, in Railway Transportation Systems: Design, Construction and Operation calls Pirotsky's effort the "first prototype of an electric tram".

If not the above, the May 1881 Lichterfelde line (Siemens & Halske) near Berlin was the first. Charles Dunbar, in Buses, Trolleys and Trams describes this as "the first public electric service" while Vukan R. Vuchic, in Urban Transit Systems and Technology calls it "the world's first electric streetcar line". According to The Siemens tram from past to present (pdf),

In the first three months of operation the tram had already carried 12,000 passengers.

Ingrid Radke-Azvedo, who lived on the street used by the tram (though not until the 1930s), also says it was "the first-ever electric streetcar in the world" in her book Out of the Rubble. The Lichterfelde line was operational until 1931.

enter image description here

Lichterfelde tram, photo date: 1882. Source

If Fyodor Pirotsky's line was not the first non-experimental effort, he would appear to deserve at least some credit for the Siemens & Halske tram. According to (among other sources) an 1885 US patent application, the German company had demonstrated their tram at the 1879 Berlin Trade Fair...

enter image description here

At the Berlin Trade Fair, 1879: the world\’s first electric railway (powered from external source), built by Siemens (image from Siemens press materials)

...but Pirotsky had been experimenting since 1875 on Miller's line (in Russia, but run by Finnish railways). Then,

In 1876, the artillery inventor [Pirotsky] published the results of experiments in the “Engineering Journal” and sent it to many physicists and electrical engineers. His observations and ideas pushed his colleagues to work in this direction, and not only in Russia. A representative of Siemens and Halske immediately sent an article to their management in Germany.

(courtesy of Google translate)

Also, after the 1879 Siemens & Halske demonstration but before their 1881 line opened,

On April 12, 1880, at the first special electrical engineering exhibition in St. Petersburg, Pirotsky demonstrated his projects and made a report titled “Transferring power to any distance using galvanic current (conductors - rails and wires)”, including for train traffic.

(courtesy of Google translate)

Pirotsky, it would appear, was undone by a lack of resources in trying to get a tram line operational on a more permanent basis.

What can be said with certainty is that the 1888 Vevey-Montreux-Chillon tram was not the second in Europe; there were several others before it, among which were:

October 1883 Mödling and Hinterbrühl Tram (the first using overhead wires).

enter image description here

"Railcar of the first generation, 1883", Lokalbahn (tram) Mödling–Hinterbrühl. Source

February / April 1884 Frankfurt / Offenbach. This was also a Siemens project.

September 1885 Blackpool Electric Tramway, the first in the UK if one discounts more limited systems at the Crystal Palace (1882-84) and in Edinburgh (1884).

November 1887 Budapest. Plans were approved on the 1st of October and the first tram started at the end of November. Siemens & Halske were involved in the construction.

  • 1
    The link for crystal palace goes to the Edinburgh page – Mark Jan 1 at 18:23
  • @Mark If you look a little down the page, under the heading The Electric Railway, it's there. Or you can just use control F and type 'Crystal' to search. – Lars Bosteen Jan 2 at 0:06
  • OK thank you very much, I think they mean the VMC tramway was 2nd electric tramway in europe using a overhead contact line ? If it was no then they're simply lying and they should be corrected. – Bregalad Jan 2 at 21:26
  • @Bregalad That may be correct but I'll need to check some of the sources again. Unfortunately, for many of the lines no details are given on this. – Lars Bosteen Jan 3 at 8:31

Wikipedia is at best a secondary source. If there's any doubt, check its sources.

The French article on tramways mentions Sarajevo as the first electric tram in 1885 without any reference. Right off the bat this is contradictory with the article about the Sarajevo tramway which lists it as horse-drawn from 1885 to 1895. I found these dates on other sites about the history of Sarajevo, e.g. First tramway in Sarajevo, Sarajevo tramways through time.

For Berlin, the date 1881 is mentioned in other secondary sources, such as 150 years of trams in Berlin (“in 1879 (…). Only two years later the first electric tram line in the world was opened”).

Assuming there are no other contenders, Berlin was either first or second, depending on whether you consider Pirotsky's line a first successful experiment that worked technically soon but failed commercially, or a failed experiment that never reached the stage of being an established mode of transportation.

You can look up the history of Wikipedia articles to see when and by whom a passage was added. Sometimes this can give some hints on the reliability of the information, or show how things got deformed by successive edits. WikiBlame can be useful for that. It shows that in the French article on tramways, the mention of Sarajevo in 1885 was added to replace the mention of Budapest in 1887 without any other changes such as adding a reference. Budapest in 1887 had been added in 2004. Apparently the editors involved were not aware of the Berlin precedent at that time.

I have not done any research to validate the references to Berlin 1881 and Saint-Petersburg 1880 or to look for anteriority.

  • Good point on the Wiki articles. The inaccuracies may be because some published sources also have mistakes. – Lars Bosteen Jan 3 at 8:45

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