The golden age of trams on Britain’s railroads

Posted in Engineering, Historical articles, History, Transport on Monday, 26 September 2011

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This edited article about transport  originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 824 published on 29 October 1977.

Tram, picture, image, illustration

Trams ran on narrow-gauge rails in many towns

Steel tracks once ran through the streets of Britain’s towns and cities. Cyclists went in awe of them, for a bicycle wheel caught in one of them could mean a tumble for the rider. Motorists steered clear of them as well, for the heavy, double-decker vehicles that trundled along these tracks had only their brakes to save them from a collision, for they could not be steered.

Yet, big and ungainly though they seemed, these vehicles were once the bright hopes of the transport scene. In the days before motorcars, when horse-drawn carts, buses and carriages filled the streets, they were as revolutionary as the railways which had preceded them by a few years.

They were, in fact, trams. Horse-drawn at first, then steam-powered and later propelled by electricity, they carried our forefathers and later generations about their business right up to the 1950s, when they were slowly but steadily giving way to buses.

Though trams seem British, this mode of transport was, in fact, introduced into this country by an American, George Francis Train, who began his pioneer line in Birkenhead in 1860. The first form of motive power was the horse. The first few cars displayed definite signs of American influence in their layout and styling, but later developments began to take on a distinctly British look.

Britain’s tram designers produced the world’s first double-decker cars in the early 1880s. The double-decker was normally a two-horse vehicle, but smaller one-horse single-deckers were also to be found on less busy routes.

With the easier running made possible by a smooth steel rail, the tramcar could be a heavier and more substantial vehicle than the bus, and it could carry more passengers.

In the very early days of the double-decker layouts, the top-deck seating was back-to-back, the passengers facing outwards, but later the “garden seat” was favoured, with passengers sitting facing forward on either side of a central gangway.

Mechanical traction made its appearance with the adaptation of the steam locomotive to the tramways, but it was the advent of electricity which led to the tram’s golden age. Blackpool had Britain’s first electric street tramway in 1885. It’s vehicles picked up their current from a cable which ran in a special trough between the tramlines.

Although to many people electricity was still a novelty, its use was sufficiently advanced to enable not one, but two, electric lines to be opened for public service in the United Kingdom by 1883.

The first of these – Volk’s Electric Railway at Brighton, Sussex – was opened on 3rd August 1883. It consisted of a short length of track along the sea front. On this ran a four-wheeled car supplied by current from a dynamo driven by a 2 h.p. gas engine.

The crowd which attended the opening seemed to expect the heavily laden car to fail, but it moved off successfully. This line, which is still in existence, derives its name from the man who designed and built it – Magnus Volk, who was associated with it for fifty years until his death in 1937.

Leeds City Corporation introduced overhead wires for the conveyance of electricity in 1891, thus establishing the basic idea for nearly all the tram designs which were to follow during the next sixty years or so.

No other means of propelling trams was to compete with the overhead electric system. In about 1880, there had been experiments with compressed-air driven trams on the streets of a number of towns, including Chester. Leeds and London, but they failed as rivals to electricity.

Other methods tried included propulsion by oil, wind, clockwork springs, and superheated water, but these aroused too little enthusiasm.

However, trams powered by gas, storage batteries, petrol or petrol-electric engines, and by traction through a moving underground cable did see service in Britain. Electricity supplied through a conduit between the lines was also used. These methods were generally employed where there was an objection to the ugly appearance of overhead wires.

The electric storage battery cars were operated from 1890 until 1901 along a route in Birmingham, but ‘they were not popular The vibration of the cars rapidly destroyed the inefficient batteries of the day, while the objectionable-smelling acid fumes discoloured and damaged tram bodies and passengers’ clothing.

Around the turn of the century, overhead cable-supplied electricity really came into its own, not only taking over from all other forms of motive power, but stimulating the construction of numerous similar undertakings in many parts of the country.

Next week we shall trace further the rapid line of the tramcar’s development which took place over a half-century ago. Trams were designed to revolutionise the urban scene of practically every town and city in the world, before declining again almost as quickly as they had first appeared.

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