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Germany – England: 10 : 1

... in terms of tramways


by Torsten Walter


England may have overtaken Germany in terms of football – the picture the German team offered in the recent defeat against England could hardly be gloomier – but in terms of tramways, Germany still is in the lead. Today, there are five cities in England with a tramway system – Blackpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Croydon and Birmingham. Add some tourist and pleasure lines, and it is still few compared with a little less than 60 tramway systems in Germany.

The size of the difference is astonishing all the more as Britain has not always been so bitterly poor in tramways. On the contrary: 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, the world’s first tramway! In 1885 the first electric system of Great Britain opened in Blackpool, in 1891, in Leeds, came the first British system with overhead wiring. In the twenties of the 20th Century 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 with a network of 528 kilometres at its maximal extension (a lot more, therefore, than what London’s crisis shaken tube system has today)! Glasgow boasted 227 kilometres, Manchester 191, Liverpool 157, Birmingham 129.

From then on, in a little more than one generation, all was lost! Closures had started in World War one and continued ever since. Manchester in January 1949 was the first of the big cities to abolish the tramway, followed by London in 1952, Birmingham in 1953, Liverpool in 1957, Leeds in 1959, Sheffield in 1961 and Glasgow in 1962, leaving just Blackpool with a tramway. In some cases, one is standing stunned before the fact that closures came only a few years after the inauguration of new modern lines on reserved track (Leeds) or the acquisition of new rolling stock (Edinburgh and Aberdeen).

Stupid politicians who thought, mislead by incompetent “experts”, that trams could be replaced with buses! The result is known everywhere and said in two words: congestion and pollution. What cities save in track and wiring expenses the national economy has to pay several times in a loss of efficiency and less quality of life.

This misery could not last forever: 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 light railway circulating to a great extent on former railway tracks. In 1987 London’s Docklands Light Railway followed. The first genuine new tramway (that is with street track) came in Manchester: Metrolink was opened on 6 April 1992. It is a great success. 1994, in Sheffield, the South Yorkshire Supertram was opened. In September 1999, Birmingham’s Midland Metro followed, and on 10 May 2000 was the opening ceremony for Croydon’s Tramlink. Soon, Nottingham is to follow. The project of a new tram for Leeds is, after considerable difficulties, in an advanced stadium. Plans are made in Bristol and elsewhere and Liverpool, who has for a long time fostered the idea of an electronically guided trolleybus system has now opted for the reintroduction of tramways, too.

And Germany? The story is in many aspects very similar. Euphoria in the first decades of the 20th century, followed by the first closures in the twenties. Germany had its Termination Terror, too, causing severe losses: In the Federal Republic of Germany, between 1950 and 1978, hardly a year passed without a closure, the record being 1959 which brought the abolition of eight systems. But there were also differences: The process was much slower than in Britain, closures continuing until the eighties, the last one in Wuppertal in 1987. When it finally ended, it had run up to 64 closures, but many systems had survived. When West Berlin and Hamburg abolished their tramways in 1968 respectively 1978 they were at least in possession of decent light railway and metro systems. Abolishing the tram merely in favour of the bus had not happened in any of the big German cities. In the German Democratic Republic had been a few closures, too, but when Germany’s reunification came, the bigger East German cities including East Berlin and several medium sized cities had kept their tramways. Karlsruhe and Kassel have a technically advanced systems 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, the first international tramway in the world, and there are plans to extend the tramway of Frankfurt/Oder to its Polish neighbour town Slubice. Trams have been reintroduced to West Berlin, Saarbrücken, Oberhausen and Heilbronn. Plans for reintroduction of the tram are in an advanced stadium in Regensburg and Kaiserslautern. Tradition is cultivated, too: some 950 museum vehicles exist all over Germany, and because there are still so many tramway systems they often have the possibility to circulate in original settings whilst their British counterparts are restricted to museum tracks like the ones of the highly recommendable National Tramway Museum in Crich, Derbyshire.

Like in football, yet, there is no reason for German arrogance. How trams will score in the future is open. The system in Naumburg is restricted to some museum rides. The system in Halberstadt is threatened with closure. Some systems, for example Heidelberg and Frankfurt/Oder, are facing severe financial problems. Often there is strong resistance against the opening of new lines, for example in Heidelberg and Ulm. Under the auspices of EU law, public transport privatisation is knocking on the doors – when it comes, decent public transport is at risk to go. Mind, you British, you might take the lead again in the long run!


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