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Wednesday, 29 May, 2002, 12:34 GMT 13:34 UK
When trams ruled the streets
Woman and tram
Trams once dominated the streets of London
Nearly 50 years ago the last electric tram trundled through the streets of central London.

Now, in an attempt to get people out of their cars and on to public transport, trams will once again be a familiar sight in the capital.

Mayor Ken Livingstone has unveiled new routes linking north and south London and running from Shepherd's Bush west to Uxbridge.

It is fitting that the west London route should return as it was here that the doomed tram adventure began more than 100 years ago.

Tram in Highgate
Up to 1,500 trams once operated in London
On Maundy Thursday, 1901, London's first electric tram left Shepherd's Bush for Southall taking in Acton, Ealing and Hanwell town centres.

London United tram company had begun a period of building electric tramways which reached its heyday by the time of World War I.

Then there were up to 1,500 trams clattering through the streets of London.

In rush hour up to 300 trams would run along the embankment circle by the River Thames which linked the north and south tram networks.

And they were quick, says Roger Brasier, a historian at London's Transport Museum.


It was the only mechanical transport and so dominated the streets

Roger Brasier, historian
"If you picked up a tram at the end of Westminster Bridge you were coming through to Holborn seven minutes later.

"This is before road traffic really snarled things up but I don't know how long that journey would take today.

"The tram had no competitors. It was the only mechanical transport and so dominated the streets."

The speed was helped by the Kingsway tunnel which dived underneath Holborn dropping passengers at two stations.

Decline of the tram

But when competition came along, trams were doomed, and helped on their way to obscurity by the creation of London Transport in 1933.

Just one year later the organisation said the tram had had its day.

Bus and tram
Trolley buses took over from trams
The entrepreneurs and local authorities which had built the trams were facing too many pressures.

Cyril Smeeton, a tram historian and volunteer at the National Tramway Museum, says these included economic and political pressures.

He said: "There were also strict regulations such as the width of the road and fare restrictions.

"It is almost certain most of them didn't get their money back."

During the 1930s, the quieter and more flexible trolley buses, a cross between trams and buses, became more popular.


Nowadays people have come back to the conclusion that trams were a very good idea

Cyril Smeeton, historian
Trams got a reprieve with the outbreak of World War II but afterwards their decline continued.

The last tram ran along the river's embankment in July 1952.

Mr Smeeton says he is pleased they will return to central London saying the recent success of Croydon's tram system has influenced policy.

"Trams were a very good idea.

"But they were damaged very severely by other interests.

"Nowadays people have come back to the conclusion that the idea was good."

Tram in Hanwell
A new line will also go through Hanwell

Tram bound for Peckham
The central London line will end in Peckham

View from a cab
A bus driver is more familiar to Londoners today

Kingsway tunnel
The tunnel under Kingsway can still be seen today

Holborn tram station
The tunnel under Kingsway had two stations

Tram tracks
Tram tracks were made private rights of way


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29 May 02 | England
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