Tram, streetcar or trolley systems were common throughout the industrialized world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but they disappeared from many cities in the mid-20th century. In recent years, they have made a comeback. Many newer light rail systems share features with (or utilize) trams, although a distinction is often drawn between the two, especially if the line has significant off-street running.
The very first passenger tram was the Swansea and Mumbles Railway, in Wales, UK which started operating in 1807. It was worked by steam from 1877, and from 1929 by very large (106-seater) electric tramcars. It was closed in 1960.
The modern Tramlink in south London follows the route of the even older 1803 Surrey Iron Railway, a horsedrawn freight tramway between Mitcham and Croydon. The first recorded surface-running horse-drawn wagonway was the 2-mile Wollaton Wagonway. It was built in 1603-4 to carry coal from mines at Strelley down to the River Trent at Wollaton, near Nottingham, England).
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries a number of systems in various parts of the world employed trams powered by gas, naphtha gas or coal gas in particular. UK gas trams are known to have operated in Lytham St Annes, Neath (1896–1920), and Trafford Park, Manchester (1897–1908).
The first mechanical trams were powered by steam. Generally, there were two types of steam tram. The first and most common had a small steam locomotive (called a tram engine in the UK) at the head of a line of one or more carriages, similar to a small train.
In Britain, the first electric tramway was Volk’s electric railway which was opened in 1883 in Brighton. A Welsh example of a tram was the Swansea and Mumbles Railway. Built as the Oystermouth Railway in 1804, on 25 March 1807 it became the first passenger-carrying railway in the world. Converted to an overhead wire system it operated electric cars from 2 March 1929 until its closure on 5 January 1960. These were the largest tram cars built for use in Britain and seated 106 passengers.
The priority given to personal vehicles and notably to the automobile led to a loss in quality of life, particularly in large cities where smog, traffic congestion, sound pollution and parking became problematic. Acknowledging this, some authorities saw fit to redefine their transport policies. Rapid transit required a heavy investment and presented problems in terms of subterranean spaces that required constant security. For rapid transit, the investment was mainly in underground construction, which made it impossible in some cities (with underground water reserves, archaeological remains, etc.). Metro construction thus was not a universal panacea.
The advantages of the tram thus became once again visible. At the end of the 1970s, some governments studied, and then built new tram lines. In France, Nantes and Grenoble lead the way in terms of the modern tram, and new systems were inaugurated in 1985 and 1988. The first UK modern street-operating light rail system opened in Manchester in 1992 with Italian built vehicles. In 1994 Strasbourg opened a system with novel British-built trams, specified by the city, with the goal of breaking with the archaic conceptual image that was held by the public.