Different fates – a look on the history of Great Britain’s and Germany’s tramways
What is the difference between a British museum tram and a German one? The British museum tram is locked in a building, or in the best case it may circulate on the short tracks of a museum line as at the National Tramway Museum in Crich/Derbyshire. The German museum tram may circulate on the tracks in the city of the tramway system it was originally built for. In some cases you may even book it for birthday parties or other special occasions. From time to time I have the pleasure see such a nice vintage tram on the tracks of Kassel, the city where I live, situated in the centre of Germany, with 200000 habitants, about the size of Southampton, and with a railway network of 88 kilometres, which not only serves the city itself but also connects it with other cities of its metropolitan area. This network has an uninterrupted history starting with a steam tramway in 1877. That's a long time, but many German cities can claim similar traditions. In the United Kingdom, only one city can: Blackpool.
Indeed: Of all the differences between Germany and Great Britain, their respective tramway history, though it may not be the one average people may think of first of all – or at all -, is one of the most striking ones. British tramway history is a tale of splendour and misery until a total decline, followed, in our times, by a rather timid rebirth. In comparison with it the German tramway history, varied as it may be, is a picture of continuity. In a fatal way, these two fates are liaised with each other.
Great Britain was a forerunner of tramways. As early as on 25. March 1807, Oystermouth Tramroad was opened, a horse-worked tramroad between Swansea and the village of Oystermouth, world’s first tramway!. Its length was more then 7 kilometres. In this epoch, Great Britain, cradle or the industrial revolution, was the land of technical innovations, consistently it became the land of tramways. Oystermouth Tramroad worked until about 1827, then being replaced by a horse bus on a newly built road, but being reopened in 1860 as Swansea & Mumbles Railroad. From then on it took less than two generations for tramways to mark the faces of all the greater cities, and of many medium-sized and even smaller ones, too. They were horse trams at first, then steam trams. In 1885 the first electric system of Great Britain opened in Blackpool, in 1891, in Leeds, came the first system with overhead wiring. Tramways helped to overcome the difficulties caused by the ever increasing individual horse-drawn traffic, they were reliable, comfortable, had high transport capacity, were affordable for the less wealthy, too, a symbol of technical progress and of prospering communities whose pride they were. In their pretty, mostly two coloured liveries, they often were the only outstanding splodge of colour in the uniform grey of the industrial cities, and what a splendid view did they offer when they were illuminated for celebrations like a royal visit! Most British Trams were double-deckers, and in the southern half of England the upper deck was often open. In 1923 tramways had reached the peak. Great Britain counted 14000 tramway units, and the length of the track systems was often impressive. The leader was London, of course, boasting a network of 528 kilometres at its maximal extension, would you believe it! Glasgow boasted 227 kilometres, Manchester 191, Liverpool 157, Birmingham 129. Liverpool's streamlined double-decker trams, built in the thirties, incorporated a first summit of aerodynamics in engineering.
Yet, behind the splendour, decline lay in wait. As early as in 1917, in Sheerness, a small town on England’s east coast, the first electric tramway was given up. One of the reason was the lack of spare parts from Germany because of World War I. The twenties brought some more closures, and the thirties the first serious losses: Motorbuses and trolleybuses had overcome their childhood diseases, solid rubber tyres had given way to comfortable, road surfaces had become better. Buses had become a serious competition. With great lack of restraint, cities gave licences for bus transport. Bus transport companies had nothing to pay for the use of streets, tramway companies, yet, had to maintain the road surfaces of the streets where their tracks run, due to an act of 1870, and this in addition to the costs for tracks and overhead wires. Financial reserves for maintenance and renewal were lacking. Often, loans for the first generation of tracks and vehicles had not been paid back when already the next had to be built. At the end of the thirties, therefore, many cities, like Brighton and Hove, Nottingham, Dartford and Gloucester had abolished the tram and the number of vehicles had sunken on 7000.
