Why were trams closed down and removed in British cities

It was certainly not the case that trams in cities fell out of use because they were unpopular with users. This is demonstrated by the fact that when trams were replaced by buses, patronage immediately declined by 30% – see the three well referenced articles quoted below.

However there was competition for trams following WW1 when buses which had been manufactured specifically for use as troop transports were sold off for scrap.  These in the hands of private operators could “cherry pick” passengers from tram stops as they had no timetable. As a result regulation was introduced in 1932.

Trams were removed from the 30s onwards partly  because they impeded car owners wanting to drive freely in cities. It was thought that by getting rid of trams, and replacing them with diesel buses, everyone could get around faster. This did not happen, as tram users did not like the buses, and started buying cars. The drive for tramway closure came from a few vociferous Members of Parliament with interests in the car  manufacturing business.This has lead to the present mess in UK cities, but not in cities that retained them, as in Germany, or France that has reinstalled over 27, on realising their grave error.

At the end of WW2 when wholesale removal of trams occurred, only 5% of persons had a car and it was thought by the authorities that they had no choice when the trams were replaced by buses, but this was not the case as they  progressively bought cars. In three major cities, London, Liverpool and Leeds it is well documented ( below) that when trams were replaced with modern buses which were actually faster, the patronage dropped by 30% as the patrons switched to cars or other means of transport,

The closure of most tramways was opposed by the residents of the towns and cities which used them ( see examples below)

Another factor is that local councils used profits from their trams to offset the rates and failed to make provision for renewing tracks and equipment. So by the 1930s tramways which had opened in the 1890s or 1900s were wearing out, and without reserves to renew them the cheapest option was to replace trams with buses. Those tramways which did survive the 1930s were neglected in the war and were closed in the 1940s or 1950s. (David Walmsley).

Also there was a shift in regulation in the 1950/60s. Parking could only be done in designated spaces prior to then but was changed to our current model where parking is allowed anywhere unless prohibited. This enabled significant increase in ownership and has resulted in our current clogged streets full of on-street parking. ( Adam Reynolds – Bath cycling)

Notice the very rapid change in household ownership of cars. In 1951, nationally, 80% of households did not have motor cars. By 1970 this had shrunk to something like 40%. https://www.racfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/car-ownership-in-great-britain-leibling-171008-report.pdf
Car use increased massively during the 1950s and 60s for all sorts of reasons, including increasing prosperity and suburban development, and these developments could not easily be serviced by buses or trams so the new house owners needed to have cars to get to the cities to work, creating congestion.
Further article on London Tram abandonment: https://bathtrams.uk/london-tram-abandonment/

Beneficial interaction between housing, development and tram lines – the concentration of passengers

Car use increased massively during the 1950s and 60s for all sorts of other reasons of course, including increasing prosperity and suburban development. It was not just down to buses.

One of the main reasons given for not installing trams or trolleybus networks are that they are fixed to a given route and cannot be diverted at a moments notice. In the case of London’s trolleybuses the LCC required LT to pay for the upkeep of the poles that supported the wires and thus they were replaced by the Routemaster.

However the fact is that people (and developers)  like trams because they are on a fixed route – they can invest in buying a house opening a shop or business knowing the transport service will be there for many many years to come.

Tram users in the 1930’s between Croydon and Embankment in London needed no timetables as there was always a tram in sight.
Just as with the London Tube network where the lines were built the people went to live, work and go to school the same applies to tram routes. Once they were abandoned, houses tended to become more dispersed leading to users purchasing cars and then driving into the cities.
(Clive Hinchcliffe)


Bus usage pattern

Bus use peaked in 1955 and has been dropping at about 1.5% per year ever since.  A big drop occured during a 6 week bus strike in 1958 and never recovered

London tram abandonment

From Wikipedia:

The market for trams became smaller as other tramways were being forced to close at that time, as the 1948 nationalisation of electricity suppliers removed access to cheap electricity for those undertakings which owned their local power company.[17]

