A History of Inland Transport and Communication in England/Chapter 29

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[ 453 ]

CHAPTER XXIX

TRAMWAYS, MOTOR-BUSES AND RAILLESS ELECTRIC TRACTION


In previous chapters I have shown that the first great highway for the citizens of London passing from one part of the capital to another was the River Thames; that the livelihood of the watermen became imperilled by the competition successively of private carriages, hackney coaches, and cabriolets, or "cabs"; and that these, in turn, had afterwards to face the competition of omnibuses. A still further development, leading to competition with the omnibuses, was brought about by the re-introduction of the tramway, for the purposes of street transport.

It was in the United States that street tramways first came into vogue, and it was by an American, George Francis Train, that the pioneer tramway of this type in England was laid at Birkenhead at the end of the '50's. A few other short lines followed, and some were put down—without authority—in certain parts of London, only, however, to be condemned as a nuisance on account of the hindrance to other traffic. It was not until 1868 that lines laid in Liverpool secured public favour for the innovation. Fresh tramways were laid in London between 1869 and 1871, and others followed in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dublin and elsewhere.

All the early lines were operated by horses; but various expedients were resorted to with the idea both of obtaining greater speed and of carrying more persons at comparatively less cost. Among these expedients were steam locomotives and underground cables, the latter for cars furnished with a grip attachment conveying to them the movement of the cables, as operated by machinery at a central depôt. The greatest impetus to the street tramway system came, however, with the application of electricity as the motive power.

The first line opened on the "trolley" system of overhead [ 454 ]wires, conveying electric current to the cars, was in Kansas City in 1884. Electric tramways were tried in Leeds in 1891, and the system was afterwards adopted in many other towns. Underground conduit and surface-contact systems were also employed, with a view to avoiding overhead wires, to which widespread objection was, especially at first, entertained; but the latter system has been the one generally adopted.

Development of the tramway system in England was slow on account, not of any lack of enterprise on the part of business men, but of the discouraging nature of tramway legislation.

Just about the time when the original horse tramways began to come into vogue certain local authorities were cherishing strong grievances against the gas and water companies in their districts. They complained that the charges of these companies were extortionate and that the terms they asked, when invited to dispose of their undertakings to the said local authorities, were excessive. The companies, nevertheless, controlled the situation because their Parliamentary powers represented a permanent concession, and because, also, they were able to fix their own price in any negotiations upon which they might be invited to enter.

When the introduction of another public service, in the form of street tramways, seemed likely to create still another "monopoly," it was thought desirable to prevent the tramway companies from attaining to the same position as that of the gas and water companies. Powers were accordingly granted to enable the local authorities, if they so desired, to acquire the undertakings, at the end of a certain period, on terms which would be satisfactory to themselves, at least.

It was motives such as these that inspired some of the main provisions of the Tramways Act of 1870, the full title of which is "An Act to Facilitate the Construction and to Regulate the Working of Tramways"; though in a statement presented to a Committee on Electrical Legislation of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, in 1902, the late Sir Clifton Robinson, manager of the London United Tramways Company, declared that "if it had been described as an Act to discourage the construction of tramways it would have better described the action of some of its clauses."

The Act did, undoubtedly, confer certain advantages on [ 455 ]tramway promoters, as well as on local authorities, since it abolished the obligation previously devolving upon them to obtain—as in the case of a railway company—a Private Bill in respect to each fresh line they desired to construct. It authorised them to apply, instead, to the Board of Trade for a Provisional Order which, on its formal confirmation by Parliament, would have all the force of a Private Act. In this way the procedure was both simplified and rendered less costly.

On the other hand, the Act of 1870 laid down (1) that the assent of the local and road authorities to a new line of tramway should be obtained; though where the assent of authorities in respect to two-thirds of the mileage was secured the Board of Trade might dispense with that of any other objecting authority; (2) that the frontagers were also to have a power of veto; (3) that the original concession should be granted for a period of twenty-one years only; and (4) that at the end of such period, or at the end of any subsequent period of seven years, the local authorities should have the option of acquiring the tramway at the "then value" of the plant, without any allowance for compulsory purchase, goodwill, prospective profits or other similar consideration.

