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Britain loves transport – it’s famously one of the UK’s favourite conversational gambits. And it’s not simply our day-to-day journeys that fascinate us; a rich seam of travel-related nostalgia runs through the national consciousness.
Worldwide, only the US has more museums dedicated to transport than the UK – which perhaps explains the quiet ripple of excitement with which enthusiasts greeted the latest updates to Rail Map online.
Founded and maintained by transport enthusiast Matthew Bromley, the website allows readers to compare transport lines past and present, revealing just how comprehensive and integrated our transport networks were before the rise of the private vehicle.
To complement its coverage of rail lines and canals, Bromley has added the UK’s tram network in all its glory, showing the dramatic reduction of service in post-war Britain – some of the most striking examples of which are shown below. “There is the simple nostalgia of something from the past that served us well but has now gone,” says John Prentice, chairman of the Tramway and Light Railway Society (TLRS). But as well as inspiring fond memories of elegant vintage rolling stock, Bromley’s website points towards a range of solutions to some modern transport problems.
Eight UK cities still have tram services, mostly modern networks rather than historical lines. But many tram enthusiasts wonder if contemporary transport needs might not be best served by the solutions of the past.
Trams certainly offer a number of environmental and practical benefits. More reliable than buses in terms of journey time, and usually running directly to the heart of a city, trams tend to appeal to those who would normally drive cars, with the effect of increasing public transport uptake. Not only that, but trams are fully accessible as they have level boarding – certainly not the case with many buses and trains.
“The modern tram can provide a higher capacity than buses and as they run on electricity, they create no pollution at the point of use,” explains Prentice. Melbourne is even going one step further: the tram network is set to rely on solar power by 2019.
“In my opinion, Britain made a huge mistake abandoning its tramway systems, and is now lagging far behind other countries who modernised and improved theirs,” says Peter Watson, a tram enthusiast who has created over 100 printable tram models as a fundraiser for the TLRS.
Prentice says France is leading the way with the creation of new tramways, and praises Vienna for supplementing its traditional network with an underground metro to increase capacity.
Though it’s tempting to believe that resurrecting the tram network would solve the UK’s transport woes, it is probably too late. The historical lines on Rail Map online show the huge amount of infrastructure that has been lost, and the expense of reintroducing trams – installing overhead power lines, rails, and segregating sections of street – is high.
Although tram networks are almost always suggested when cities consider overhauling their transport networks, the high cost means few new networks are given the green light. Edinburgh’s new line, for example, proved both expensive and controversial, although the line is now running at a profit. Innovations such as stored power use, being trialled in Birmingham, will only be beneficial on a large scale once battery technology advances. Tram-train – which allows trams to share lines with conventional trains – offers an economical way to share infrastructure and increase capacity, although the current trial between Sheffield and Rotherham is running late and over budget.
Ultimately, what Bromley’s maps reveal is that focusing on one type of transport is not the answer. “Trams should never be developed in isolation: the key is integration between different types of transport,” says Gareth Prior of British Trams Online. “Whether that be bus, train and tram, or cars with park and ride on the outskirts of towns and cities – it should all be about joined-up thinking.”
Trams then and now
This article first appeared on www.theguardian.com
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