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A Lament for Leeds

November 3, 2019

For those of us of a certain age with memories stretching back into the middle of the last century there is a more than just a twinge of nostalgia at the 'back to the future' antics of today's politicians especially at local level in British towns and cities waking up to the advantages of electric powered urban transport.  As the 1950s rolled on so did the lengthening list of transport systems giving up on the tramcar in favour of supposedly more cost effective diesel buses.   Even places which still held firm to the tram's cousin - the trolleybus, such as Ipswich, Walsall, Reading and more - were persuaded by the same old industrial manufacturers of the merits of buses over fixed path electric vehicles.

 

Sunderland, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Belfast, and Leeds all fell foul of bus only hysteria in Council Chambers and professional conferences.   Across the  Channel more prescient minds saw to it that electric trams maintained their lead role in a majority of urban centres, although like the UK,  France and Spain were subject to the same influences resulting in diesel emissions transforming the health of their urban centres - and not for the better.

 

In 2019 the absolute priority for political platforms of all (or nearly all Parties) is attention to the environment and urgency in carbon free energy policies being implemented at rapid pace.   Watch the news coverage of political agenda being churned out daily to get a flavour of how concern for the environment heads the list of policy promises.  

 

Some sixty years ago this month Leeds City Transport - then a municipally controlled transport system under Labour Party control saw completion of its own policy towards that city's future direction by ceremonial rites marking the closure of the last tram routes and their replacement by buses.   The eastern half of the city was favoured by reserved track lines running from outer suburbs into the central district - as was the previously closed line to Middleton in the south.  Tracks were torn up, reservations paved or built over - and what could have become the core of a light rail system in later years was carelessly discarded by edict of a tunnel vision political party dead set against trams from day one of taking control of the Council.   Lip service had been paid to brave efforts of the Transport management to launch modern single deck railcars as a foretaste of a transformed tramway.   This followed on serious plans laid down in the 1930s which intended subways through the central district through which such trams would operate, and thence by reserved tracks to suburban estates.   Both Middleton and the districts accessed along York Road being prime candidates for planners.   

 

Leeds was very much a tram dominated city through the war and its immediate aftermath.  However change of political control in the postwar era saw Labour take power with a mindset of overturning the policies of their Conservative Council predecessors.  The outcome some sixty years later ?  A road pattern that maintains  concreted memorials to the former tram network with wide central reservations briefly espoused for 'Guided Buses' and a second generation trolleybus system.   However none of this has come to pass - nor ever will altho the current crop of planners and Council Members perhaps look enviously across the Pennines where another northern City overcame initial hesitancy to actually instigate a light rail network which expands year on year bringing a vibrancy and modernity in practise.  

 

Elsewhere Birmingham, another city similar to Leeds which threw away its investment in tramway reservations along many urban corridors almost overnight in the immediate postwar years, is now bringing trams back into its impressive centre with a remarkable extension that collects and deposits passengers directly outside a massively redeveloped New Street Station.  At the other end of the current trunk line to Wolverhampton - further extension on street will similarly link directly with that town's main rail station on the West Coast Mainline and other regional services.   Liverpool likewise made a brave stab at bringing back trams with an initial core network amid a flurry of promises made by New Labour - with Deputy PM John Prescott almost ready to press buttons on several schemes - none of which came to pass.  

 

Coming back to Leeds - a city I recall with fondness having visited several times in the twilight years of its trams and experienced the fast riding of cars around Middleton and along York Road to Halton and Temple Newsam.   In fact I rode the very last service car to Temple Newsam on a cold damp and depressing late afternoon ahead of the obligatory civic Last Tram Procession.  The city's leadership was so glad to get the job done it couldn't even summon up the courage to secure the preservation of a momento of the system in the form of its still classic trams - the Horsfields,.nor the imports from the capital 'the Felthams',   By good fortune the efforts of enthusiasts and the just established museum at Crich allowed a handful of Leeds trams to find a safe and secure permanent home.    So a tip of the hat to Leeds at this particular time sixty years on from those sad times.  

 A tantalising glimpse of what might have been for Leeds - at least in the prototype stage of the early 1950s.   Leeds rail car 602 installed on display at the Crich Museum Exhibition Hall.  Not quite up to par with today's standards for light rail -  but at least a step away from the all so traditional trams earlier generations grew up with and accepted as part of their daily lives.    

 

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