Why Did London Lose Its Trams?

Harry Rosehill
By Harry Rosehill Last edited 78 months ago
Why Did London Lose Its Trams?

Do not fear; the Croydon trams haven't done a disappearing act. No, they're right where they should be: Croydon. Instead we're investigating, why London lost all of its original trams, back in 1952.

A tram on Boston Road, Hanwell. Photo: Wikimedia commons

Trams first appeared in London in 1860. They were horse-drawn and caused a bit of a kerfuffle due to their obstruction of traffic, a criticism that persisted throughout their tenure. After the horse-drawn tram came cable car trams up Highgate Hill and Brixton Hill and then, finally, the electric tram.

The plans to remove trams from London had been mooted for years, but they were given a temporary reprieve by the outbreak of the second world war.

A horse drawn tram. Photo: Wikimedia commons

So why did they disappear? Well, it was argued that trams caused traffic congestion; their fixed routes made it hard for other traffic to bypass them. What's more, London Transport — these are the pre-TfL days we're dealing with — was rather seduced by their intended replacements: trolleybuses.

What made trolleybuses so attractive was the lack of tracks. The trams' tracks were in a terrible state that caused a lot of 'appalling' noise. To stop this, the tracks would need to be relaid, something that would have caused significant disruption and cost a lot of money.

Yes, as always, there was a fiscal reality involved: London Transport was losing £1 million a year on the trams. In today's money, that's over £35 million — can you really imagine TfL happily funding a system that operates with losses today (*cough* cable car *cough*)?

A trolleybus in action. Photo: Wikimedia commons

Just as trams were protested upon introduction, there were many who were equally angry over their disappearance. The brilliantly named Light Railway Transport League led quite a vociferous campaign to save the tram.

One of the major arguments for retaining the system was the lack of environmental pollution trams caused when compared to their competition. Considering the air quality issues London faces today, perhaps we should all form a revival league?

London Transport overcame the protests of the League, and decommissioned London trams in 1952. For their final week of service, the vehicles were decorated with banners proclaiming: Last Tram Week.

The final journey was a celebration of trams, taking an extra three hours from Woolwich to New Cross as cheering crowds slowed it down. In a sentimental touch, the driver of the last tram was John Cliff, deputy chairman of London Transport, who began his career as a tram driver 52 years previously.

So what exactly happened to the trams themselves? They were sent up north to continue their service in Leeds. There they lasted until 1959, when Leeds too deemed the system too antiquated to continue.

The Croydon tram system arrived in 2000, ending trams' 48 year absence from London. And what about the rest of London? Is there any interest in trams spreading their wings a little further? Ken Livingstone was a big proponent of trams in his 2012 mayoral bid but the plan fell on deaf ears. There was no appearance from the League to propel Ken back into office and trams back across London.

Last Updated 02 June 2017