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Wednesday, 8 June 2011

When Two Transports Go To War... Trams vs Trains in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

In the late 19th century the number of passengers that Britain's railways carried increased so rapidly that the companies’ infrastructure became desperately stretched. Indeed, I have described previously the London and South Western Railway’s troubles in adapting to this traffic growth; and how the company’s general manager was forced to resign because of complaints in The Times regarding the quality of the company’s service. (Found HERE) In 1870 British railways carried 336,545,397 passengers. By 1880 this had risen to 603,885,025, an increase of 79.44%. In 1890 817,744,046 passengers travelled, a 35.41% increase. Lastly, in 1900 British railways conveyed 1,142,276,686 individuals, equating to further growth of 36.69%.[1]

With such growth, and with the promise of consistently increasing passenger revenue, it is no wonder that in the late 19th century railway directors and managers were happy to make continual investment in improving their infrastructure, rather than hold back and cause overcrowding, poor services and slow train speeds. Thus, the railways invested heavily in improving stations, yards and sidings to improve their services and to accommodate future traffic increases. Furthermore, the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway’s extension to London, started in 1895 and opened in 1899, could not have been initiated without the company’s managers judging that traffic would continue to increase, unabated. Indeed, despite criticism at the time that the extension was unnecessary, they perceived that it would be highly profitable in the future.[2]

Then, in 1900, the unimaginable happened and passenger (along with goods) traffic stopped growing rapidly on Britain’s railways. Between 1870 and 1900 the number of passengers conveyed grew by an average of 7.98% per year. Yet, in 1910 1,248,792,604 passengers were conveyed, a growth of only 9.32% over the decade. Indeed, the average yearly traffic growth between 1900 and 1910 stood at only 0.93%.

This change in the speed of traffic growth was because the street trams started to attack the railways’ short-distance third class passenger traffic. The increased numbers of railway passengers between 1870 and 1900 had principally travelled by third class accommodation. In 1870 they constituted only 67.88% of the total passengers conveyed in the country. Yet, by 1900 90.67% of all railway passengers travelled third class. Subsequently, many of the improvements to the infrastructure of the British railway network after the mid-1880s, and all the expectation of increased revenue and potential profits from future projects, had been built on this low-paying, short-distance, class of passenger.

Electric trams had been introduced into Britain in 1883 when Magnus Volk had constructed the Brighton Tramway, which still exists today. By 1885 the first street tramways were installed in Blackpool. Yet, it should also be remembered that there was not just an increase in electric trams in the period, and horse-drawn trams also played a significant role in urban transport. Thus, after 1885 the trams spread like wildfire. While I have not found statistics for tram mileage growth before 1900, between then and 1910 it grew from 1,041 to 2,434 miles, a 133.81% increase.[3] Thus, by 1896 street tramways in Britain carried 759,466,000 passengers. Yet, by 1910 this had risen to 2,907,177,000, an overall growth of 282.79% or an average 20.20% per year. Indeed, it was in 1900, the year in which passenger growth on the railways slowed, that more individuals travelled by tram than bought third class railway tickets.[4]

Short distance travellers had always existed between 1870 and 1900, and, as Cain pointed out, the majority of commuters did not use public transport. For example, by 1900 in South London only 1 in 10 individuals used public transport to get to work.[5] Yet, as the tram network spread, and access to them was widened in urban areas, their speed, comfort and reasonable ticket prices provided people with a service that the railways could not match easily for very good reasons.

With fixed routes, aged technologies and heavy costs to modify the infrastructure, the railways were in a very difficult position. The heavy investments in infrastructure of the 1890s, which made sense at the time as the railways had little competition in the transport market, looked far more foolhardy after it. None of them were made to deal with the new challenge to their business and most were to address capacity problems or make further profits. Indeed, many investments in improving stations and yards for future use were found to be unnecessary after 1900 as traffic growth slowed. Furthermore, after 1895 railway profitability, through rising costs, government legislation and poor management practices (See my PhD, when finished), had declined significantly, and after 1900 the companies found it hard to raise enough capital to respond to the tram challenge through defensive investment.

Yet, faced with calls from passengers after 1895 for faster, more frequent and more comfortable services, the railways developed responses to the challenge of the trams. These will be covered in part 2.


[1] Board of Trade Returns.
[2] Harris, Michael, ‘The Great Central Railway,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (Oxford, 1997), p.188-189
[3] Munby, D.L. and Watson, A.H.(eds.), Inland Transport Statistics, Great Britain, 1900-1970, (Oxford, 1978) p.338
[4] Board of Trade Returns.
[5]Cain, P.J., ‘Railways 1870-1914: The maturity of the private system,’ in Freeman, Michael J. and Aldcroft, Derek H. (eds.), Transport in Victorian Britain, (Manchester, 1988), p.101


  1. Interesting. I guess the trams were really competitive where more 'door to door' journeys were possible. Having experienced the old trams with wooden benches and open platforms at each end on a chilly day at Critch, one suspects people did not travel on them for comfort, but found their speed and routes convenient!

  2. very interesting post you have shear on your blog. where did you get this kind of information i like it.
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