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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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.