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Story Of London

London Trams and Trolleybuses

London Trams and Trolleybuses
by Anthony Waldstock

The tram was first introduced into Britain by an American gentleman with the wonderful name of George Francis Train. Unfortunately, his trams rattled too many fashionable tea-cups and lasted no more than six months. They were revived ten years later, however, and became both fashionable and successful. Then came the electric trams. These were seen as highly glamorous and the transport to be seen in! But the motor bus and the Trolleybus were fast catching up on the inside lane. The old-fashioned, inefficient tram was abolished in the 1950s and the motor engine ruled the day. In 2001 the tram became the answer to all the ills of modern urban transport … Confused? Read on….

London Trams and Trolleybuses

A London Tram in 1905

With the underground already under construction, 1861 saw the introduction of a new system of transport on London’s streets – the Tramway. It was introduced by the felicitously named George Francis Train, a gentleman from America where the tram was by then well established. Mr Train experimented with his system at Birkenhead, near Liverpool and finally convinced the authorities to allow him to lay experimental tracks on several routes in London. The first of these opened on March 23rd 1861 and was about a mile in length and ran along Bayswater Road between Marble Arch and Notting Hill. The second one followed on April 15th and ran down Victoria Street. The third opened for business on August 15th and ran from Westminster Bridge to the Horns public house at Kennington Park. The vehicles were drawn by a pair of horses and could accommodate twenty people sitting inside and another twelve “strap-hanging”. With metal wheels running on smooth tracks in the road they were much easier to pull than carriages running on uneven road surfaces. This meant that two horses could pull a tram carrying 50 passengers, about twice the capacity of the horse bus, making trams dramatically cheaper to run.

There were many objections. Apart from the cab drivers who saw Mr Train as a potential threat to their own overcrowded market there was the noise. The rumbling of the steel wheels on the steel rails was not inconsiderable and no doubt rattled the afternoon tea cups in the households along the routes. Unfortunately for Mr Train, the routes ran through “fashionable” areas whose residents had considerable political influence. There was also a problem with the rails. The flange which retained the wheels of the car jutted above the road surface and therefore constituted a serious hazard to other vehicles. The experiment was abandoned by the authorities.

In 1868, Parliament authorised the laying of tramways in Liverpool and the pressure to do the same in London was enormous. Parliament relented in 1869 and authorised three tramlines in London – but outside the central area. On May 2nd 1870 the first new tramway was opened between Brixton and Kennington and a week later the second was inaugurated between Whitechapel and Bow in the East end. The third, between Blackheath and New Cross was in operation by December. The system soon expanded into a large network which covered all of London except the central area. In 1899, almost the entire network became the responsibility of the London County Council (LCC). They retained this control until 1933 when responsibility passed to the London Passenger Transport Board.

Heavy advertising was an early feature of trams

In 1901 all public road transport – cab, tram and omnibus – was still horse-drawn. In this year more than 3,700 horse buses carried Londoners and the London General Omnibus Company was reckoned to be the largest user of horse power in the metropolis. Each bus required 11 horses to service it during its average 60 miles a day. Generally there was a class distinction with the buses serving the middle classes and the trams, with lower fares, the working classes. Also in this year the last stretch of line built for horse trams was opened on 22 August. This was in Agincourt Road, Hampstead, and provided a one-way track which enabled the terminus at South End Green to re-join the main route to Camden Town. Changes were on the way, however. On April 4th, the first electric trams appeared on a track between Shepherds Bush, Chiswick and Kew. This was owned by London United Tramways a private company whose full service running between Shepherd’s Bush, Hammersmith, Acton and Kew Bridge began on July 10th 1901. These early tramways ran on rails set into the road surface drawing power from electrified wires suspended above the streets. Other tramways quickly followed and by 1906 ten municipal systems were in operation. Large number of passengers used the trams, and electric power was widely seen as being modern, clean, efficient – and glamorous.

The Glamorous Electric Trams

This heralded a major expansion into electric tramways. The London County Council (LCC) began taking control of the horse tramways in London in 1896, and by 1899 had taken over the principal lines in south London. They now began an extensive programme of electrifying the old routes. For this they adopted the ‘conduit’ system of supplying power by means of a live rail buried beneath the road surface, rather than the cheaper, but unsightly, overhead lines. The first of these new electric-powered conduit lines opened on 15 May 1903. It ran from Blackfriars and Westminster to one of the LCC’s new cottage estates in Tooting, south London. By 1910 the LCC had electrified 120 miles of tram routes, making it the largest tram operator in the country. Between 1900 and 1914 it developed a large, integrated tram system in London and its suburbs. Network expansion linked routes north and south of the Thames and tracks were laid over Westminster Bridge in 1906. Also in 1906 came the innovation of single-deck tramcars running in a tunnel beneath Kingsway down to Aldwych. These came into service on February 24th of that year and the line was extended in 1908 to the Embankment, where it connected with south-London services via the Westminster Bridge lines.

A Double-Decker in the Kingsway Tunnel

In 1913, London’s three private tram systems were taken over by the Underground Group. The London County Council (LCC) was committed to a policy of subsidised low fares to encourage people to use the trams. They were quick, frequent and cheap to run. The policy was a success and by 1924 more Londoners were travelling by tram than by any other form of transport. Success grew on success and in 1930 the Kingsway tunnel wasclosed in order to allow it to be deepened. It reopened on January 14th 1931 with new double-decker tramcars. By now, London had the largest tram network in the country with 345 route miles being served by 2,600 tramcars, but competition was never far away. Motor buses had begun to appear on the streets and posed a real threat as they offered a more flexible level of service and greater comfort. In an attempt to attract passengers onto trams instead of buses, the LCC began to refurbish its fleet of E/1-type trams, offering upholstered seating and smart new red and cream livery. Then, in 1931 London United Tramways introduced the Trolleybus.

