The system was established by German Empire in 1894 as a unique 785 mm (2 ft 629⁄32 in) narrow gauge steam interurban railway. The first line was 36.5 km long and connected Gliwice with Piekary Śląskie through Zabrze, Chebzie, Chorzów and Bytom, another connected Katowice and Siemianowice. After four years (in 1898) electrification started. In 1912 the first short 4 ft 81⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge line was built in Katowice. In 1913 a separate standard gauge system connecting Bytom with suburbs and villages west of the town was opened. After World War I and the Silesian Uprisings the region (and the tram network) was divided between newly independent Poland and Germany, and international services appeared (the last one ran until 1937). In 1928 another standard gauge system was established in Sosnowiec, Będzin and Dąbrowa Górnicza (the so-called Dabrowa Coal Basin - a region adjoining the Upper Silesian Coal Basin). Between 1928 and 1936 most of the original narrow gauge network was converted to standard (although the last narrow gauge line, Siemianowice Śląskie-Chorzów, remained till 1952), which allowed a connection with the new system in Sosnowiec (a service between Chorzow and Sosnowiec through Katowice was established in 1931).
View of Bytom in 1915
During World War II the German authorities decided to merge all the systems and administrations, and they have remained as one united network to the present day (though the old boundaries are still easily traceable). The new route numbering system introduced in 1940 to integrate the systems is still used. In 1951 the system was taken over by a state-owned company (WPK Katowice) and until the 1970s it was widely extended and partly modernised, reaching its maximum length at the end of the 1970s (ca. 235 km). Since the late 1960s, the classic rolling stock has been replaced by modern cars based on PCC streetcar technology. In the 1980s some of the non-modernised, rural lines were abandoned (the longest one from Bytom to Wieszowa with a branch to Stolarzowice).
Works tram towing scrapped pointwork from Alfred to Katowice, 10 September 2011
The end of the 1980s brought changes in Poland (the Round Table talks and the fall of communism), but unfortunately that did not improve the tramway service in the region – on the contrary, the condition of the tram company (Tramwaje Śląskie) had been steadily deteriorating since the middle of the 1990s. The last new line was built in 1980–1982 (between Sosnowiec and Zagórze). At the end of the 1990s the Bytom – Chorzów – Katowice line was to be upgraded to light-rail (LRT) standards. Due to a lack of funds, the investment was only partially carried out, but included the purchase of 17 new Alstom Citadislow-floor cars). The journey time on this highly overcrowded line did not change.