The first generation tramways of Britain have almost all been lost. However, a few interesting survivors remain.
Decline and Fall of Traditional Tramways
Britain once had an extensive system of traditional electric tramways. They existed in every large city and most of the principal towns. Decline started almost immediately after World War One, accelerated in the 1930s, and in 1962 the last of the great city systems, Glasgow, closed its remaining routes.
The one exception is Blackpool, which has operated in different electric formats since 1885. However, even this system was severely pruned in the 1960s and what is left, the long route from Starr Gate to Fleetwood, is currently being reconstructed to modern standards. When this transition is complete the service will be dominated by modern articulated cars similar to those in use on the existing second generation tramways and those historic cars that survive will largely be restricted to special tours. While this is sad for those who appreciate the old cars, the alternative was almost certainly complete closure.
In Llandudno, North Wales the historic cable tram system that takes visitors to the top of Great Orme is still in operation. The Great Orme Tramway was established in 1902 and a recent thorough modernisation of the plant looks to have ensured its long-term survival. The cars have trolleys, formerly used for communication purposes via an overhead wire but nowadays these are purely decorative. Traction has always been by means of a cable between the rails. The tramway works in two portions, so you have to get off halfway and change cars, a confusing process for first-time visitors but rather fun. The views from the top of Great Orme make the journey well worth while.
Fortunately there are a number of museum tramways where the old vehicles can be enjoyed in all their glory.
The biggest and best is undoubtedly Crich, Derbyshire, where trams from London, Glasgow, Leeds, Sheffield and many other locations can be found. Much of the fleet is non-operational but the depots are open to inspection and there’s also a reconstructed street with various refreshment facilities and tourist shops. When you buy your way in here, you don’t get a ticket but an old penny, which you use to buy your tram ticket. You can then ride all day if you wish.
Another location is the East Anglia Transport Museum at Carlton Colville, near Lowestoft, who have trams from Blackpool, Lowestoft, London and Amsterdam. The Museum opens from April to September, but not every day. Sunday seems to be the best day to go. They also have trolleybuses, and once you’ve paid in, all rides are free.
In the Midlands near Dudley is the Black Country Living Museum. As the name suggests this is a museum of urban history rather than a tramway museum, but they do have a working tramway with cars from Dudley and Wolverhampton. Trolleybuses also operate on certain days. This museum is a full-day experience with lots to see and do. It even has a pub, complete with real ale, and a chip shop.
In the North East is Beamish. Like the Black Country Living Museum, this is much more than a tram preservation site and there are many interesting buildings which set out to demonstrate the life of people in the North East in 1825 and 1913. The trams serve the practical purpose of taking you around the various sites. The cars themselves come from Gateshead, Newcastle, Sunderland, Blackpool and Sheffield.
In Manchester, the Heaton Park Tramway is well worth a look. They have three electric and one horse car, and as it’s set in a public car you can look at them for free. Rides are cheap, and though the route is short, part of it is actually the original Manchester Corporation siding into the park, which lay derelict from the 1930s until the museum tramway was established.
Just down the road from Manchester, through the Mersey Tunnel is the Birkenhead Tramway. This is a ‘new’ tramway, running in public streets or at their side, built specifically to attract tourists. It is unique in England, though such ‘heritage’ tramways are quite common elsewhere, and it’s a pity other towns have not followed Birkenhead’s example. The main service cars were built in Hong Kong in 1992 to a traditional pattern. Historic cars from Birkenhead, Wallasey and Liverpool do make an appearance from time to time, mainly at special events.
The Summerlee Museum of Scottish Industrial Life is the only location in Scotland where trams currently operated. The Museum will be found at Coatbridge, in Monklands. The trams themselves are operated by The Summerlee Transport Group.
The Seaton Tramway runs from Seaton to Colyton in Devon. The cars may be small, but the ride is longer than most, three miles through beautiful Devon countryside with lots of wildlife to be seen. You can even book yourself a tram driving lesson. How about that for a ‘different’ holiday activity?