So long as these provisions applied to horse tramways only, the companies may not have found them specially oppressive, inasmuch as there was still a prospect of their being able to make a profit within the twenty-one-year period before they were compulsorily bought out at "scrap-iron" rates, while they could expect to realise the value of their stock of horses; though, in effect, the statutory obligations meant, even then, that towards the end of their tenure the tramway company did not spend a single shilling on the line more than was absolutely necessary to keep it in working order until the day of their eviction arrived, generally grudging even a coat of paint for the cars and refraining from any avoidable labour on the roadway. Individuals, and especially foreign visitors, unacquainted with the facts of the case, might well have considered some of the old tramway systems a discredit to the country.

When electric traction for tramway operation was introduced, there was a natural expectation on the part of the British public that the tramway companies would adopt it [ 456 ]in place of horse traction. The companies were hampered, however, by the Act of 1870, which remained in force though a complete revolution in the conditions of street rail-transport was being brought about.

The substitution of electricity for horse-power meant (1) the provision of power stations, sub-stations and new car depôts; (2) the fixing of overhead wires, together with fresh track-work, in the streets; (3) the use of a heavier type of car; and (4) the running of a much more frequent service, since only under these conditions can an electric tramway possibly be made to pay. All these things involved a very substantial increase in the capital outlay, and companies may well have hesitated to incur so great an expense with the prospect of only a twenty-one years' tenure before them; while the position was even more hopeless in the case of companies whose tenure had already half expired.

The dissatisfaction of the public when they found that the tramway system of the country was not being brought up to date, and compared most unfavourably with tramway systems abroad, gave to the local authorities an apparent justification both for providing and for operating tramways as a special phase of municipal enterprise. At the time the Act of 1870 was passed it was assumed that, although local authorities might construct or acquire tramways, they would certainly lease them to private companies to operate.[1] In proportion, however, as the movement for municipal enterprise developed, local authorities were the more inclined to operate tramways in addition to owning them. There was no general Act giving them authority so to do, but the difficulty was overcome by the insertion in Local Bills of clauses giving to the local bodies promoting the Bills power to operate their own tramways, the reason advanced being that there were difficulties in the way of leasing the lines to companies on satisfactory conditions.

Matters were not left entirely in the hands of the municipalities, various tramway companies having sought, as their twenty-one years' tenure came to a close, to make such arrangements as would warrant an adaptation of their existing [ 457 ]system to electric traction; while other companies applied for powers to construct new lines or extensions of lines on the same system. Parliament had certainly sanctioned a longer period of tenure than twenty-one years when the promoters could make an arrangement to this effect with the local authorities concerned; and it was hardly likely that a company would incur the great expense of constructing an entirely new tramway, with electrical installation and other requirements all complete, unless they had some guarantee of a longer tenure than the statutory period. But these very factors enabled the local authorities concerned to control the situation; and their power to exercise this control was made still more complete by the operation of Standing Order No. 22, which applied to Private Bills for tramway schemes requirements similar to those of the Tramways Act as regards the obligation on promoters to obtain the assents of local and road authorities.

These authorities had thus an absolute veto over any new tramway schemes, and such veto might finally rest in the hands of a single local authority, controlling a sparsely populated section of the proposed mileage, yet having, perhaps, the controlling voice in being the one authority whose approval was needed to make up the requisite two-thirds.

There had been some expectation on the part of tramway promoters that the general position would be improved by the Light Railways Act, 1896, many light railways being indistinguishable from tramways. Under this Act the assent of the local and road authorities is not required, and the frontagers' veto was done away with by it in the case of light railways; but authority to oppose was given to railway companies, and in practice the Light Railway Commissioners held that they ought not to authorise a tramway as a light railway unless it connected the area of one local authority with another. For these and other reasons the Act was not so beneficial in regard to tramways as had been anticipated.

