Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The tramways of London and environs

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It is now thirty years since I beheld the first attempt at steam-locomotives on common roads on the trial of Mr. Goldsworthy Gurney’s steam-coach round the Regent’s Park. It was a strange-looking machine, on four wheels, with a pair of supplementary wheels in front, to serve as a steering-apparatus. I watched all the subsequent doings of Maceroni, Oyle, and Sumner, Scott Russell, Hancock, and others, and came to the conclusion that the whole scheme was a practical fallacy—an opinion I have never seen reason to change. The fallacy consisted, and consists still, in attempting to propel a heavy machine by means of revolving wheels on an irregular surface of broken stone, or an irregular surface of paving. Regarding the machines themselves, very considerable results were achieved, more probably than has been achieved on regular railways, taking into account the respective qualities of the roads they run on. And the modern attempts in the form of what are called traction-engines, embody the same fallacy—all, save that of Boydell, which carries and lays down its own rails to provide a hard and even surface for the wheels to run on. The whole difficulty consists, not in the steam-machine, but in the road it runs on—and this conviction, I have, for more than twenty years, in public and private, in season and out of season, endeavoured to impress upon the general mind of the community. It has been my aim to convert the common roads and highways to the purposes of steam-locomotion without interfering with any existing traffic. It was the existence of these roads that set the highway locomotives at work, and finally has led to tramways, the fact of which as applied to passenger-traffic in England, has been established at Birkenhead by an American speculator, stimulating Lancashire capitalists.

By a modern tramway is understood a railway, with the rails so laid on the surface of an ordinary road that they will not interfere with the traffic of ordinary vehicles, and on which omnibuses may travel at ordinary speed with the advantage that, by the improved surface, one horse is enabled to do more than the work of four on levels, and of two on ordinary inclines. The rail is, in short, a continuous “level crossing,” which no more impedes ordinary traffic than do the sunken iron gutters in Fleet Street impede pedestrians.

This kind of way began, practically, in the United States, when it was found convenient to pass railway-trains through, instead of round the towns. As a concession to popular fear, the locomotive was at first taken off, and its place supplied by a team of horses. Custom making it familiar, and economy rendering it desirable to get rid of the horses, the locomotives did their work at a slow pace. Then a gibbet was placed across the line on which a bell hung, which the locomotive rung in passing, and a notice being posted up—“Look out for the engine when the bell rings”—all further precaution was abandoned.

Starting thus, it was not a very difficult process to apply to streets for internal transit, and so rails were laid up one narrow street and down another to preserve a continuous circulation of omnibus-traffic. Street omnibuses were a mere imitation of railway-cars—very far from what they might be in the way of easy draught—but answering the purpose, after the usual habit of a Yankee’s thought, who goes to plough in a dress-suit, and guesses “what’s good enough for my legs is good enough for my trauwses.” After some years practice in the States, a Frenchman carried the scheme to Paris with all its imperfections, and, I believe, it still goes on there. But to inoculate England with it required a genuine American, and he appeared in the person of Mr. Train, who showed energetically the good folks of Birkenhead the paying chance of the scheme. It is impossible that this result should fail to be followed in London.

It must be understood that a properly laid rail will not, in any way, interfere with the ordinary uses of the street or road—that it will only be a stripe of iron paving substituted for stone—it will subserve all the purposes of wheels running on it, but will not prevent wheels from being turned off it at any point required, without needing the expensive and troublesome appliances called switches and turn-tables used on railways proper. The movement on it may be almost noiseless if rightly managed; the speed may be increased while a larger proportioned load is drawn, and the facility of stoppage, and the resulting safety doubled. The result of this would be an economy equivalent to one half the value of the horses in capital and maintenance, and a greatly increased economy in the maintenance of the road.

This enormous saving will go into the pockets either of the public or the capitalist, or go to increase the wages of drivers and conductors, and other people employed, or be divided amongst all three. Anyhow, it will be a mode of accumulating capital by savings, and no railway yet constructed offers anything approaching the dividend which may be obtained from these new lines if rightly constructed. The obvious reason is, that the roads are ready made to hand without the difficulties and expenses besetting new lines. Gradually the old vehicles will be superseded by the new, and there is yet a farther consideration—the horse will be superseded by the machine driven by steam or some other power. But there is yet more. In the United States horse-railways are simply, as their name implies, street-railways—the ordinary railways supply the other wants of transit. But in England street-railways will be merely the commencement of highway and turnpike roads supplying a want which most ordinary steam-railways do not subserve. For road purposes it is needful to stop and take up at frequent intervals, and trains are not required, but merely single carriages answering the purpose that stage coaches formerly subserved, but with doubled or trebled power of accommodation. All Kent and Surrey and Essex need these lines, and their making would largely increase the value of the property along their borders; but unfortunately this cannot be till an Act of Parliament shall have amalgamated the trusts, or till the parish authorities shall be of one mind. The mechanical question there is no need to argue. If the proper form of rail be adopted, it will simply have the effect of an iron banding inlaid in stone, as plain as the brass banding round a portable writing-desk, and the paving board of a parish has as much right to lay a piece of iron as of wood or stone paving, subject only to actions for damages if their mode of paving inflicts personal injury on passengers,—and laying a tramway in Parliament Street could not be more mischievous than the tramway on Westminster Bridge. But something far better than the existing railway carriages is required to produce the best result in traction and convenience to the passengers.

The cost of these railways made in the most perfect manner need not exceed 800l. per mile, and the low cost is the true reason why engineers generally have not thought it worth while to turn their attention to them. The carriages should be nearly noiseless and free from vibration, in which case the dead weight may be materially lessened. The carriages, besides, must be capable of running on the ordinary road, and leaving the rails or running on them at the pleasure of the driver.

One argument against the system has been founded on the supposition of danger to the public by reason of a street-railway. This arises simply from the term “railway,” and the supposed speed involved. But the risk of a railway-omnibus is really far less than that of an ordinary omnibus, from the fact that it runs on a fixed track, and that passengers know what part of the road to avoid, and the breaks applied to the rail-omnibus afford the means of stopping much more rapidly.

With regard to the lines fit for these rails, they exist wherever omnibuses run. Two great radial centres are the Bank and the Obelisk. Others are the railway terminus, Paddington, to the Bank by the two routes—the City Road and Oxford Street and Holborn—Richmond and the line of road to Charing Cross—the line from the Bank to Epping Forest, which should be for ever kept as a wild park to Londoners, or as a ground for shooters to practice in. Across all the bridges to the Surrey hills, destined hereafter to become a southern London, and so in time to give the chance for the low swamps covered by unwholesome dwellings to be again converted to garden-ground.

Say that a thousand miles may be laid down with rails in London and its environs, what would be the best way of accomplishing it? The Parish trusts would not embark capital in it. But it would be a good speculation for a company of capitalists to furnish the rails, and lay them, and keep them in repair per mile, and thus enable the parishes to take a toll on the omnibuses, which would enable them to dispense with a paving rate. Or if they could not legally take a toll, they could make an equivalent bargain by transferring the cost of paving to the rail owners. Only let there be a will and the “way” will follow.

W. Bridges Adams.