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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Buses and trams of the Soviet Union: A look at public transit in the USSR, 1976

In October, 1976 the French magazine La vie du rail -- a magazine for railway and transit enthusiasts -- published a fascinating look at mass transit in the USSR at the time. Titled De trams en bus en URSS it was written by P. Carenco and featured transit photos from across the Soviet Union as well as details of the author's travels on the transit systems of Moscow and Leningrad.

He found the transit systems to be very extensive and efficient and reported on plans to grow transit networks in both of these cities and beyond.

Here we are featuring all of the photos, as well as translations of the photo descriptions and parts of the text of the article.

There are many interesting aspects, from the honour system when buying Moscow bus tickets, to the nostalgic descriptions of travelling the trams in Leningrad, to the detail that Leningrad's tram network was also used for freight.

Early morning in Moscow as a battery of trams get ready to depart


As of February, 1 1974, the population of the USSR was two hundred and fifty million inhabitants. This huge country has twelve cities of more than one million people and twenty-four cities whose population is between five hundred thousand and one million inhabitants.

The Soviet automobile industry has only begun to develop very recently. As a result Soviet cities have been equipped for a long time with the extensive transit necessary to ensure and facilitate the movement of almost all residents.

In a system where planning and state control are at the base of all economic growth and activity, public transport developed only according to projects and standards established by the state. Given the importance of the immediate transport needs, the USSR has not innovated in terms of urban transport techniques; rather it has emphasized conventional means of transport recognized as practical, safe and economical. Therefore the infrastructure in most cities consists of subways, trams, trolleybuses and buses.

Six cities currently have subways whose networks are expanding: Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Tbilisi, Baku and Kharkov. Other networks are under study or in progress, including one in Tashkent.

A major downtown Moscow boulevard by the Intourist Hotel

There are trams in one hundred and ten cities and trolleybuses in one hundred cities, while about two thousand cities are endowed with urban or suburban bus lines. The mileage of the networks of trams and trolleybus is to increase by 1980 by more than 35 per cent. In the USSR, buses provide about half of all transit, trams about one-quarter, 10% is trolleybuses and subways account for 7%. About half of all transit is electric while half is diesel.

In a Moscow subway car


To arrive at midnight in Moscow and see Red Square in the falling snow with the illuminated Kremlin in the background is an impressive sight for a visitor. There are the high walls of the citadel and the tomb of Lenin guarded by two soldiers.

I cannot help but think of the history of Russia and of the USSR: the tsars, Napoleon, the Revolution, the Second World War. I can only imagine the problems of management facing such a big country with so many different regions, climates and peoples.

These thoughts never leave me throughout this journey in the USSR, seeing the achievements in various fields, and in the transport sector particularly.

Moscow with seven million five hundred thousand inhabitants comes alive as the day rises: thousands and thousands of employees and residents invade the downtown. Moscow is a city where you can walk, as in many other big cities, among streams of inhabitants circulating on the sidewalks, enter the metro stations and get out at bus stops, or by the department stores, public buildings, ministries, post offices and libraries.

The crowds recall the sidewalks of Manhattan or streets in the neighborhood of the Gare Saint-Lazare where everything is bustling.

After some missteps, probably due to my ignorance of the Russian language, I discover a big M above an underground entrance not far from my hotel. I do like hundreds of people: I rush into it and arrive in a large room shaped like a half-sphere with three escalators.

In a corner, a small colour map schematic gives some explanations. There are eight lines. I do not understand much else! I decide to do like everyone else and put three kopecks in the automatic turnstile.

The escalators are impressive; those of our RER seem very short in comparison. It must not be forgotten that the Moscow Metro, besides its role of transport. played a role in the protection of citizens during the war, which partly accounts for its great depth.

Who has not heard about the Moscow metro? With its little marble palaces. bronze gilding, giant chandeliers and statues that illustrate life in the Soviet Union. There are heroes of the Revolution, the army and the workers.

A modern trolleybus in a medium-sized city, Samarkand

Trolleybuses and buses of various ages are very well maintained. Most were built in the USSR, but some come from the countries of Eastern Europe. Entry is done from the back and the exit from the front. There is no ticket agent. A vending machine with tickets is available to customers: you can take as many tickets as you want by pulling a roller! Just put as many times five kopecks that one takes in tickets in a small plexiglas box. Your actions are visible to the eyes of your neighbors who help to control your honesty. When you turn the roller to take the tickets, your money falls in the box. The next customer can then take his turn. Here, self-discipline seems to succeed well.

A funicular railway in Baku, on the Caspian Sea

There are no more tram lines in the center of Moscow where one finds the principal metro lines. Instead there are numerous bus and trolleybus lines. There are, in total, 324 surface lines.

A tramway in Novosibirsk, a city in Siberia characterized by huge shifts in temperature between the winter and the summer months.

Thanks to the enormous numbers of electric lines that cover Moscow and its suburbs many trolleybuses avoid the use of diesel, helping in the fight against pollution.

In the suburbs are increasing numbers of cars made in the city of Togliatti, named for an Italian Communist leader. I arrive at a section of Moscow, in the north part of the city, where there is a permanent exhibition of the achievements of the Soviet Union.

This sector of Moscow resembles the Porte de Versailles in Paris a little bit, with a very busy

bus stop. and trucks, cars and trams all circulating cleanly.

The trolleybuses are frequently driven by women which is common in the USSR.