In the case of tramway companies it became a matter either of paying to the local authorities the "price" they asked for their assent, or else seeing the schemes fail at the start, without any chance of having them even considered on their merits. How local authorities have used—or abused—the power of control thus possessed by them is suggested by some remarks [ 458 ]made by Mr Emile Garcke in an article published in "The Times Engineering Supplement" of July 25, 1906, where he says:—

"The right of veto is exercised not so much with the desire to destroy a projected enterprise, but rather to exact the utmost conditions which a promoter will accept sooner than abandon the project. When a scheme is proceeded with in spite of these exactions it is taken as evidence that the conditions imposed have not been exacting enough; and whenever the operating company has occasion subsequently to ask the local authority to approve anything, the company is expected to offer more than commensurate consideration, although the object for which the approval is desired may be primarily for the benefit of the public. All these obstacles imply increased capital outlay or increased working costs, and perhaps both. If, notwithstanding these conditions, the company earns a moderate profit, it is accused of striving only after dividends to the prejudice of the public. If non-success of the enterprise follows, then the company is accused of being over-capitalised and mismanaged, and it has come to be considered an impertinence for a company to offer ever so mild a protest."

On the same subject it is stated in "The Dangers of Municipal Trading," by Robert P. Porter (1907):—

"The use of the veto has had disastrous effects on private enterprise. In many districts it has led to utter stagnation of personal initiative. Good schemes have been barred by local authorities out of pure caprice or prejudice. Other schemes have been allowed to proceed under barely tolerable conditions; the undertaking has been crippled from the start by the high price municipalities have exacted for their consent. Others, again, have been withdrawn by the promoter because he found it impossible to agree to the extortionate demands of the governing bodies."

Mr Porter quotes various authorities who have expressed strong views on the subject of the veto.

The chairman of the Parliamentary Committee which considered a scheme of tramways promoted in Scotland said: "The Committee desire to put on record that in their opinion the original scheme was a good one, and calculated to be of much use to the district; but it has been so mutilated and loaded with conditions by conflicting interests and the [ 459 ]excessive demands of several local bodies that it now appears to the Committee to be wholly unworkable."

In 1902 Mr Chaplin, at one time President of the Local Government Board, stated that "what local authorities would describe as conditions are regarded by promoters—and very often, no doubt, with good reason—as neither more nor less than blackmail. This has been the subject of great complaint for years, and I do not think I should be going too far if I said that on several occasions it has led to considerable scandals."

Lest these expressions of opinion may be considered unduly severe by any reader unacquainted with the facts, I turn for some definite data to the "Exhibit to Proof of Evidence," handed in by Sir Clifton Robinson to the Royal Commission on London Traffic when he was examined before that body in 1904.[2]

In the early days of his company (the London United), the local authorities, Sir Clifton said, "had not, perhaps, fully recognised their opportunity," and the company got their assents comparatively cheaply under their first Act in 1898.

Two years later the price they had to pay for the assents of local authorities to a group of tramways in the Twickenham, Teddington and Hampton district was £202,000, or £16,000 a mile. The requirements imposed on the company took the form of "wayleaves" and of street improvements, the greater part of the latter being entirely apart from the actual needs of the tramway. The improvements in Heath Road, Twickenham, giving a 45-ft. roadway, cost for properties and works alone some £30,000. A like sum had to be spent in Hampton and Hampton Wick, where the work done included the setting back of the entire frontage of the Royal Deer Park of Bushey.

In 1901 the company sought for powers to construct twelve miles of tramway in Kingston-upon-Thames and neighbourhood. On this occasion the "concessions" wrung from [ 460 ]them by the local authorities amounted to £66,000 for street improvements, £20,000 for bridges, and a further £68,000, capitalised value of annual payments for so-called "wayleaves." This made a total of £154,000, or £12,800 per mile, merely for assents to the construction of their lines. The details of the account included a sum of £1500 extorted by an urban district council as "a contribution towards some town improvement, not necessarily on the company's proposed line of route, but anywhere in their district the council might desire."

