Tuesday, 27 October 2020

Story of the British Tram (3) : Heyday and decline

In Part 2 of this series we saw how after the introduction of the electric tram in the late nineteenth century it quickly replaced the horse tram and by the early twentieth century there were over two hundred electric tram networks in the British Isles covering a considerable amount of route miles. However, the heyday of the tram was very short. Even by the 1920s tram networks were being closed or absorbed by larger concerns. So, what happened?

Maintaining a tram network, a light railway in all but name, was an expensive business. Many tram companies outside of the big cities had marginal finances and could not afford the ongoing cost of renewal as track, infrastructure and the trams themselves became life expired. Luckily there was a cheaper alternative, the motor bus. After the First World War motor technology, especially the diesel, had become sufficiently mature enough to become a viable alternative to the electric tram. Many tram networks were replaced by motor buses.

However, the tram was not finished yet. The larger municipal networks continued to develop their routes and bought in a new generation of trams in the late 1920s and 1930s which had more modern styling and improved facilities for passengers like the Blackpool Balloon Car and the London Feltham Tram. Competition with the bus was still fierce however. The advent of the Second World War, it's strain on the networks during the wartime conditions and the economic difficulties after the war was the final hammer blow for the electric tram. Even the large networks in the likes of Birmingham, Leeds and London began to be replaced by the bus. This was not a phenomenon unique to Britain, all around the world street tram networks were being closed down.

The tram was seen as yesterday's technology especially as car ownership rose. Of course, applying modern day hindsight, replacing electric transport with polluting vehicles and congestion nowadays seems an odd thing to do but at the time the car (and to a lesser extent the bus) was seen as the future. The railways were also being replaced by roads. With the final closure of the Glasgow network in 1962 the electric tram was limited only to Blackpool where it fulfilled a semi-public transport semi-heritage role. This seemed to be the end of the electric tram as part of the British transport story. However, the tram wasn't finished yet.

A preserved Birmingham Corporation tram

Later Liverpool trams

A Feltham tram

A Blackpool streamlined tram