The Delights of the Trolleybus

Trolleybuses were a cross between trams and buses. They were powered by overhead lines, and ran on pneumatic tyres instead of rails in the road. Conversion to a Trolleybus System was not difficult. Transformation of the existing equipment was easy, and it allowed for the use of much of the existing electrical power system. The economic argument rested on the savings made from not needing to replace the worn-out tram rails. They had been demonstrated as early as 1909 in London, and were first introduced in Bradford and Leeds in 1911. On 16 May 1931 the London United Tramways (LUT) started London’s first Trolleybus service between Twickenham Junction and Teddington, replacing the tram service.

The glamour was fading. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s trams more and more came to be seen as noisy and dangerous to other road users and by the early 1930s the golden age of the tram was drawing to a close. The reluctance of Westminster and the City of London to allow trams on their streets was fundamental weakness in the system and resulted in the tram network primarily servicing the inner suburbs and not the central area. Following a failed push to modernise the system, a Royal Commission in 1931 recommended that trams be replaced by Trolleybuses. This was managed by the London Passenger Transport Board which had been formed in 1933. The process got under way in earnest in 1935 and by 1940 more than half of London’s trams had been scrapped. The whole of the North London tram routes had been converted to trolleybus operation with the exception of two spurs to Highgate and Manor House via the Kingsway Subway.

One of the Last Trams in service on Route 44 in Woolwich

It was interrupted in the war years but plans to resume it were announced in 1946. It was carried out in eight stages, beginning in September 1950. In October of that year trams were abolished across London in Battersea, Camberwell, Lambeth, Southwark, Westminster, Holborn, Finsbury and Chelsea. In order to accommodate the large number of scrapped vehicles, a large site was acquired at Penhall Road Charlton in South East London and laid out with a number of parallel tracks on which the displaced trains were stored as they came out of service. After stripping them of all useful parts the bodies were burned. In every case, except one, the changeover from trams to buses was made on a Saturday night, the buses taking over on Sunday morning.

Last Tram Week was an emotional Celebration and Wake

1952 was the year of the last London tram. The tunnel beneath Kingsway and Aldwych was closed on April 5th and the last trams ran in July on Routes 44 and 46 in Woolwich and Lewisham. The much-loved trams were honored with a week-long farewell celebration Last Tram Week and the final tram ran from Woolwich to New Cross on 5th July. The Kingsway tunnel remained unused until the authorities were persuaded to open it for motor traffic in 1964. The era of the trolleybus was brief. The need for expansion of routes into the growing suburbs, cheap oil fuels and the cost of maintaining overhead wires began to make the trolleybus less viable. The replacement with motor buses began in 1959, and London’s last trolleybus ran from Wimbledon to Fulwell on 9 May 1962.

Then, at the end of the century that the concept of trams for London was dramatically revived. It all began in Croydon, South London, in the 1980s when it was suggested that the dire public transport system resulting from traffic congestion would be improved by the introduction of a tram system. A bill to enable the scheme to go forward was introduced in Parliament in 1991 and the Croydon Tramlink Act finally received Royal Assent on 21st July 1994. In 1997, work began on 28 kilometres of a light rail transport network linking Croydon with New Addington, Beckenham, Elmers End and Wimbledon. The 28 kilometres tram network is served by 38 tramstops located along the route, each providing local access to the centre of Croydon. The first tram to run under its own power on the streets of Croydon was 2535, which had a test run early on June 16th 1999. The official opening took place on 10th May 2000 at New Addington when Route 3 opened to the public. Route 2 to Beckenham Junction opened on 23rd May 2000 with the Route 1 from Elmers End to Wimbledon opening a week later on 29th May. Tramlink’s red and white trams come are modelled on the Austrian system and manufactured in Vienna. The maximum speed is 80 km/h (50 miles per hour) but is restricted in the centre of Croydon and is much less in pedestrianised areas.

The Ultra-Modern Croydon Tram (from Austria)

The£200m scheme has been a huge success. In the six weeks after its introduction, car parking in the centre of Croydon had been reduced by 9%. After a year in operation 40,000 passengers were daily using the tram and that 20% more people were coming into central Croydon. This stunned the politicians and in August 2001 a huge new scheme was mooted. Ministers now effect to believe that people are more attracted to light rail projects rather than buses. Their popularity is said to be such that they can move large flows of passengers quickly, comfortably and reliably. The £300 million cross-river London Tram scheme now proposed would link Camden in the north with Brixton and Peckham in the south, crossing the Thames at Waterloo Bridge. Trams could run every few minutes at peak times, with an estimated 72 million passengers a year expected to use the system. The new link could potentially halve journey times on some stretches of the route, with typical estimated journey times being 12 minutes from Camden to Aldwych, 25 minutes from Peckham to Euston, and 22 minutes from Brixton to Holborn.

The plans are being pushed through by the Cross River Partnership, which is made up of the Corporation of London, Railtrack, the London Tourist Board and affected local authorities. Tom Franklin, Labour leader of Lambeth council, said:”Trams have not run in central London since 1952 and a modern light transit network would be a major step in giving London a world class-public transport network.”The European-style trams would cross central London either in designated tram lanes or by being given priority over road vehicles on shared road space. If approved, the first trams would not start running before 2007 at the earliest. Under the Transport and Works Act there would have to be a public enquiry before a three-year construction programme could begin, possibly in 2004. It is funny how the world can go quite deliciously topsy-turvy in the space of fifty years.