One item to which the company had to agree in 1902, before they could obtain an Act authorising them to build another thirteen miles of tramway, was the construction at Barnes of an embankment and terrace along the river side. It made a very pleasant promenade, and was certainly an addition to the amenities of the neighbourhood; but it cost the tramway company £40,000. The "price" of local authorities' assents for these thirteen miles of line worked out thus: Street improvements (properties and works), £72,000; Barnes Boulevard, £40,000; "wayleaves" (capitalised), £100,000; a total of £412,000, or £31,600 per mile.

Altogether, in the four years, 1898-1902, the total expenditure of the company on street and bridge improvements in respect to less than fifty miles of tramway amounted to £745,000; and although, to a certain extent, the widenings, etc., were necessary for electric tramway purposes, "the bulk of the expenditure under this head," Sir Clifton declared, "was undertaken with a view to conciliate the local authorities, or was forced upon us by them as the 'price of their assents.'" To this £745,000 was to be added £241,000, the capitalised value, at five per cent, of the "wayleaves" the company had also agreed to pay, making a total of £986,500, irrespective altogether of the cost of construction and equipment of the lines.

When, in 1904, the company proposed to construct still another twenty-one miles of tramway in the western suburbs of London, "they recognised their obligations to the local and county authorities," Sir Clifton said, by proposing to undertake street, road and bridge widenings which would have cost them £217,932. They thought this a sufficiently generous "price" to pay for permission to provide the district with [ 461 ]improved transport facilities. Instead of being satisfied, the local authorities made demands which would have involved the company in a further expenditure of £642,630, making a total of £860,562. One urban district council included in its demands the construction by the tramway company of public lavatories and a subway. In a district where the company were prepared to spend £30,000 on road improvements the county council demanded a carriageway of forty feet and wood paving throughout six and a half miles of country roads, involving the expenditure of a further £30,000.

Rather than submit to all these exactions the company abandoned their Bill. They had already abandoned sixty miles of proposed tramway extensions "owing," said Sir Clifton, "to the demands or the uncompromising attitude of the local authorities," although many of these lines would have been valuable connections with the existing tramway system, and would have served in no small degree the traffic needs of the districts concerned.

"It is not too much to say," added Sir Clifton Robinson, in concluding his statement, "that instead of giving such proposals sympathetic consideration, if not practical encouragement, the attitude assumed by the average local authority of to-day is one of hostility, inspired by a desire to extort the uttermost farthing from promoters."

In the face of experiences, or the prospect of experiences, such as these, many would-be promoters of tramway enterprise developed a natural reluctance to put their own money, or to try to induce other people to put theirs, into the business; and even some American financiers, who thought we were much too slow in tramway matters in this country, and came over here with the combined idea of showing us how to do things and of exploiting us to their own advantage, abandoned their plans and went home again when they got to understand the bearing of our legislative enactments on the situation.

So, as time went on, the local authorities had greater excuse than ever for constructing the tramways themselves; and most of the principal urban centres built lines of their own, sooner or later.

That there have been certain resemblances between State policy towards the railways and State policy towards the [ 462 ]tramways may have been already noticed by the reader. Just as the one was primarily based on suspicion and distrust due to the earlier action of the canal companies, so was the other inspired by what were regarded as the shortcomings of gas and water companies. Just, also, as the local authorities, while not aiding the railways at all, were given authority to levy an abnormal taxation on them, so have they been given a free hand to exploit the tramway companies in making them pay a heavy price for assents to their enterprises. The story of tramways, again, like that not only of railways but of canals and of turnpike roads, shows the same early lack of centralised effort with a view to securing a national system; and this piecemeal growth of tramways, rather than of a tramway system, was, undoubtedly, fostered in proportion as (1) discouragement was given to private companies, which could have operated without respect to borough boundaries and county areas, and (2) tramway construction drifted more into the hands of local authorities, whose powers did not go beyond the borders of their own particular districts.