World War II broke the downwards trend. It is true that destructions through German bombings gave reason to close some system, like in Bristol and Coventry. On the other hand the tramways were urgently needed to save petrol so urgently needed to bomb Germany and to maintain an efficient public transport. Lucky the city which still had a tramway! In cities depending on buses public transport was severely restricted. Tramways, against that, could still provide a proper timetable. For systems like the one in Manchester, whose abolition had already been decided, this meant a reprieve. Admittedly: at the end of World War II many trams were in a bad state. One had not been able to provide them more than the essentially necessary maintenance works, and, what’s more, to compensate the loss of buses and private cars they had been forced to run overcharged permanently. As if the arguments in favour of tramways applied only in times of war, the decline continued after the victory. Manchester, in 1949, was the really big cities to abolish the tramway, and in the fifties came what today is called “termination terror”: 1952 came the end for London, 1953 for Birmingham, 1957 for Liverpool. In some cases tramways were abolished in which one had heavily invested only a few years before: Thus, Aberdeen had bought, as late as in 1949, twenty modern streamlined double-deckers, yet, already in 1958 the tramway was abolished. In 1960 against the citizens’ sharp protest world’s oldest tramway, Swansea & Mumbles Railroad, and Sheffield’s tramway were closed. 1962 came the end for Glasgow’s tramway. This was the low. It is hard to understand: In one generation, with the exception of some tourist attractions like on the isle of Man, clean sweep had been made. Only one city in England kept its tramway, not in its inner parts, but on the seafront: Blackpool. Great Britain’s tramways seemed to have reached their The reasons for the termination terror? Increasing losses due to higher costs without fares rising proportionally. High tariffs to pay for electricity from the nationalised power stations. More and more private cars which were hindered by the trams, above all when they went against the car traffic direction on track lines. Short sighted city councils, often corrupted by petrol or tyre companies, were blinded by the fact that, in 1950 for example, a new tramway vehicle cost some 10000 £, whilst a new bus cost only some 4000 £. These Gothamites didn’t consider that a bus had, at the time, a life span of about twelve years, while a tram could easily reach more than 40, and that the capacity of the tramway system is much higher. And finally: trams, in former times a sign of progress, had got an outmoded image. Things went well for a certain time. My father, who came to England for the first time in 1952 to pass holidays in a work camp, told me how impressed he had been by Manchester’s bus system, something that did not exist in Germany at the time. But soon the inconveniences showed up: cities suffocated by the individual car traffic. Rupture between residence and working areas. Tramway tracks had been considered a hindrance for the individual traffic – today buses need reserved tracks on the streets to have a chance at all to go forward. Tramway systems had been forced to keep fares low, now the fares for the victorious bus systems rose. When the number of passengers went down because of these rises, the time tables had to be thinned out, deferring even more people from using the public transport: a vicious circle was closed. Of both winners over the tramway, namely trolleybus and motor bus, only the last one survived. In 1972, in Bradford, Great Britain’s last trolleybus system was abolished. Now the cities suffer under the motor buses’ exhaust fumes.
This misery could not last for ever: A timid renaissance has begun. In 1980, in Newcastle, which had abolished its tramway in 1950, the Tyne and Wear Metro was opened, a kind of mixture between metro and tramway circulating to a great extent on former railway tracks. I had the pleasure to learn to know this convenient transport system when I was in England in 1991. It is very popular. In 1987 London’s Docklands Light Railway followed, a part of the city's tube system. The first genuine new tramway came into being in Manchester, the first big city to have abolished the tramway: Manchester Metrolink was opened on 6 April 1992. It is a great success. In 1997, it had more than 14 million passengers. 1994, in Sheffield, South Yorkshire Supertram was opened. This year, Birmingham’s Midland Metro followed, and for the end of 1999, the opening of Croydon’s Tramlink is planned. Thus, the tramway will be back in London.
The end of this renaissance is open. Policy is not fostering it. The Thatcher Tories were against trams by ideological reasons, preferring individual traffic. Labour is paying lip-service but when it comes to spending money, the government is reserved. Some plans have already been put on ice.
And Germany? It had its Termination Terror, too, causing severe losses: In the federal Republic of Germany, starting in 1950 and going on until 1978, hardly a year passed without a closure, the record being 1959 which brought the abolition of eight systems. The reasons were not different from Great Britain. Yet, there is a difference: the process was much slower, and when it ended, it had run up to 64 closures, but many systems had survived. In the German Democratic Republic had been closures, too, but when reunification came, the greater East German cities had kept their tramways. Compared with Great Britain, Germany is a tramway paradise. Kassel was already mentioned. Some more examples: In Mannheim, Swansea’s German partner city, three tramway companies operate. There are tramway connections with the neighbour cities Ludwigshafen and Heidelberg, both of them have their own network. Frankfurt am Main, which had already decided to abolish the tramway in favour of the underground, has changed its mind and kept the tramway. Karlsruhe has a technically advanced system whose vehicles can operate with different electricity systems enabling them to use railway tracks, too. Saarbrücken and Sarreguemines accomplished a further pioneering work starting a frontier trespassing tramway between both cities, the first Franco-German system, probably the first international tramway in the world. West Berlin had lost its tramway, but the vast East Berlin network has been maintained, and now the tram is back in the western part of the city, too. Tradition is cultivated, too: 955 (!) museum vehicles exist all over Germany.
is the reason for the difference? One could assume the essential
reason might be the war. In Germany’s cities, destroyed to a great
extend, one could often simply not afford to renounce on the tramway.
Despite the Wirtschaftswunder, throughout the fifties, Germany had
an economic delay compared with Great Britain. In the first post-war
years, motorization was much lower in Germany than it was in Great
Britain. When the delay was caught up, in the sixties, eyes were no
more blind enough to miss the advantages of tramways. The process
was slow enough to allow a turn in the tide of public opinion. With
the awakening awareness of the environmental problems came the death
of the Termination Terror. The tramways old-fashioned image changed
when new hightech vehicles appeared.