Minutes: 26th January 1996 - Mr Geoffrey Skelsey (Vice-President, CURC): "Tramway History Since 1950

Meeting held in the Old Combination Room, St Catharine's College at 20.30. (Lent Term No.1)

15. Minutes

The minutes of the meetings held on 10th and 24th November 1995 were approved.

16. Mr Geoffrey Skelsey (Vice-President, CURC): "Tramway History Since 1950

Mr Skelsey began his talk with a personal view of tramways he had visited during the 1950s and 1960s. During the early days, there were no tram magazines, and so visits usually had to be planned around information supplied by well-meaning relatives. This could lead to expensive mistakes, such as when a tram turned out to be a trolleybus, which was of course an entirely different thing.

In 1945, tramways were already on the decline, and by 1950 only 27 undertakings remained. Most of these had only survived as a result of petrol shortages, but there were eight hopeful systems: Sunderland, Dundee, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Sheffield, Blackpool, Leeds and Glasgow. In these cities maintenance, rebuilding and even extensions continued through the 1950s, yet only Blackpool's trams survived. Both Leeds and Glasgow had major development plans which were frustrated by economic and other external factors. The real reason for the wholesale tramway closures seems to have been financial. Operators had never been required to depreciate their assets, and funds had been transferred to other budgets. In an era of no subsidies, buses were cheaper.

As the picture in Britain becomes gloomier, abroad beckoned, and Mr Skelsey described some of the European and Australian tramways which he had visited. In these locations, the American PCC tramcar and the use of articulation had both proved popular.

Mr Skelsey suggested that the 250 or so surviving tramways fall into three categories. The first is the eclectic: the "heritage trolley", or "variations on a theme park", such as the new Birkenhead tramway.

The second is the empirical: the "ideal". Twenty years ago, West Germany led the way, with developments that turned their systems into something rather different from the orthodox English approaches. Post-war reconstruction and a booming economy led to systems more akin to today's metros than their street tramway antecedents, with extensive segregation and tunnelling.

The third category is the pragmatic: making the best of what is already available. Segregation was desirable, but not necessary, as priority for tramcars at traffic lights became widely used. The key requirements are flexibility, affordability and achievability, but a managerial change was also needed, as it had to be proved that light rail was worthwhile.

The tramway revival began in the 1970s, when three North American cities borrowed basic European light rail technology to revive their undertakings. In Britain, the Tyne and Wear Metro led the way. Ironically, the current schemes for Leeds and Glasgow eschew the grand style of the earlier plans of those cities in favour of cheap street-level running in the city centres. Fully underground sections are less favoured than they once were, due to the expense of tunnelling and the reduction in accessibility to the system. Perhaps the most characteristic element of modern tramway schemes is the conversion of heavy rail lines to tramways.

Mr Skelsey answered several questions, after which the Junior Treasurer gave a vote of thanks.

17. Announcements

The forthcoming pub visit was announced. The next speaker meeting would be the Presidential Distress, and Members were reminded of the closing dates for Photo Competition entries and Annual Dinner tickets.

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