Liverpool's Forgotten Tramways

Liverpool trams

Liverpool’s Transit Revolution

Liverpool can lay claim to pioneering the first of Europe’s ‘Street Tramways’. Horse drawn, steam, cable, and finally electric, the tram; often sentimentalised and symbolic of a time gone by, revolutionised the development of urban transport in the UK. Predecessors of the tram were the preserve of the middle classes, as travelling by horse coach and short stage was prohibitively expensive. Horse drawn 'Omnibuses', though waterlogged, unsanitary, and so poorly ventilated they were a petri dish of infectious disease, were also for the middling sort. It wasn’t until the passing of the Tramways Act in 1870, that the working class truly had an affordable, fast, and efficient means of travel.

 On the 30th of August 1860, Europe’s first horse drawn street tramway ran for 1½ miles from Liverpool’s Woodside Ferry to Birkenhead Park. By 1861 the tramway, already deemed a success was extended a further mile to Oxton. Expansion of Liverpool’s horse drawn tramways continued at a pace, and by 1875 just over 60 miles of tram track had been laid in Liverpool, reaching as far as Prescot. Liverpool’s working class no longer had to live cheek by jowl in ghettos to be within walking distance of their factories.

 In 1897, the passing of the Liverpool Tramway Transfer Act, ratified the conversion of Liverpool’s trams to mechanical power. Modernisation was rapid, and within 5 years Liverpool’s existing tramways were electric, the horse drawn tram was no more. 


The Demise of the Tramway

For over 90 years, Liverpool’s tramways served millions. The 1920’s saw Liverpool’s tramway hit by the Great War. Once the war was over, Liverpool city council rebuilt and expanded tram services, and Liverpool’s tramways not only survived but once again flourished. However, the tramway did not fare so well throughout the Second World War. In an effort to reserve man power and resources, services were reduced. By the end of World War II, Liverpool’s tramways were in a sorry state, battered and worn out, the tramway would never again see a heyday. Yet the demise of Liverpool tramway can’t be solely attributed to World War II. Other cities hand long since replaced tramways with diesel buses, it was presumed all tram users would take to the new bus service, but not all did, many tram users went ahead and bought cars! 

 The onset of diesel busses and cars was the true death knell of the tramway. Cars had become more affordable, and took you door to door in style and comfort. Those who bought cars wished to move around the city freely, but space hogging tram tracks impeded their journeys. Cars, alongside pressure being applied by Members of Parliament with personal interests in the burgeoning car manufacturing business, meant the drive for tramway closure went into full swing. In September 1957, the last of Liverpool’s great 'iron horses', made its final journey from Liverpool's Pier Head to Bowring Park.

 Today you can still see signs of Liverpool’s historic tramway transportation system, not all lines were dug up and discarded. Many a track lingers, just inches below the concrete as though waiting. The tracks of route 40 were unearthed in 2013, during gas main works on the Thomas Drive, at the junction with Thomas Lane, bringing out the die-hard 'Tramspotters' and 'Tramoraks'. In 2016, during the Ullet and Smithdown roadworks, more of Liverpool’s old tram tracks were revealed. It had been 59 years since the last tram service, and there they were.



Back on Track?

Yes, trams ease congestion, and the few cities that do have them report customer satisfaction. Customers cite trams as cheaper, reliable, and with no emissions, environmentally friendly, so should trams be bought back to Liverpool? If the Merseytram Fiasco is still fresh in your mind, then the answer is a resounding, No!

Between 2002 and 2005, when the Merseytram scheme was finally scrapped in its entirety, Merseytravel managed to spend over £70 million of taxpayer’s money, without ever laying an inch of tram track, £7 million of which was chalked up to consultants’ fees. In 2008 Edinburgh started work on a new tram network. An original budget of £375 million had been set, and completion was due in 2012. Edinburgh’s tramway was finally completed 2 years late, and a scandalous £401 million overbudget.

There are those that say bringing trams back to Liverpool would bring about jobs and development. For every job created by the tram network, could a job be lost on the busses?  It’s also worth noting that there is no empirical evidence that tramways encourage urban development of any kind. Research shows that bus usage falls year on year, which begs the question, if the people of Liverpool aren’t using the busses why would they use the tram? Have those that see the tram as the cheaper option, taken into consideration the spiralling cost of laying tram track? Or the inconvenience and loss of business caused while construction takes place? With that in mind it maybe for the best that Liverpool’s tramways remain remembered fondly, but consigned to the past.

Words by George Carter

Screenshot 2019-07-07 at 23.33.46.png
LifestyleTim Byrne