While recognising these resemblances, one must admit that the handicapping of the tramway companies has been far more severe than that of the railway companies, by reason of the power of absolute veto possessed by local authorities in regard to tramway schemes, and the use they have made of it. Parliament certainly never foresaw the extent of such use, or abuse, when it granted the said power of veto; and the practices in question, like the operation of tramways by the local authorities themselves, were due to a policy of drift and "leave alone" rather than to deliberate intention or expressed approval on the part of the Legislature. The misfortune is that when the new developments in tramways occurred, or that when the abuses arose and the innovations were introduced, Parliament did not revise its legislation to meet the new conditions. The Royal Commission on London Traffic reported in 1905 in favour of the abolition of the power of veto, saying: "We consider it unreasonable that any one portion of a district should be in a position to put a stop to the construction of a general system of tramways required for the public benefit, without even allowing the case to be presented for the consideration of Parliament.... It appears to us that instead of a 'veto' it would be sufficient that local and [ 463 ]road authorities should have a locus standi to appear before the proposed Traffic Board and Parliament, in opposition to any tramway scheme within their districts, by whomsoever such tramway scheme might be promoted." But nothing has yet been done in the way of carrying this recommendation into effect.

The proportions in which street and road tramways and light railways in the United Kingdom were owned by (a) local authorities and (b) companies and private individuals respectively in 1909-10 are shown by the following table, taken from official returns:—


BELONGING TO NUMBER OF
UNDERTAKINGS.
LENGTH
OPEN FOR
TRAFFIC.
CAPITAL
EXPENDITURE ON
LINES AND WORKS
OPEN FOR TRAFFIC.
TOTAL
EXPENDITURE
ON CAPITAL
ACCOUNT.
0M.0Ch. £ £
Local authorities 176 1710017 36,807,264 49,568,775
Companies, &c. 124 0851034 19,294,077 24,372,884
—— ———— ————— —————
Totals 300 2561051 56,101,341 73,941,659


To this table I might append the following statistics as to the operation of street and road tramways and light railways in the United Kingdom in 1909-10:—


Capital authorised £93,124,187
Capital paid up £73,260,225
Number of horses 2,365
Number of locomotive engines 31
Number of cars:
Electric 11,749
Non-electric 601
Total number of passengers carried 2,743,189,439
Quantity of electrical energy used (Board of Trade unit) 483,671,806
Gross receipts £13,077,901
Working expenditure £8,132,114
Net receipts £4,945,787
Appropriations:—
Interest or dividends £1,913,872
Repayment of debt or sinking fund £1,133,134
Relief of rates £346,274
Added to Common Good funds £54,028
Aid from rates £64,215


It will have been seen from the table given above that the total length of tramways and light railways owned by local authorities is double the length of those owned by companies; [ 464 ]but, in the circumstances already narrated, the cause for surprise is, rather, that private companies should have been sufficiently bold or enterprising to do as much in the way of tramway construction as they have.

To the tramway patron it may seem to be a matter of no great concern whether the tramways are owned and operated by local authorities or by companies, provided they are satisfactory; and there may even appear to be various advantages on the side of public ownership of what, since the public streets and roads are used, may be regarded as essentially a public service.

There have, however, been many suggestions that municipal tramways are too often managed on lines involving a disregard of commercial principles, and that much of the financial success claimed for them is due less to real "profits" than to the omission from the expenditure side of their accounts of inconvenient items which, if included therein, would show much less favourable results than those desired. Thus it has been represented from time to time by opponents of "municipal trading"—who have advanced many facts and figures in proof of their assertions—that large sums of money spent on street widenings for tramway purposes—that is to say, sums which a tramway company would pay from its capital account, and put down as costs of construction—are omitted from the municipal tramway accounts and classed under the head of "public improvements," to be covered out of the local rates. The general practice is to debit a third of such expenditure to the tramway, the other two-thirds coming out of the rates; but the critics allege that, in some instances, a far greater proportion even than the two-thirds has been left to be defrayed by the general ratepayer.[3] It is further alleged that inadequate amounts are set aside for depreciation, and that the sums allowed for the use of the central office and the services of the central staff may be considerably less than the figures which ought to be allocated thereto, if the municipal tramway business were really conducted on business lines.

