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trams

trams. Light rail systems for passenger carriage, predominantly urban in use, named after the pre-1800 wagon-ways of the north-east, were introduced to Europe from the USA in the 1850s. With the low rolling resistance of rails, trams offered a smooth ride, with considerable economy in horsepower: a two-horse, 2-ton tram could carry 50 passengers, double the load of an omnibus with a similar team. Established in five centres in 1859–62 by George Francis Train, using unacceptably protuberant rails, Britain's tramways effectively began with the Liverpool system in 1868. The Tramways Act of 1870 facilitated growth, but its provision for municipal purchase at current value after 21 years ultimately inhibited innovation. Because of weight problems, steam traction had limited application to British tramways, but electrification was critical to advance, and was retarded by the Act. First applied on third-rail Siemens principles to the Newry tramway in the 1880s, electrification became generalized using overhead conductors, and was successfully proven in the demonstration line provided by Thomson-Houston in Leeds in 1890. Electrification spread quickly in municipalized tramways, beginning with Bristol (1895) and Glasgow from 1898, where municipal tramway enterprise reached a height.

Trams catered for the ‘better-off’ workers, and provided a well-lit and reliable service, producing star-profiled growth of towns and cities, as property values and development followed the tramlines outward. They proved correspondingly profitable, producing rather better dividends than railways around 1900, attracting demands for municipal regulation of monopoly. The next 25 years saw booming traffic: journeys rose from 992 million in 1899–1900 to 4,706 million at their peak in 1927–8, and route miles peaked in 1924 at 2,605. One could travel by municipal tram from Leeds to Liverpool in the 1930s, with but a short walk between end-on networks. They declined steadily thereafter, with some traffic being transferred to the trolleybuses, pioneered by Leeds and Bradford in 1911, but which, at their peak, only carried a little over 2,000 million passengers. Trams proved relatively inflexible from the 1920s, although some cities, such as Leeds, introduced new express routes in the early 1920s. They were starved of capital as their profits were milked to hold down the rates: new investment might have slowed decline, but could not prevent it, and by 1938 route mileage had fallen to half its peak level. The British urban tram largely disappeared by the mid-1950s, often amid poignant municipal ceremony. Concern over incipient urban gridlock led in the 1990s to revivals in Manchester and Sheffield, though still with massive problems of under-capitalization, and more tramlines may yet be disinterred.

J. A. Chartres

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