In praise of the tram: how a love of cars killed the workers’ transport system

In praise of the tram: how a love of cars killed the workers' transport system
A tram on Westminster Bridge in 1910 / © Roger Viollet/Rex/Shutterstock

At their peak in the late 19th century, trams provided working people with a fast, efficient means of getting around. Now, argues Christian Wolmar, it is time to follow the Swiss model and put them back at the heart of urban transport policies

At their peak there were well over 100 tram systems in Britain. Every major city and many small towns had a network carrying millions of people each week. They were cheap and popular with workers – often bringing them right to the door of their factories.

But they had few defenders among the middle classes, who thought they got in the way of cars, which were seen as the future. The systems that were not shut down during the second world war by disuse or enemy action were soon closed in the aftermath. It was one of the great transport policy mistakes of the 20th century.

Trams were a marked advance on their predecessors: horse-drawn omnibuses had been slow, inefficient and expensive because of the cost of the horses, doomed to live short miserable lives as a result of the harsh nature of the work. Omnibuses – too expensive to be a genuine mass form of transport – were the preserve of the middle classes.

Trams were able to cater for the masses, and since the roads were so bad, laying tracks enabled far more efficient progress. The first horse-drawn trams appeared in London along the Bayswater Road between Marble Arch and Notting Hill Gate in 1861. They were a failure, but by the end of the decade tram systems had been laid in Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh too. London saw its first regular tram service running in south London between Brixton and Kennington in 1870.

It was the electrification of trams – which began in the 1880s – that enabled them to reach their full potential. Even in those early days, electricity proved to be far cheaper than horses, so fares could be reduced at the same time as services improved. Trams enjoyed a boom and were widely used by the working class, who had hitherto been unable to travel distances of any great length unless they were lucky enough to live in areas with suburban railways and cheap “workmen’s trains”. Yet unlike railways, tram systems offered cheap fares throughout the day. […]