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Modern subways zip below, but a city’s trams, slow and sweaty, plod on

Gillardi Jacques | hemis.fr | Getty Images

This city has one of the world's most highly regarded subway systems, with spotless stations, cellphone service on trains and even computers with free Internet access on some platforms. Getting from one side of Hong Kong Island to the other takes a mere 25 minutes for the eight-mile journey on trains that have a 99.9 percent on-time record.

The subways of the Mass Transit Railway system, called the M.T.R. for short, were once thought to augur the death knell for a much slower and less comfortable mode of transport above ground: the century-old Hong Kong tram, which snakes slowly through the city's heavy traffic, its passengers suffering through the tropical humidity without the air-conditioning that cools the underground transit network.

But the trams, perhaps surprisingly, are holding their own.

"I take the tram very often — it's convenient, economical and efficient," said Derik Wong, 42, who works in the food and beverage industry and takes the tram 5 to 10 times a week. "If you plan your time well, the tram's speed is not a problem."

(Read more: Hong Kong: Not enough space for the elderly)

Called the ding-dings by locals for their pedestrian warning bells, the trams draw 200,000 riders a day for a price of 2.30 Hong Kong dollars, or 30 cents, a ride, regardless of distance traveled. Seniors pay half price.

By comparison, fares on the subways of the M.T.R., which carries 5.1 million passengers a day, range from 4.10 to 7.50 Hong Kong dollars, or 53 to 97 cents, on the Island line.

But just as important is the ease of the on-and-off commute on an island with a dense string of business and retail districts along its northern coast. The trams may be old and slow, with typical speeds of six miles per hour, but their popularity shows how in this ever-modernizing city, old habits survive.

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The system is privately run by a French operator and does not receive any money from the local government, unlike in New York City, where major modes of mass transit like the similarly aged subway system and the buses rely on large subsidies from Albany and City Hall.

Studies show that it is not just longtime Hong Kong residents who rely on the 109-year-old system.

"We're very representative of Hong Kong," said Emmanuel Vivant, the general manager of the system. "The old and the young use us. And a lot of white-collar people take trams during lunchtime," shuttling, for instance, from the city's huge financial towers to restaurants in nearby neighborhoods for meals.

(Watch now: As HongKong prices rise, how do the elderly fare?)

The tram operator, Veolia Transport, has enough confidence in the trams' place in Hong Kong that it is investing roughly $20 million to update the system, mainly with more durable aluminum cars to replace the old wooden ones.

The new cars are designed to last five times longer — up to 20 years — before they need an overhaul. Perhaps belatedly, Veolia is also introducing audio and visual announcements of coming stops, improvements that tram systems elsewhere instituted years ago.

Still, the trams face increasing challenges from the well-financed M.T.R., which is expanding its reach around Hong Kong Island with a new line to the southwest coast, while extending its main Island Line to an area where the tram now faces no underground competition.

Mr. Vivant acknowledges his company is "very much concerned about the future" because of the M.T.R.'s expansion.

More from the New York Times:

When the New York City Subway Ran Without Rails
Have-Nots Squeezed and Stacked in Hong Kong
Death in Hong Kong Fuels Feelings of Discrimination

The M.T.R. system benefits not only from fare revenue, but from the more lucrative profits generated by the property it develops above railway station sites, which include office towers and some of the famous high-end shopping malls that make Hong Kong a world tourist magnet.

To compete, Veolia must rely on some innovative ways to eke out money, not only by leasing billboards on the sides of the cars, but also by renting out antique trams for party rides. At the same time, Veolia has low fixed costs and does not outsource operations, and with trams coming by about every 90 seconds and generally packed standing room only with up to 110 passengers per car, the money keeps coming in.

(Read more: Why Shanghai free trade zone is no match for Hong Kong)

Veolia also benefits from its route simplicity. The M.T.R. has a labyrinthine underground network that can be time-consuming to navigate.

The nostalgic pull of the trams keeps many riders loyal. The system was Hong Kong Island's first mode of mass transit, running along the waterfront until land reclamation into Hong Kong Harbor effectively pushed the tram service inland. When Hong Kong considered eliminating the system in the 1980s, public support helped to keep the trams alive.

"Trams are a symbol of Hong Kong," said Peter Wong, 59, a retiree who said he had been taking them "since I was a kid." The cost is hard to criticize.

"I don't mind trams are not air-conditioned, because it's good value for the money," Mr. Wong said as he waited for a tram at Western Market. "You can't demand everything with such a low fare. Also, Hong Kong culture is preserved in trams."

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