A.B.B. Valentine, one of the five full-time members of the London Transport Executive, saw trams as a major cause of road congestion, which would be relieved by the introduction of buses, with the aesthetic benefit of doing away with overhead wires and their noisy operation.[18] A report in The Economist in 1952 suggested a more comprehensive list of reasons for their demise, including:

  • the 1870 Tramways Act, which placed a great financial burden on the operator for road maintenance even though it was not responsible for all the wear[19]
  • London had streets that were too narrow, unlike continental cities.
  • London’s housing developments were too far away from tram routes
  • authorities were prejudiced against trams

The capital cost of replacing and updating the worn out infrastructure and trams was also seen as prohibitive when compared with the £9 m capital cost of buying buses with a slightly smaller carrying capacity.[18]

“Operation Tramaway”, the replacement of the tram service by diesel buses, was announced in July 1950 by Lord Latham of the London Transport Executive. Retirement started in October 1950 and London’s last trams ran in the early hours of 6 July 1952 to a rousing reception at New Cross Depot.[20]

No general improvement in traffic flow was seen after the trams were withdrawn.[18]

The Campaign To Save the London Trams 1946-1952 Based on the Collected Papers Of The late Alan John Watkins By Ann E. Watkins

from: http://www.kentarchaeology.ac/authors/019.pdf


In the Journal Passenger Transport of August 1949, it is mentioned that:
The changeover from trams to buses in South London was much in accordance with the modern trend of thought regarding the most efficient mode of transport for street passengers. Surprise was expressed in this journal that there was a body calling itself “The Tramway Development Council.”
It was stated in Modern Tramway May 1949 that Lord Latham advocated the scrapping of the trams in order to rid the London streets of traffic congestion. It was maintained that because trams ran on rails, thus fixing them to a route, other vehicles could not bypass them and, consequently, caused severe traffic congestion.

See Also: https://www.abebooks.co.uk/book-search/title/history-of-london-transport/author/barker/first-edition/


Leeds abandonment

J Soper’s book volume 1V “Leeds Transport: 1953 – 1974 v. 4″ covers the  Leeds tram abandonment. Up until 1953 the Conservative Council ran the trams at a profit, but the Labour party came in on a ticket of abandoning the trams and replacing them with modern buses. This they did by 1979. There was an immediate drop in passenger numbers and the bus service then ran at a loss. The bus passengers then all bought cars with the resulting present mess in Leeds.

The accounts of Leeds tramway were not properly scrutinised until many years after closure.  It was then found that the costs of repair and garaging the replacement bus fleets had been charged to the remaining tram routes and made them appear uneconomical.

A senior official of of Leeds tramways was been found to be related to a lorry and bus engine manufacturer.  He had new trams made to a design which was known give greatly increased track wear.


Liverpool Tram abandonment:

Liverpool had a thriving tram system, and it was closed down on the casting vote of the Chairman, despite a 240,000 petition calling for it to stay open. Again the ex tram users all bought cars and then clogged the city.  (Prof. Lewis Lesley BSc, AKC, PhD, CEng, FRSA, MICE, FCIT, MTPS)

Liverpool Transport Vol. 4 cover the period when the decision to abandon the trams was made (1948).
by JB Horne and TB Maund


Bristol Tram Abandonment

Bristol trams kept running through the early years of WWII until a bomb hit a bridge carrying cables from the power station.  Instead of replacing the cables (a very easy repair job) the trams were all replaced by buses brought in from all over the country within 24 hours,  Nobody at the time enquired how so many uses had been found simultaneously at short notice. Some  bus historians reportedly are of the opinion that they had been on standby, waiting for just such an excuse.

Since Bristol was the home of Bristol Buses, a bus maker, there was pressure on the Council to replace trams with “home grown” buses rather than trams made elsewhere in Britain.

Bath Trams

There were all sorts of behind-the-scenes factors at work:

The Bath trams were owned by the Bristol bus company.  Tram fares were fixed by the council, but bus fares were not; the bus company was able to
set higher fares if they replaced trams by buses.

The tramway company had to maintain a lot of the road surface at their own expense, buses did not.

Because of the enforced low fares the tramway company hadn’t got a track and equipment replacement programme in place, so by 1939 a lot of the track was badly in need of replacement.