Moscow. An open air Metro station.

Multiple trips to the suburbs thanks to the subway allowed me to come to some other conclusions. First, the metro lines cross the city's rivers via elevated routes and the metro is almost always elevated in the suburbs.

Recent stations on these new extension lines are plain and without decorations; I feel that the concern for economy has prevailed in their design.

The metro network is growing gradually.

The next few statistics show the development to date and the projected growth:

1974: 156 km.

1980: 200 km.

2000: 320 km.

Long Term: 450 km.

In Tashkent, in the middle of the road, a woman sits by a small table selling bus tickets.

A noticeable difference, from what we know in France, appears to me at the exit of these metro stations in the suburbs. Numerous -- in fact very numerous -- trolley lines, tramways and buses serve them and depart in all directions towards the many new neighborhoods built on the outskirts of the capital.

The tramway network consists of thirty-nine lines and reaches four hundred and fifty kilometers. it uses over 1,500 cars. It is becoming larger as more and more new neighborhoods appear while the center lines are phased out. I had the opportunity to travel a new line south of Moscow.

This one extends several kilometers down an important double avenue on both sides of which is new housing as far as the eye can see. While trams can reach a good speed the average is never high because of the numerous stops.

Sights of the Moscow Metro

I will never forget the scene of the incessant tramways in the night flowing to the metro stations. Muscovites returning to their suburban homes. Some are coming from other suburbs as in Moscow industries have left the city center with its administrative buildings and offices.

Furthermore. some flexibility exists in the system of work and Muscovites are looking for jobs often far from their neighbourhood.

Finally, Muscovites go out a lot; it does not seem that the television is the city's main attraction. The theaters, circuses, music halls. concerts and cinemas are always full.

The urban transport network is excellent and very complete: once you know it well and know how to use it, it turns out to be quite convenient.

A 1963 trolleybus near the Kremlin


The former St. Petersburg is a very large metropolis of 4,250,000 inhabitants including localities that fall under of the soviet of the city.

Built on the initiative of Peter the Great, it was created on land that was difficult and swampy

Leningrad experienced much pain during the last war and hundreds of thousands of died there either in battle or due to cold and starvation.

It has kept its historic character and is now the city most visited by tourists to the USSR. Foreign visitors come to see the innumerable famous buildings, the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Winter Palace, museums dedicated to the Revolution, etc.

It was one of the first cities in the USSR/Russia to have a network of trams beginning at the end of the 19th century. This has developed and is still developing today. Leningrad's system is one of the largest in the world. It comprises fifty-three lines in service.

Leningrad also has a Metro. This one had to be dug to great depth because of the nature of the topography. In 1974, three lines were in service and two of them are in the process of being extended.

Tramways at night in a Moscow suburb

The above ground transport network is very complex and very extensive. Almost all the streets or main streets have public transit lines. The tramlines have not left the center of the city as in Moscow. On the contrary, they crisscross it to connect it to the peripheries. On the major arteries the trams have a double lane often separated from the road lanes by a hedge or small sidewalk. Elsewhere, the tramway uses the roadway but suffers little for this as traffic, it seemed to me, has not reached the level of that of Moscow. In the suburbs, the tramway often runs on dedicated roads. New routes have been built towards new cities from the periphery: they sometimes have the character of a railway.

A prototype car for future tramways in Moscow

A new type of Moscow trolleybus

The rolling stock of this network of trams is more exciting for a railroad enthusiast than the highly modernized one of Moscow. Here the variety is beautiful. At least four different types of motor are in use.

A tramway to Tchertanovo, a new suburban Moscow neighbourhood.

Similarly, the colors are more varied than in Moscow: to red and beige are added blue, pale yellow and even green. After a night of ballet in a theater downtown, I had the opportunity to take one of these old cars. They are very well maintained and have received modern additions: doors that are automatic and a sound system that allows the announcement of stops by the driver. Learning the stops for me was hard as I definitely do not have the Russian ear.

But this trip at night in a fairly empty vehicle down quiet streets without cars, through a suburban neighborhood (the line makes a detour to reach the quays of the Neva where my hotel is located) brings back to me very curious memories from childhood.

The sound of old engines purring, the creaking in the curves, the absence of noise and light on sleepy streets. I am drawn irresistibly to childhood memories of when I rode the tramway at night in my hometown of Nice just after the war.

Trolleybuses and buses weave a particularly dense network inside and around Leningrad. As in Moscow, the types of vehicles used are very diverse.

Leningrad: The Narva Gate and the Narvskaia Metro Station

Leningrad subway station

A novel detail of Leningrad: freight trains travel the tram network. They are old trams where only the cabins have been preserved and the central part removed. Also, we see convoys of flat wagons with things like large rolls of paper crossing the city several times a day.

Overall, the stops for public vehicles are not landscaped. Many people are standing on the sidewalk and then on the roadside to take the tram.

An older Leningrad tram

In Leningrad, as in any city in the USSR, the fight against the elements is a fundamental part of transport operations. A snow storm and a cold front can turn everything into a formless landscape of a single color. Snow plows and bulldozers then go into action. Ladder cars repair the damaged overhead wires. And the transit network continues to ensure the ongoing life of the city.

A newer Leningrad tram model

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Brett Hetherington
Brett Hetherington
8 hours ago

Great work here, Comrade. As good to read as to enjoy the history and feel of the past in the pics. The "Moscow. An open air Metro station" is a personal favourite.

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