[ 465 ]Whatever the actual position may be in regard to these matters of account, which the financial experts may be left to decide, it has long been a question (1) whether it would not have been better either from the early days of street tramways or, at least, from the time when electric tramways were introduced, to have given a greater degree of encouragement to private enterprise; and (2) whether, assuming it was necessary, or desirable, that local authorities should own the tramways, it would not have been more prudent to arrange with private companies for their operation, as is done, for example, in the case of the light railway system in Belgium. On this latter point the Royal Commission on London Traffic say in their report (1905):—

"We think it reasonable that some profit should be derived from the tramways for the benefit of the municipality, but it does not follow that the best way of securing the largest profit will be that the municipality, even if it finds the money for construction, should undertake the task of operating. In other countries it is not unusual for municipalities to construct, purchase or otherwise acquire the tramways, but in such cases the actual working is generally left to operating companies, with provision for proper rates and general control. It is claimed that such methods yield a better financial result to municipalities, and avoid difficulties which might arise from municipal authorities carrying on a business of this kind on a large scale."

To-day we have the further question whether electric tramways, which have always constituted a more or less speculative business, have not attained the height of their possible development, and whether they are not already on their decline in face of other systems more efficient or, at least, less costly and less cumbersome.

The whole history of transport shows constant change and progress, the achievements of one generation or the "records" of one pioneer being only the starting-point of fresh advance or of still greater triumphs later on. Electric tramways themselves were, undoubtedly, as great an improvement on horse tramways as the drawing of vehicles by horses along a pair of rails had already been an advance on locomotion over the rough and rugged surfaces of badly made streets or roads. But electric tramways did not necessarily constitute finality, [ 466 ]and local authorities who built them as though for eternity are now faced by the rivalry of the motor-omnibus.

Motor-omnibuses are still to a certain extent in the experimental stage, since no one would suggest that they have yet attained to the greatest possible perfection, while further improvements in them are constantly being announced. Yet already their number has enormously increased, and they are not only competing severely with the tramway but threatening eventually to supersede it. The motor-omnibus requires no special track, no overhead wires, no power station and sub-stations, and no costly widenings of streets and roads or rebuilding of bridges. Consequently, the capital expenditure involved in the provision of a large stock of motor-omnibuses is far less, in proportion, than that entailed by electric tramways providing an equivalent service. The motor-omnibus, too, has greater freedom in a busy thoroughfare—and is thus quicker in its movements—than the tramway car, limited to a fixed track and much more liable to be detained by blocks of traffic. The motor-bus, again, can readily be transferred from one route to another where greater traffic is likely to be found, whereas the tramway, once laid, must remain where it is, whether the takings are satisfactory or not; while another material factor in the case of an electric tramway, namely, that owing to the cost of the standing equipment (power house, etc.), a fifteen-minute service is, generally speaking, the lowest economic limit,[4] does not arise in the case of the motor-omnibus, which can be run according to the actual requirements of traffic.

Still greater attention is now being paid to the subject of motor-omnibuses, inasmuch as the discouragement given to the provision of electric tramways by commercial companies—by reason of the exactions levied as the price of assents or because of the preference shown for municipal ownership—has driven private enterprise to seek alternative methods in supplying facilities for street and road traffic with the prospect of a reasonable return on the capital invested; and one ideal in these alternative methods naturally is, in the circumstances, that they should involve a minimum of possible control by the local authorities. If, in the result, private enterprise, thus driven to adopt new expedients in locomotion, should so far [ 467 ]perfect a motor-omnibus, or any other alternative service, that the electric tramway will not only have a powerful competitor but be largely superseded, the position of the municipalities which first sought to exclude or to exploit private enterprise and then invested large sums in speculative tramway undertakings of their own will be sufficiently serious.

