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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London Overground is experimenting with telling passengers which bits of the next train is busiest

There must be a better way than this: Tokyo during a 1972 rail strike. Image: Getty.

One of the most fun things to do, for those who enjoy claustrophobia and other people’s body odour, is to attempt to use a mass transit system at rush hour.

Travelling on the Central line at 6pm, for example, gives you all sorts of exciting opportunities to share a single square inch of floor space with a fellow passenger, all the while becoming intimately familiar with any personal hygiene problems they may happen to have. On some, particularly lovely days you might find you don’t even get to do this for ages, but first have to spend some exciting time enjoying it as a spectator sport, before actually being able to pack yourself into one unoccupied cranny of a train.

But fear not! Transport for London has come up with a plan: telling passengers which bits of the train have the most space on them.

Here’s the science part. Many trains include automatic train weighing systems, which do exactly what the name suggests: monitoring the downward force on any individual wheel axis in real time. The data thus gathered is used mostly to optimise the braking.

But it also serves as a good proxy for how crowded a particular carriage is. All TfL are doing here is translating that into real time information visible to passengers. It’s using the standard, traffic light colour system: green means go, yellow means “hmm, maybe not”, red means “oh dear god, no, no, no”. 

All this will, hopefully, encourage some to move down the platform to where the train is less crowded, spreading the load and reducing the number of passengers who find themselves becoming overly familiar with a total stranger’s armpit.

The system is not unique, even in London: trains on the Thameslink route, a heavy-rail line which runs north/south across town (past CityMetric towers!) has a similar system visible to passengers on board. And so far it’s only a trial, at a single station, Shoreditch High Street.

But you can, if you’re so minded, watch the information update every few seconds or so here.

Can’t see why you would, but I can’t see why I would either, and that hasn’t stopped me spending much of the day watching it, so, knock yourselves out.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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