Book Review: “Rails in the Road” by Oliver Green

Rails in the Road – A History of Tramways in Britain and Ireland

Written by: Oliver Green

Published by: Pen & Sword Books Ltd, Barnsley, 2016 [1]

This book was a Christmas Gift  to me in 2018.  It is a large, coffee-table-sized book with a price tag of £30.00. It is illustrated throughout with high quality contemporary images. The story of the tram in the UK is well written and the author shows a good understanding of the underlying social issues which surrounded public transport throughout the decades of the late 19th, the 20th and the 21st centuries. Oliver Green was Head Curator of the London Transport Museum and now acts in a consultative capacity to a number of transport museums.

“There have been passenger tramways in Britain for 150 years, … it is a roller-coaster story of rise, decline and steady return. Trams have come and gone, been loved and hated, popular and derided, considered both wildly futuristic and hopelessly outdated by politicians, planners and the public alike.” [2]

In the second decade of the 20th Century, trams were at their peak. “At the end of 1894 there were only 65 miles of electric tramway in the while of Britain. By the turn of the century this had increased slowly but steadily to 1,177 miles.” [3]

“Although projects varied across the country in scale and speed of development, [the Edwardian decade] was the start of the golden age for electric tramways which were open in nearly every urban district of the British Isles.” [4]

“By the 1930s [trams] were in decline and giving way to cheaper and more flexible buses and trolleybuses. By the 1950s, all.major systems were being replaced. London’s last tram ran in 1952 and ten years later, Glasgow, the city most firmly linked with trams, closed its network down. Only Blackpool … kept a public service running.” [5]

The variety of different systems used, the rise and fall of the private sector, the dominance of municipal control, the competition and lack of coordination between different local  authorities, the influence of the first and second world wars, are all examined as part of the story of the tram.

The demise of most tramway networks in the mid-20th century is documented, and the regeneration of the use of tramways in the late-20th and early-21st centuries is covered too.

The work is well referenced and appears to have an excellent bibliography. One of the features that I particularly appreciated is the ‘Timeline of Tramway History in Britain and Ireland’ which appears close to the end of the book. [6] I have reproduced that timeline after the References below.


1. Oliver Green; Rails in the Road; Pen & Sword Books Ltd; 2016.

2. Ibid.; dust jacket.

3. Ibid.; p95.

4. Ibid.; p98-99.

5. Ibid.; dust jacket.

6. Ibid.; p248-250.

Timeline of Tramway History in Britain and Ireland

1807: First horse-drawn passenger-carrying service in UK opens on the Swansea and Oystermouth Tramroad in South Wales.

1860: First horse-drawn street railway in UK, promoted by G.F. Train, opens in Birkenhead.

1861-2: Train opens three tramways in London, all closed down within months.

1863: Landport & Southsea Tramway in Portsmouth is the first to open along a street with Parliamentary authority.

1870: First permanent street tramways open in London and Liverpool.

1870: Tramways Act sets rules and procedure for authorising street tramways in UK

1872: First urban hose tramways open in Ireland, in Dublin, Belfast and Cork.

1876: First regular use of steam power on a rural roadside tram line, the Wantage Tramway in Berkshire.

1877: First regular use of steam power on an urban street tramway, the Vale of Clyde line in Govan, near Glasgow.

1883: Volk’s electric railway, ”he first public electric conveyance in the UK’, opens on Brighton Beach but with no street running.

1883: First electric line in Ireland opens, the Giant’s Causeway, Portrush and Bush Valley Tramway, using third rail power supply.

1884: First cable tramway in Europe opens up Highgate Hill, London.

1885: First electric street tramway in England opens in Blackpool, using conduit power supply.

1888: First cable tramway in Scotland opens in Edinburgh.

1891: First overhead electric street tramway in UK opens at Roundhay Park, Leeds.

1893: First electrification of a steam tramway in the UK in Walsall, Staffordshire.

1895: First electric tram line opens in Bristol, planned by James Clifton Robinson. Bristol becomes the first major UK city to be electrified, and by a private company, not the local authority.

