London Tram Abandonment

CHAPTER 1  – From :





In this chapter, I aim to co-ordinate the various reasons for the withdrawal of trams from London.  To the majority of tramway enthusiasts, the reasons for abandonment were all too commonplace, and the subsequent results were an anathema to them.


However, to portray a balanced background to the campaign of Alan J. Watkins and his fellow enthusiasts, the reasons for and against tramway withdrawal need to be stated.


It is apparent that the whole issue was determined by the political attitude of the London Transport Executive (LTE.) under Lord Latham and of the L.P.T.B. under his predecessor Lord Ashfield.  The tram was doomed in favour of the motorbus.  The London Transport Executive would neither consider any opposing point of view, nor would they consider any form of compromise.  The government of the day did nothing to prevent the abandonment of the trams either.


To substantiate this account, various sources of information have been consulted, the main source being “Modern Tramway”1946-1952, in which lies a wealth of information from articles and correspondence…………………………………………………


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…..There is an excellent essay on the subject of cost by Mr. Ian Yearsley in “Tramway London” by Martin Higginson and Ian Yearsley. Published by L.R.T.A.1993.  Mr Yearsley expounds in great detail the economic and financial factors behind the decisions to scrap the trams.

There also appeared to be much apathy on the part of the Londoner regarding the scrapping of the trams.  Little was done by ordinary people to oppose the change to buses, yet, the passing of the trams was mourned during the last tram week.

In the March issue of “Modern Tramway” 1950, it is written that only organised bodies, acting on legal advice, could make their objections known to a tribunal.  Ordinary people did not have the wherewithal to do this.


The April issue of “Modern Tramway” 1950 quotes, in abridged form, correspondence between the Chairman of the L.R.T.L and the Operating Manager (Trams and Trolleybuses) of the L.T.E.  This correspondence shows the intransigent attitude of the L.T.E. towards tramway development and the feasibility of having modern tramcars in London instead of the rundown vehicles now operating.


‘The League suggests, therefore, that a preliminary demonstration of the modern tramcar be made soon and a frank discussion be obtained for Londoners and that the most suitable routes be reprieved…and a final decision be made after discussion between the Executive and the public.’


The Chief Public Relations Officer L.T.E. replied as follows:


‘As you know the decision to replace the London trams by another form of transport was taken as long ago as 1935, when a large proportion of the trams and of the tracks and ancillary equipment were nearing the end of their useful life.  The completion of the replacement plans was delayed by the war and it was in 1946 that the decision was finally reached to substitute oil-fuelled buses for the trams that then remained.  The reasons that led to this decision were explained in the report of the LP.T.B. for that year.  It was a decision that was reached only after very careful consideration of all the factors that were involved affecting, as they do, not only the operation of the London Transport Road Services, but also every type of traffic that uses the London streets….. You will see, therefore, that the Executive is committed to the policy, which they consider to be right and proper.  In these circumstances, the Executive regrets that they cannot avail themselves of the offer you have made.’


In “Modern Tramway” November 1950, a letter was published from “Transport World “ 5th August 1950 which stated:


‘…. The travelling public of London will miss their trams, which for 80 years have served them well and faithfully.  Nevertheless, even the most hardened tramophile must admit that they have had their day, and if their departure is tinged with a little sadness, then there is consolation that progress cannot be stayed.’




By August 1950, the outlook for trams all over most of the country was a bleak one. Tramway systems were abandoned without recourse to the scope and possibilities of the type of public transport advocated by the L.R.T.L.  The decision to abandon the trams was made upon the advice of managers and consultants. In July 1950, Lord Latham announced “Operation Tramaway”. The abandonment of the trams was to commence in October 1950 and to be completed by October 1952.  In fact, the entire system was withdrawn by 5th July 1952.


The December edition of “Modern Tramway” 1950 reported that London would become an ‘All bus city.’  The London Transport Executive regarded the Light Railway Transport League as a “ bunch of cranks.”

The London Transport Executive stated that the cost of track maintenance was a strong reason for the abandonment of trams and that many roads were too narrow to take them.

Mr ABB.Valentine, one of the five full-time members of the London Transport Executive, stated that buses easily deserve first prize for the relief of traffic congestion.


Therefore the main reasons for tramway abandonment can be summarised as follows:

  1. Road congestion.
  2. Flexibility of the bus.
  3. Environmental aesthetics, such as overhead wires.
  4. Economic/Financial – costof replacing tracks and vehicles. (The cost of the new buses was not taken into consideration.)
  5. Cheap petrol and diesel fuel.
  6. Road safety – very often, passengers had to board tramsin the middle of the road.


Regarding the demise of the tram, “Modern Tramway” July 1950, stated that:


‘Tramways have not failed – it is the regulations governing their use which have caused them to fail.’


In a personal statement, Mr. J.W. Fowler, the chairman of the L.R.T.L., said:


“ July 5th 1952 was the blackest day in the transport history of London.”


Mr. Fowler thanked the members who rallied around the original cause.  The attempt to save London trams had failed, but the efforts were worthwhile.  Mr. Fowler referred to the 1870 Tramways Act and the Royal Commission Report of 1930.  Both these documents had been damning to trams.


The 1870 Act stated that the local authorities had to maintain the road between the track and 18 inches of road either side of the track.  The Royal Commission did not recommend that the tramway operators be relieved of this operation.  The Commission recommended that no new tramways be constructed and that although no definite time limit be laid down the trams would gradually disappear and give way to other forms of transport of equal capacity without the disadvantage of the tram These recommendations were doom for the tram.


The L.P.T.B. originally did not want to abandon the trams: it was a change of mind on the part of the Board and nothing else.

It seemed at one time that London Transport wanted to replace the trams still surviving after the war with trolleybuses the same as almost all the pre-war abandonments of the tram, but did not have the courage to say so outright.  The whole tramway abandonment scheme was a political contrivance on the part of London Transport, who would not countenance any form of suggestion or compromise More than fifty years later, it can be seen how wrong and misguided they were.