Nearly all French trams were removed at the end of WW2 as they were thought to be outmoded.  However over 27 have now been re-installed specifically to reduced congestion and to regenerate town centers.


During the cold war the modern West Berlin removed its trams and opted for cars, buses and congestion.  The East retained its tram network. After re-unification it was noted by the authorities that the former East Berlin was far less congested and accordingly West Berlin is re-installing its trams.

While East Berlin’s streetcars soldiered on under communist rule, West Berlin tore up the tracks. Now, the city is correcting its mistake.https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2017/05/berlins-streetcars-go-west/525246/


Sydney Abandonment:

Trams were abandoned in Sydney by 1961.  The authorities soon realised their mistake.  A tram system is not being re-installed in an effort to cut congestion.  Melbourne which retained the tram system is celebrated as an excellent city to get around in due to the tram.

From  – Light Rail Developers’ Handbook by Prof. Lewis Lesley BSc, AKC, PhD, CEng, FRSA, MICE, FCIT, MTPS (ISBN: 9781604270488)


his article from the Daily Mail, explains how the original tram network was removed in the mistaken belief that it would ease congestion.  They soon regretted it as congestion rapidly worsened.  Melbourne retained its network and is a much better city to travel in  as a result.


PUBLISHED: 05:37, 8 January 2016 | UPDATED: 06:03, 8 January 2016

Sydney’s original tram system was one of the largest in the world and carried more than one million people daily The city decided to shut the tram system down and replace it with buses in the early 1960s. The decision was unpopular with the public and within a few years the city council regretted the decision
Just 55 years later, New South Wales is spending $2.1 billion to replace the rail throughout the city and southeast

In its heyday the Sydney tram network moved about one million people around the city every day before it was shut down against popular opinion in the 1960s – only to make a resurgence 55 years later.

Historical images show the bustling tram system that was once one of the largest in the world, transporting Sydneysiders back and forth to  work from 1899 to the late 1950s.

Sydney’s bustling tram network peaked in the 1930s and 1940s when it was carrying more than one million people to and from work every day. A tram travels down George Street in 1890 (pictured) – one year after the first electric tram travelled down the busy street

One of the busiest streets for transportation in the early 1900s was George Street (pictured) and it remains to be a transportation hub Sydney, which is why the new tram system runs directly down the street

In 2016, just 55 years after the historic system shut down in the 1960s, construction on a new $2.1billion light rail system to rebuilt the former system has forced George Street to close (pictured)

A $2.1billion extension to the city’s light rail is now underway to bring the trams back, a move that has forced the closure of George

A spokesman for Transport for NSW said they couldn’t comment on why the previous rail had been removed, or if the lack of foresight is

‘We’re just dealing with what is in front of us right now,’ the spokesman said.

The issue is severe congestion in the city during peak hours and a rapidly growing population.

‘Currently, on every weekday morning, more than 1,600 buses enter the CBD, causing congestion and lengthy delays. CBD streets simply cannot
cope with the extra buses needed to meet Sydney’s forecast growth,’ he said.

The King’s Cross area in 1900 (pictured) when trams drove alongside horse-drawn carts. By 1898, the city’s trams became electric and most
of the system was converted from steam by 1910

Sydney and Australia’s first tram was a horse-drawn car that ran down Pitt Street from Railway station to Circular Quay.

By 1898, the city’s trams became electric and most of the system was converted from steam by 1910, according to railpage.com.au.

The system began to close down section by section in the late 1950s and the last tram ran in 1961, exactly 100 years from the opening of
the first city tram.

Better efficiency, crowded roads and carts were listed by the city as reasons to shut down the system and replace the trams with buses.

The construction on the new system is expected to be complete in three years and the rail will be up and running in 2019

Within a few years it was apparent to the city council that the buses were not sufficient but it was too late to go back as the trams had
been destroyed and many of the rails were covered.

The tram system isn’t the only new feature being added to George Street.

The city has pitched in $220 million for the tram but also to expand the footpaths to create more space for cafés and restaurants and to
improve surrounding laneways.

Larger footpaths will be added to provide more space for pedestrians and cafes