Rail Map Online is building a map of all Britain’s lost trams and it is wonderful

Trams at the Elephant & Castle, London, in the 1910s. Image: Getty.

 On 4 June, Rail Map Online tweeted about an update that I had been waiting for:

Having already mapped every railway and wagon way in the UK they have now set about the task of adding all of the UKs tramway lines.

This may not sound like the most exciting development, but that is probably because you are unaware of one key detail. Everywhere had trams once. And by everywhere, I don’t just mean cites like Manchester, Bradford and Hull, or towns such as Blackburn, Chesterfield and Worcester. There were tramways in places that you have never heard of.

There was a tramway in Dearne and a separate system in Mexborough. Trams ran on the streets of Portsdown & Horndean. The roads had rails in Rawtenstall, in Colne and Darwen. And then there was some place in Scotland called Wemyss (no, not the Wemyss your thinking of) which had a 12km system that closed in 1932. I found 170 historic tramways listed on the Light Rail Transit Association website.

Tracing the route of an historic railway is fairly easy: OS maps still show a dashed line labelled “dismtd rly”. Yet the Rail Map Online is still an eye opener as you notice that there were railways where you never imagined.

Lost tramways don’t appear on OS maps, and for reasons I cannot fathom, maps of historic tram systems tend to be crap. Take this example from Hull:

Image: Wikipedia.

I grew up in Hull, I know the area well – but this map gives me little idea of where trams actually ran. Overlaying the routes on online mapping services provides a clear idea of every street a tram trundled along.

It will be no small task for Rail Map online to add all these systems, and not just because of the number of networks. It is a mammoth job because many of the tram systems were huge. At its peak in 1928, Manchester Corporation Tramways had 46 routes, with a length of 262km, on which a fleet of 953 trams ran. Today’s Manchester Metrolink, the largest tramway in the country, has a fleet of 120 trams and a 92km network.

Take the six other modern British tram systems – Nottingham, Sheffield, Croydon, West Midlands and Edinburgh. In total they have a length of 125km. Back in the 1930’s Birkenhead Corporation Tramways alone had a route length of 127km.

With so many tramways to include it is understandable that Rail Map Online has launched their historic Tramlines (sic) with “coverage limited to Lancashire’s extensive networks”. Lancashire is a suitable place to start, and it gives some good insights into our lost tramways.

When you arrive at the Rail Map Online UK and Ireland Map you will see the overlay of all the countries railways. You may well find this fascinating, but for now, it’s in our way: to just see the tramways press the Layers button at the top left of the map and then in the sidebar toggle Historic Rlys Off and Historic Tramlines On.

Zoom in on Liverpool, and you can see the entire network fanning out from Pier Head to the ever expanding suburbs. Yet between these arterial lines, there are many interconnections which allowed trams to take various routes to the same destination. The northern terminus at Seaforth had nine routes into the city, each weaving its own path through the network.

Zoom in further and you get to see details such as junctions and depots. Penny Lane (yes that Penny Lane) was an important hub, and the map shows its delta junction and a loop:

The reversing loop was an important feature on a tramway: it allowed a tram to turn back without the driver having to change ends, and more importantly it avoided the hassle of the conductor needing to swivel the trolly-poll to the rear.

At Pier Head you can see the complex series of loops that allowed the large convergence of routes to pass in and out of the terminal.

Zoom back out and another surprising feature will become apparent: many of the networks were connected to the next town along. Liverpool connected to Prescot and on to St Helens. From there, via the South Lancashire, it linked to Bolton and then to Bury, Rochdale, Rawtensall and so on.

Trams did not run all the way from Liverpool to Rochdale – they had trains for that. But trams from one system could be “granted powers” to run on the neighbouring network. A case in point being that the majority of Salford’s trams terminated across the River Irwell in Manchester.

The majority of smaller tram systems closed before the Second World War; the remaining larger networks were shut down by the early sixties. Many city centres have been rebuilt since then. Historic tramways can now be spotted driving their way through many a modern shopping centre or dual carriage way. Switching the base map to “OS 1920s” will reveal wheretrams were running along the road network.

Another map of Liverpool’s trams, just because.

Having started with horse power and steam trams, all of these networks were electrically powered in the early 1900s. But it was the internal combustion engine that brought their demise. The bus, which wasn’t limited to the network of tracks, was the death knell for the smaller systems; the rise of the automobile saw off the larger ones. To be seen as forward-thinking, cites had to rid themselves of their tired old trams, sweeping them away to make space for newcomers: search out photographs of these tramways, one of the most striking aspects is the lack of cars.


I look forward to Rail Map Online expanding its coverage of tramway routes across the country, particularly in Leeds, which had a very extensive and progressive network. In the late 1950s, the city came close not just keeping it’s trams, but expanding by building a underground network below the city centre. It never happened: today, locals face the nightmare of the Leeds Loop road system.

But for now I’m enjoying Lancashire. It’s high time to look at where the trams ran in Morecambe, a seaside town of which I’m rather fond.

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On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.