While, on the one hand, certain local authorities which have no municipal tramways are now establishing municipal motor-omnibuses—showing in this practical manner their own view of the respective claims of the two systems—others, with the intention of safeguarding the interests of their tramway undertakings rather than of securing greater transport facilities for the public, are renewing towards the motor-omnibus, as a direct competitor with municipal tramways, the hostility shown by the canal companies towards the railways when the probability of the former being supplanted by the latter began to be realised; though it is, of course, now no longer a matter simply of one set of commercial companies competing with another.

A further rival to the electric tramway is arising in the system of railless electric traction, the fundamental principle of which is the application of electric power, derived from overhead wires, to electric cars, resembling motor-omnibuses (or alternatively, to goods lorries and vans), driven on ordinary roads without rails, and capable of being steered in and out of the traffic over the whole width of the roadway.

The advantages claimed for the system are (1) that the cost of installation is only from one-fourth to one-third of the average cost of British tramways per mile of route, the permanent way of the latter being responsible for from two-thirds to three-quarters of the capital expenditure, while maintenance of tramway lines is also very expensive; (2) that costly street widenings are avoided; (3) that Bills for railless electric traction projects can be laid before Parliament without first obtaining the assent of the local authorities; (4) that such traction can be profitably installed in towns having populations insufficient to support a tramway, or having streets unsuitable for tramway rails; (5) that it is especially useful for linking up outlying districts with tramways and railways; for developing country and seaside places; for the conveyance of agricultural produce from rural districts [ 468 ]to neighbouring towns or the nearest railway; and for the transport of goods or minerals to or from railway stations or harbours over the same routes as passengers; (6) that the cars are more reliable and cheaper to operate than petrol, petrol-electric, steam or battery-driven vehicles; and (7) that inasmuch as the running of railless electric traction is practically noiseless, house property is not likely to be depreciated in value as in the case of the tramway.

The disadvantages of the system as compared with the motor-bus are (1) that the railless electric traction bus can only run along streets which have been provided with overhead wires; (2) that, even allowing for the absence of rails, the expense involved in overhead wires and power stations will still be necessary, as in the case of a tramway; (3) that by reason of the standing expenses, and in order to utilise the electric current to the best advantage, a frequent service will have to be maintained, whether the traffic really warrants it or not, whereas the motor-omnibus can be brought out and run only at such hours of the day as remunerative traffic is likely to be obtained; and (4) that railless electric traction goods vans or lorries—being able to go only along certain streets, and being unable even there to load or unload, inasmuch as these operations would prevent other railless cars from passing—would be less better adapted for urban trading purposes than commercial motors.

Railless electric traction seems to have been first adopted at Grevenbruck, Westphalia, in 1903, and since that date it has been resorted to in various other places on the Continent. In this country, apart from a short experimental line constructed at the Hendon depôt of the Metropolitan Electric Tramways, the first applications of railless traction have been at Leeds and Bradford, where, following on the obtaining of Parliamentary powers in 1910, municipal railless electric traction systems were formally opened in June, 1911, the system adopted being that of the Railless Electric Traction Construction Company, Ltd. In each case the railless traction supplements the existing municipal tramway.

At Leeds the tramway route from the City Square is followed for about a mile, and then, with the help of a special set of wires, the new system diverges, and continues to a point three miles further on; though the Parliamentary [ 469 ]powers allow of a still further extension to the city boundary. At Bradford the railless system establishes a link a little over a mile in length between two tramway routes.

In the Session of 1911 there were about sixteen Bills before Parliament applying for powers in respect to railless traction. Some of these were promoted by local authorities, one or two were by tramway companies, one was by an omnibus company, and the remainder were schemes by various private promoters.

