I saw a Blackpool tram on the Embarcadero in San Francisco today. The destination on the side said “Tower“. At first I was dumb-struck and then I thought “That’s a bloody long way on a tram!”

Blackpool Boat Tram

I particularly liked the description of San Francisco’s Blackpool tram on the Market Street Railway website Every time I read it I hear Fred Dibnah‘s accent.

In England, “trolleys” are shopping carts. This is a “tram” and a special one at that….”

The tram drivers on the newly extended F-line that runs the length of Market Street and then along the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf seem to like this tram. At lunchtime they park a few trams outside the newly renovated ferry building at the end of Market Street and all sit in the Blackpool tram to chat and eat. It really is quite a site. It’s even illuminated! For those who don’t know the Blackpool illuminations are a national institution in the UK and date back to the days when electric street lights were such a novelty that people would travel miles to see them.

Anyway all this got me thinking about trams and more particularly their rise, fall and recent resurrection as a serious form of public transportation.

In the UK Trams were introduced in the late 1800′s. Manchester, for example, had its first horse drawn tram in 1877. Steam power was tried for a while but rapidly replaced with electricity at the turn of the century. By 1927 British tramways as a whole operated 14,481 cars on 4110 km of track. The internal combustion engine soon proved a more flexible power source. Busses did not require expensive track or electrical power supply systems and private automobiles delivered the ultimate in personal transportation flexibility, not to mention increased social standing. After the second world war the automobile came within the financial reach of the average person and the trams were slowly phased out. The last tram in Manchester ran in January 1949, on the Manchester to Hazel Grove route. Its number was 1007.

By the 1970′s and 1980′s the automobile had became ubiquitous in many cities in the developed world. These cities became severely congested during the morning and evening rush hours. The virtues of the old trams that had been scrapped in the 1950′s slowly became self-evident. A well organized and run public transport system based on trams can carry greater numbers of people with more efficiency in and out of major cities than open access to private motor cars can support. This is definitely true of the relatively compact cities developed before the motor car but the sprawling cities developed since its invention, like Los Angeles and Phoenix, can probably never be saved.

Trams returned to Manchester with the opening of the Metrolink in 1992 the first test run through the City streets was made by vehicle number 1007. The Metrolink has proved so successful that other UK Cities are following Manchester’s lead and reviving tram systems.

railway-technology.com lists 41 current light railway systems being built in cities around the world.

I think the trend of rebuilding tram systems in major cities is a response to the way automobile congestion affects transportation networks. All commuters act out of self-interest by trying to shorten their journeys both in duration and distance. By having their own single or double occupancy vehicles commuters also have the convenience of traveling to a particular location at a time that is convenient for them. This strategy is more efficient than top down regulated systems of multiple occupancy vehicles with limited routes (Busses). But only up to a point. That point is somewhere just short of gridlock when journey time increase significantly. Here it becomes more efficient to travel together in multiple occupancy vehicles on a limited number of routes. Or at least it would be if everyone did so, the problem is that multiple occupancy vehicles get caught in the same traffic. There are two main ways of solving this problem.

  1. Reduce traffic by punishing travelers for using selfish, low occupancy, modes of transportation. London’s new tax on entering the city in an automobile is exactly this type of punishment.
  2. Provide segregated routes for multiple occupancy vehicles. Bus lanes, car pool lanes, and segregated tram lines all provide this form of advantage. This still leaves the question of why trams and not busses? A debate that appears to have been going on for years with no clear conclusion.

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Published on February 16, 2011