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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Trams in the real world

A Dutch interurban of some character - note entrances on trailer and motor unit in service from Den Haag to Delft in the 1960s. The rear end of an HTM PCC on the left.

Some five decades have passed since 'traditional' trams formed an integral part of the lives of working people in towns and cities across the world. It was possible for a travelled observer to immediately identify a particular town or city by the styling and colours of its trams - and in some notable locales this indeed remains the case. Zurich, New Orleans, Hong Kong, Lisbon, Milan, Toronto being examples foremost in ensuring their operations continue with a longevity of livery, if not design, of trams which retain public affection; as well as providing in a mature manner reliable and predictable services over successive generations. Apologies for worn negative emerging from my personal 'snaps'.

The diversity of tram construction with its many variables once uniquely associated with one community and system was accepted as much a part of a town or city, as architectural munificence. Public fondness was underpinned by the way in which their 'street cars' were emblazoned with heraldic coats of arms and distinctive colours associated with a locality. No two systems shared joint 'branding' or common styles of tram design. Witness Sheffield and Rotherham, Gateshead and Newcastle, or Manchester and its multiple inter-running neighbours. In the UK only London, through commonality of joint running achieved something close to standardisation led by London County Council. If anything most British tram systems (the first generation that is) went out of their way to develop distinctive and individual designs, with many trams being locally manufactured viz : Glasgow, Sheffield, Liverpool; thus directly benefitting local employment and retention of crafts and skills in the process.

Below : Trolleypoles on Paderborn's trams - 1920s built cars operated through to the end of that distinctive small town system in 1963.

Particular foibles on the part of transport managers led to a colourful mosaic of widely differing municipal systems, not just in Britain, but across Europe as well as further afield where British influence in such matters held sway. Nowadays all this individual distinction has sadly gone by the board; swept away in a privatised world dominated by a small coterie of equipment suppliers. Where is the affection on the part of daily users of the current menage of light rail systems? Coldly efficient modular vehicles imported from foreign factories and emblazoned with a usually innappropriate alien 'branding' offer the same level of disinterest from the public as railways now in the hands of foreign owners with outrageous and coldly manipulative ticket pricing - the highest in Europe.

What possible linkage or association can there be for the people of Manchester, Rochdale, Bury, Ashton Under Lyne, Salford and many more towns in that great conurbation, with 'Metrolink's nebulous yellow scheme. A bland concept dreamed up in some pr studio now cloaks the entire metropolis with an insipid rendering of sheer awfulness - where once bold fleet colours traversed streets and tracks with more than a dash of civic pride. Not that I am encouraging here a return to Edwardian grandeur of ornate lining out and flourishes. But the clash of then and now is so apparent.

And here in Blackpool where for some god forsaken reason the Council box ticked an anonymous whim to blanket the promenade in dour black purple and white trams lacking the slightest sparkle of seaside delight after the traditional service was done away with in 2011. So much so that whenever one of Bryan's cream and green coloured veterans passes by it inevitably draws comment, cameras and nostalgic sighs. Far less so - the purple and white efforts applied to 1930s double deckers.

Contrasting brands. Blackpool Council's questionable corporate colours as applied to a 1930s designed tram 719 next to Blackpool Corporation green and cream in a more sympathetic approach from the 1990s. Image taken February 12, 2017

All this guff leads me to signposting a most excellent book written by a notable tram (and bus) enthusiast, Robert Jowitt, published half a century ago. A Desire of Tramcars'

relates his travels in both the UK and Europe recording the unique attributes of trams in towns across much of the continent. A time when privatisation and corporate meddling in urban transport was far over the horizon. No academic tome nor full of predictable three quarter images of tram after tram in these pages. A travelogue of people, places and the workaday role of individual systems, both large to extremely small, capture (even in black and white imagery) a now departed era. From Glasgow to Charleroi, Leeds to Neuchatel - the sheer quirkiness and eccentricity of diverse systems captures trams in the real world. No pristine museum pieces or tourist lines (with an odd exception) blemish his wonderful personal odyssey. Not a book to easily come by nowadays, but well worth seeking out online and from those trade stands at rallies and transport events. I wish I could do as good a job as Mr Jowitt.

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