Municipal corporations already owning and operating tramways would seem to favour the railless electric traction system because it enables them (1) to utilise to greater advantage the electric power they are already generating for tramway purposes; and (2) to provide transport facilities for parts of their district where, as is said, the traffic prospects would not warrant the laying of a tramway. It is open to consideration, however, whether the recognition by municipalities of the advantages of railless electric traction over the tramway does not itself foreshadow the eventual doom of the latter, apart altogether from any considerations that arise in respect to the motor-omnibus. It is certainly significant that in his presidential address to the ninth annual conference of the Municipal Tramways Association, in September, 1910, the general manager of the Bradford Corporation Tramways, Mr C. J. Spencer, is reported to have said:—

"In considering future developments the trackless trolley system naturally comes first into view. The introduction of this new method of transit into this country ... will undoubtedly extend the sphere of usefulness of the trolley system. The tramway construction boom stopped, not because every district that required better facilities was supplied, but because financial reasons made it impossible to proceed any further into districts unable to support a capital expenditure of £14,000 to £15,000 per mile of tramway laid.... The railless system, however, comes along with a vehicle as reliable as a tramcar, and at least as cheap to operate, but with a capital expenditure on street work so low that the bugbear of heavy interest and sinking fund charges is practically nonexistent."

It remains to be seen to what extent companies or corporations will be likely to start entirely new and independent schemes of railless electric traction, setting up power-houses, [ 470 ]etc., for the purpose, in preference to running motor-buses or commercial motor vehicles. This will be the real test of the respective merits of the two systems, apart from any further utilisation of existing tramway power stations; and it is always to be remembered that still greater improvements in self-propelled buses, vans, etc., will certainly be brought about. There is certainly significance, in this connection, in the following report, published in the "Engineering Supplement" of "The Times" of November 8, 1911:—

"The Tramways Committee of the Edinburgh Corporation have decided that nothing further is to be done for the present in connection with the proposal to adopt rail-less tramways for the city and district, in view of information which they have obtained regarding an improved type of petrol-electric omnibus which has been introduced in London. In the latter class of vehicle, they are informed, many of the disadvantages of the motor-omnibus as hitherto known have been overcome, and they consider that it would be prudent to await further developments before taking any action with regard to rail-less tramways."

Whatever the eventual issue of the rivalry between the two new systems themselves, the fact that they have been introduced at all would seem to confirm the assumption that in the dictionary of transport there is no such word as "finality." We are also left to conclude—

(1) That in the struggle between governing authorities and private enterprise the last word is not always with the former;

(2) That the resort by local authorities both to motor-omnibuses and to railless electric traction suggests that, even in their opinion, electric tramways are being improved upon, even if they have not already had their day;

(3) That the municipalities which checked the development of tramways by private companies—from whom an assured return might have been gained—and themselves spent, in the aggregate, many millions of public money on a form of municipal enterprise yielding doubtful results, involving great liabilities, and now, apparently, being superseded by superior systems, may eventually find abundant reason for regretting their past policy; and

(4) That when local governing authorities do enter upon speculative commercial enterprises, they cannot, any more than [ 471 ]commercial companies, set up the plea of "vested interests" as against new-comers in the march of progress, but must themselves also submit to economic laws, and run the risks which commercial undertakings, even under municipal direction, necessarily involve.




  1. When the Tramways Bill of 1870 was introduced, Mr Shaw Lefevre stated that its underlying principle was to empower local authorities "to construct tramways, but not, of course, work them."
  2. Another of the witnesses was the Right Hon. J. W. Lowther, M.P., at that time Chairman of Committees, and now Speaker of the House of Commons. He assured the Commission that the power of "vetoing" tramways had worked a great deal of mischief. He further declared that the Standing Order had been most improperly used for the purpose of extorting all sorts of terms and conditions from tramway companies, and had subjected them to liabilities and disabilities which were never contemplated by Parliament.
  3. See R. P. Porter's "Dangers of Municipal Trading," pp. 174-5, where it is stated that of over £4,000,000 spent by the London County Council on street widenings for tramway extensions only £377,000 was debited to the tramway undertaking.
  4. "Electricity in Locomotion," by A. G. Whyte, 1911.