1896: First electric street tramway in Ireland from Dublin city boundary to Dalkey, opened by a private company, again planned by Clifton Robinson.

1898: Glasgow and Liverpool are the first two big city local authorities in the UK to open their own electric tramways. This municipal route to electrification is used in most urban areas of the UK over the next fifteen years, with relatively few company-run electric tramways opening in Britain and Ireland.

1901: First electric lines in Greater London opened by London United Tramways Company, running west of the LCC boundary from Shepherds Bush into Middlesex.

1903: First electric route of the London County Council (LCC) opened by the Prince of Wales from Westminster Bridge to Tooting in south London.

1911: First UK trolleybus services open in Bradford and Leeds on the same day.

1914-1918: First World War

1915: Glasgow Corporation employs first women tram conductors in UK as a wartime expedient, followed by female tram drivers from 1916.

1917: Isle of Sheppey system in Sheerness, Kent, is the first electric tramway in UK to close.

1920s: UK tramways reach their maximum size and use, but some of the smaller systems across the country are replaced by motor buses or trolleybuses, including Ipswich, Keighley, Lincoln, Cambourne & Redruth and Wolverhampton.

1926: Last horse tram service in mainland England closes, on se-front at Morecambe.

1931: First replacement of trams with trolleybuses on London United system in south-west London.

1931: Royal Commission recommends replacement of tramways across the country.

1933: Creation of Londodn Passenger Transport Board (LPTB), which soon announces a major programme to replace its inherited trams with new trolleybuses.

1930s: Several towns start tram replacement, including Brighton, Bristol, Carlisle, Cork, Halifax, Nottingham, Newport, Portsmouth, Hull and Leicester.

1939-1945: Second World War.

1945-1950: Many cities complete tram closures started before the War, including Dublin, Cardiff, Newcastle, Bradford, Southampton, Manchester and Newcastle.

1952: Last tram in London, once the UK’s largest system.

1953: Last tram in Birmingham.

1954: Last tram in Belfast.

1956: Llandudno & Colwyn Bay line closes, the last privately run street tramway in the UK.

1956: Last tram in Edinburgh.

1957: Last tram in Liverpool.

1957: Last horse tram service in Ireland, the Fintona ‘van’, closes.

1959: Last tram in Leeds.

1959: Last electric tramway in Ireland, the Hill of Howth line near Dublin, closes.

1960: Last tram in Sheffield.

1960: Last electric tramway in Wales, the Swansea& Mumbles Railway, closes.

1962: Last tramway in Scotland, the once extensive Glasgow Corporation system. the final major city network in the UK, closes.

1962-92: Blackpool has the only regular year-round, street-running public tramway service ion the UK during this thirty-year period. The Manx Electric Railway continued to run a seasonal service on its roadside inter-urban tramway and the Douglas horse trams also continued seasonal operation.

1964: First electric service at the Tramway Museum, Crich, later to become the National Tramway Museum.

1972: Last trolleybus system in the UK closes, in Bradford.

1980: Tyne & Wear Metro opens, a cross between light and heavy rail, and entirely off-road.

1987: Docklands Light Railway (DLR) opens in London, an entirely off-road and fully automated system.

1992: Manchester Metrolink opens, first new light rail system in UK with some street running, initially only across Manchester City Centre.

1994:Sheffield Supertram system opens, with extensive street running.

1999: Midland Metro opens between Birmingham and Wolverhampton, mainly on old railway alignments with short street running.

2000: Croydon Tramlink opens, the return of street running trams in London, though only across Croydon Town Centre.

2004: Luas system opens in Dublin, the first new light rail operation in Ireland.

2012: Blackpool system is upgraded with new European-style trams for daily operation but retains its heritage tram fleet for special weekend and seasonal services.

2014: Edinburgh Tram opens, first new light rail line in Scotland.

2015-2017: Significant extensions and/or improvements to light rail systems in Nottingham, Manchester, Birmingham, Dublin, Blackpool, Sheffield and London scheduled to open, but no new tramways likely to be authorised.


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