Saturday, 13 June 2015

2 Swansea trams

2. Swansea Trams (photos: Trams in the Uplands and Bryn Road) – 13 June 2015

The disruption seemed endless a few years ago when the layout of Swansea roads was being altered for the Metro or “Bendy Bus”, especially along The Kingsway.  It could hardly compare with the 1870s, however, when roads were being widened and rails laid to introduce horse-drawn trams.  Later there was more disruption, though on a much smaller scale, when those tram rails were removed in 1937.

Street tramways had originated in the United States, prompting Britain’s 1870 Tramways Act which encouraged the provision of urban public transport.  The Swansea Improvements and Tramway Company was established in 1873, and empowered by an Act of Parliament a year later.  The Company widened streets, demolished Island House at the top of Wind Street, constructed Alexandra Road and Prince of Wales Road, and widened Hafod Bridge. 

From April 1878 horse-drawn trams ran north from the High Street to Morriston, and a few months later west to St Helens, later adding a route to Cwmbwrla.  Each tramcar was pulled by a pair of horses, with three pairs being needed each day.  The horse teams would be changed around midday, and again in the early evening.  The tram depot was in lower St Helens Road, on the site of the present Crown Court, with stables, blacksmiths and a body shop.  Initially ten tramcars were shipped in from North America, though tramcars were later assembled at the St Helen’s Road depot.  The busiest route was from Swansea High Street to the terminus at The Duke in Neath Road, Morriston.

The “Improvements” element in the Company’s name allowed scope for building a place of entertainment, which opened in the newly-built Prince of Wales Road in 1888.  Originally called the Swansea Pavilion it is now the Palace Theatre, in a sad state of dereliction. 

But horse-drawn trams encountered problems with steep gradients, especially on the Cwmbwrla route, and passengers sometimes needed to alight and walk before a steep hill.  In spite of objections it was hoped that steam locomotion would be the solution.  Three Hughes Locomotive engines for use by the Mumbles Railway were brought into service, and housed in a new depot built at Cwmbwrla.  There were even plans to use steam locomotion on the Morriston line, but after two years this method of transport was abandoned, for the steam engines were too unreliable.  Additional horses were purchased to assist on the gradients.

The gradient problem was overcome when the Company was taken over by British Electric Traction, for in 1900 Swansea became the first town in Wales to use electric traction.  The four initial routes were from High Street to Morriston, High Street to Cwmbwrla, along Alexandra Road to the Docks, and along Gower Street (now part of the Kingsway) to St Helen’s.  That route had no low bridges so it could use an open-top double-decker, but other routes were limited to single-decker tramcars.

With electrification there was a dramatic increase in passenger numbers, from 2.5 million for the last year of horse-drawn trams, to 4.5 million when they were electrified in 1900.  Regular stopping places along the routes for boarding or leaving trams were now introduced, instead of the informal stopping arrangements with horse-drawn trams.

After the First World War motor buses were used to feed the tram routes from outlying districts, which indicated the future direction for urban public transport.  The Company’s directors formed the South Wales Transport Company, which in 1927 took over the parent company: this led inevitably to trams being replaced by motor buses.  The final tram ran in June 1937 as the motor buses took over, foreshadowing a similar fate for the Mumbles Railway in January 1960, but that is another story.     

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