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Thursday, 18 August 2011

One Railway's Fight Against Trams...With No Money

A few months I wrote about how the railways’ profitability in the late 19th century came under threat from trams (HERE). One of those most affected in the years after 1901 was the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR), for whom suburban traffic made up a considerable part of their income. In that year London United Tramways (LUT) began services between Hammersmith and Kew Bridge, Shepherds Bush and Kew Bridge, (via Chiswick) Shepherd’s Bush and Acton, and to Brentford and Hounslow. Twickenham was connected in 1902, with Hampton Court reached the year after. By 1906 Kingston, Surbiton, New Malden and Wimbledon also had trams.[1] Being clean, modern and able to pick up and drop off individuals from much more convenient locations than trains, trams were an instant success and in 1902 took 64% of the L&SWR’s receipts from passengers to Hounslow. [2]

Previously, I wrote about how ultimately the threat to the company’s profitability was countered through the adoption of electric traction (HERE). Yet, before this decision was made the L&SWR attempted a number of other solutions to counter the threat. This was because a large project such as electrification of the company’s suburban lines would consume large amounts of capital. However, at the time the L&SWR was already undertaking large capital projects such as the widening of its main lines, the rebuilding of Waterloo Station and the relocation of its locomotive works to Eastleigh, and thus an extra project would increase an already heavy burden on the company's capital supplies. Thus, it had to find other ways to attract traffic back to the railway. Yet, the solutions that its General Manager, Charles Owens, came up with were piecemeal, simply adapting existing operational structures and practices to the new trading environment. Thus they did not have the desired of effect of drawing passengers back to the railway.

The first move that Owens made was to improve the carriage stock on the suburban routes through the introduction of ‘bogie’ carriages in ‘block sets.’ By 1900 six-wheeled carriages were being used on most suburban routes in sets, however, some of these dated back to 1879. Thus, modernisation was required. In 1900 and 1901 the Locomotive Committee agreed to replace some old sets with new designs. However, these still had six-fixed wheels and were not really an advance in design. [3] But with the new threat developing the mind-set of the committee changed, and at the May 1902 it authorised the construction of thirty-two higher-quality bogie carriages[4] that were eventually were formed into eight four-car block trains. Consequently, between 1902 and September 1912 145 of these sets were built.[5] Evidently, the switch to bogie vehicles was an attempt to upgrade the quality of the company’s suburban carriage stock and attract passengers back to the railway. However, while the new carriages made massive improvement in the suburban rolling stock, it did not halt the haemorrhaging of passengers as the upgrades simply brought the rolling stock’s quality up to a level that was already expected by the travelling public.

The second move that the company made was to introduce steam railmotors. These were a locomotive and a carriage combined into one unit and the L&SWR produced seventeen between April 1903 and June 1906. The first two were built for the company’s joint Fratton and Southsea branch with the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, and were introduced in direct response to a threat there from trams. While most texts attribute the initiative to the Locomotive Superintendent, Dugald Drummond, the Railway Magazine stated that Owens was responsible. Indeed, once deemed a success on the Fratton and Southsea branch more railmotors were built. While the L&SWR used them extensively used on small branches throughout the country, a number were placed on services between Twickenham and Gunnersbury, right in the company’s competed territory. However, with limited capacity, the regularly with which regular maintenance was required[6] and their uneconomical nature, the railmotors were not a success and were withdrawn in 1916 and 1919. [7]

Thirdly, Owens tried, in vein, to negotiate with the LUT. In 1904 the LUT had a bill in Parliament that would extend its services to Staines. Naturally, the L&SWR lodged an objection to this. In the wake of this Owens managed to negotiate a deal with the LUT. For three years the L&SWR would agree to drop its opposition to the Staines extension if the tram company agreed to not promote further routes in the L&SWR’s territory. Additionally, the Staines project was only allowed with the L&SWR’s consent. [8] However, this negotiation was too late, and the LUT’s bills of 1902 had already pushed its network deep into the L&SWR’s.

Lastly, the L&SWR attempted to win back traffic by a very old method, the manipulation of fares. In the June 1911 edition of Railway Magazine Owens suggested that the way to claw back inner-suburban traffic was to reduce the cost of season tickets and that this process was already under way.[9] How successful this was, and whether there was any further manipulation of ticket prices, is unknown.

Therefore, hamstrung by a lack of capital resources, Owens’ attempts to mitigate the effect of trams on the company’s passenger business were all unsuccessful. By February 1913 the company was still losing £100,000 and 1 million passengers per year.[10] His answers to the threat all had their genesis in practices and procedures that could be found in the railways before 1900. The response that worked, and which had been on the cards for some time, was electrification which begun in 1913. However, this was only possible after the L&SWR had finished its major capital projects, such as the building of the Eastleigh works, and slowed the progress of others including the rebuilding of Waterloo.


[1] Chivers, Colin, The Riverside Electric: LSWR Electrification 1912-1922 – South Western Circle Monograph No. 5, (Unknown, 2010), p.2-8

[2] Faulkner, J.N and Williams, R.A., The LSWR in the Twentieth Century, (Newton Abbot, 1988), p.101

[3] Weddell, G.R., L.S.W.R. Carriages: Volume One 1838-1900, (Didcot, 1992), p.209-244 and Weddell, G.R., L.S.W.R. Carriages in the 20th Century, (Oxford, 2001), p.130

[4] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 411/192, Locomotive Committee Minute Book, Minute 931, 14th May 1902

[5] Weddell, G.R., L.S.W.R. Carriages in the Twentieth Century, (Oxford, 2001), p.16

[6] Casserley, H.C., London & South Western Locomotives, (Shepperton, 1971), p.137-138

[7] Weddell, L.S.W.R. Carriages in the Twentieth Century, p.89

[8] Chivers, The Riverside Electric, p.8-9

[9] Railway Magazine, June 1911, p.456

[10] Faulkner and Williams, The LSWR in the Twentieth Century, p.101


  1. Good post. I guess the railway had the last laugh around there though! Is there any evidence that the trams were faster than the railway, or is it just that people had to walk less to use them and they were cheaper?

  2. No, I don't think that trams were faster, just more convenient and cheaper. I cannot really be sure what the key selling point, but considering that they took much of the L&SWR's business it may be a combination of both. The problem that I have is that there isn't a schedule of charges available for L&SWR routes and I do not have one for the trams. I am, however, hoping to go to the London Metropolitan Archives at some point, where the LUT files are kept. So perhaps I can get their point of view.

  3. Interesting, that's the sort of issue I might be interested in when I get to work on trams. Its interesting that people would tolerate a presumably quite long tram journey into London over a reasonably rapid railway journey just to save a short walk.

  4. Well, naturally there is the whole question as to the length of the journey and whether people really went 'up to town' on the trams and instead used the trains. The loss on the Hounslow route seems to be termed, in the literature at least, to be only between Brentford and Hounslow. But I cannot be sure. The stats are simply not there to understand where exactly the railway company was loosing money and passengers. Question: Have you read Irving's paper on electrification and capital on the NER/L&NWR from BH in 1971? May be worth a look.

  5. No. That will probably be useful though. My real focus is going to be on the organisational side, but knowing something about these aspects is useful too. One would expect trams to be a much bigger competitive threat to trains on Merseyside and Tyneside than in London though, because the distances covered were shorter.


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