Jonathan Bray

The strange death (and rebirth) of trams in England and Scotland

Riding the tram as it rolled urbanely down the Leith Walk a few weeks back, on the new extension of the Edinburgh Tram, reminded me that this is what trams do at their best. They keep it simple (you know where you are going) and they keep it comfortable (ride quality matters). We didn’t stop for anything other than when we should have (for tram stops). It felt like it had always been there. No longer one of the many former or might have been tram and tramways which haunt our cities.

It never gets less mind boggling that the UK got rid (one line in Blackpool excepted) of every urban tram system we had before the sixties had even got going. Why did we do that? And how best can we continue to put that mistake right with more tram lines like the Leith extension? An excellent recent book by Tony Young for the Light Rail Transit Association on “Might have been Trams and Tramways’ filled in some more of the gaps for me.

From today’s standpoint it’s hard to comprehend the scale of the UK’s tram systems in the first part of the 20th Century. Indeed, and as an aside, my great grandad’s last manual labouring job was laying the tracks of the extension of the tram to Guiseley (9 miles out of Leeds). In August 1916 (if you were willing to walk to close a 7 mile gap in Calderdale) you could travel from Bingley to Liverpool by tram – if you had a day to spare. There had been plans for much more. Everything from a tram to the heart of the Lakes at Ambleside and a proposal for a tram transporter bridge to carry double decker trams over the River Ribble on their journey from Blackpool to Southport. If the various plans for even more tram extensions had occurred you could have travelled from Fleetwood to Macclesfield by tram.

But already some of the seeds of destruction had been planted. Profits from the trams heyday (where some systems were rather hastily knocked together), which should have been set aside for inevitable future renewal needs, were spent elsewhere (including holding down the rates). Trams had to take the hit for paying for the roadway on which the tracks were laid (and eighteen inches either side) and Government was also starting to favour other transport modes. A Royal Commission report of 1929 (which formed the basis of the 1930 Road Traffic Act) recommended that ‘no additional tramways should be be constructed…and they should gradually disappear and give place to other forms of transport.’ The was followed up by post war government guidance of ‘design and layout of roads in built up areas’ which stated that: ‘There can be no doubt that tramcars running on fixed tracks obstruct the free flow of traffic…we welcome the tendency to replace tramcars by vehicles of greater flexibility.’

Not everyone had seen it that way. Some forward thinking figures in cities like Leeds and Liverpool had been providing their expanding cities with new roads with segregated tracks in the central reservation. There were 25 miles of them in the case of Liverpool served by trams with evocative names like ‘Streamliners’ and ‘Baby Grands’. The same cities were also among those who had plans for tunnelled city centre sections, which would have been in effect a wider evolution of essentially Victorian tram systems into something closer to what we now know as light rail. It would have meant cross city trams with below street level trams in city centres. As part of this approach the tottering double decker trams of yore would start to be replaced by sleeker single decker trams (including the use of unpowered trailer vehicles to provide greater capacity) which as is common just about everywhere else in the world and which would have reduced operating costs. Some rather swish single decker pilot vehicles were produced in Leeds. After the war the advocates for upgrading existing systems put their case within city halls one more time. It was modernise or die. But the trams had become a political football (in Leeds it was Labour that did for them, in Liverpool it was the Conservatives). They were unwanted clutter from the past at a time when operating costs of public transport networks were rising and meeting housing targets was the big priority for investment. Death was cheaper than modernisation so die they all did. 250,000 names on a petition against the Liverpool systems closure was ignored. The trams were burnt and the infrastructure ripped out leaving the central reservations to grass over. Imagine Leeds now with trams criss crossing the city from their metro like central underground stations speeding past the jams on their way to the suburbs on their own segregated infrastructure. Go to Brussels and you can see sub-surface tram stations on tunnelled sections through the city centre – just like Leeds should have had. Britain does have one tram tunnel (and it’s still there) – the Kingsway tram tunnel in Holborn. It allowed cross city tram routes when before they had all stopped at termini at the edge of the city centre. As in cities like Leeds there had also been efforts to complement such infrastructure by producing a tram of the future. Similar care was lavished on the design of what became known as the ‘Feltham’ double decker tram as later would be given to the design of the Routemaster bus. But unlike the Routemaster the Feltham was never mass produced. Ultimately London’s half hearted modernisation drive went the same way as those in other UK cities. Trams were gone in London before the 1950s had got going.

The UK wasn’t the only country to get rid of its trams. France did too. But the difference is they realised their mistake earlier and have moved faster subsequently. Although tram has had a revival in the UK it’s been a halting one. Here Alistair Darling is the villain of the piece. Writing off millions of sunk investment by cancelling tram schemes in Liverpool, Leeds, South Hampshire and Greater Manchester in 2005 and as a result triggering something of a lost decade. Greater Manchester showed grit and determination in resisting the decision and in doing so helped reduce the chilling effect on urban transit of Darling’s miserable tenure at Transport. Meanwhile in this story Boris Johnson could be given the role of villain’s side kick. He may have been pro-bus and active travel in London but he cut off at the knees both the Cross-River and other tram schemes in the capital.

So what lessons can we learn from recent history that are relevant today? Costs did for trams in the 50s and costs will always be a factor in how fast trams come back. One of the many ‘if onlys’ of the past is could some systems have survived with greater standardisation? In particular if UK cities had (instead of designing their own trams) adopted, what became as close as we have ever had to universal tram car design – the single decker Presidents Commission Car or ‘PCC’. Nearly 5,000 were built in the US and many thousands more became the mainstay of tram systems on both sides of Europe’s Iron Curtain for decades – from the thirties, to in some cases the current day. The tendency towards the bespoke is still evident in new generation UK systems – whereas VDV (the German equivalent of the Urban Transport Group) has recently procured 504 light rail vehicles at a cost of EUR 4 billion on behalf of six of its members. Is bespoke is a contributory factor in what looks like relatively high costs for UK tram systems? Recent analysis by ‘Britain Remade’found that tram projects in Britain are 2.5 times more expensive per mile than those in France. Is another contributory factor an approach to system construction that leans towards heavy rail engineering than is the case for many long standing European tram systems where a continuity of light rail specific expertise has been maintained? This heavy engineering first approach can also be seen on some parts of UK systems where arguably the opportunity to reshape and remake the wider urban realm to make light rail indispensable have not always been fully realised (unlike in France which takes more of a city first approach to the look and feel of its systems). Finally is London the dog that isn’t barking on trams and light rail? Clearly London has been under the cosh by the Treasury since COVID but the case for street trams to bring order to snarled up streets and congested corridors must on paper be as good as ever. Of course many of these challenges could be addressed by the principal problem – which is the lack of a consistent policy and funding environment which allows for a smoother upward trajectory of the revival of the tram. In the absence of such an environment those who have managed to get schemes built deserve every credit for their perseverance.

Like the later rail closures of the 1960s the destruction of urban tram systems in the 50s is a wound that hasn’t healed leaving some of our largest cities with the traces of infrastructure which could have been the basis of modern transit systems. Let’s not take any longer than it needs to cost effectly remedy that disastrous mistake so more streets like Leith Walk have trams rolling down them – like they never went away.

This article was also published in Passenger Transport magazine and a pdf of this illustrated version can be found here: