The Rise and Fall of Rail Based Transport in Bristol 1824-1941
1) Trains Part 1 (1824-1840) Temple Meads Station – location, location, location.
The first railways in the Bristol area were powered by a combination of horse and gravity, and were designed to transport coal from the South Gloucestershire coalfield to the river Avon. The first, the Avon and Gloucestershire, carried coal from Coalpit Heath and other collieries down to the Avon at Londonderry Wharf (opposite Keynsham) where barges carried the coal along the Avon to either Bristol or Bath. Much of this route is now a linear walk known as the Dramway.
The Bristol and Gloucestershire was also a horse-drawn railway which carried coal from the collieries at Coalpit Heath, Shortwood and elsewhere to Cuckold's Pill (Avon Street Wharf). North of Mangotsfield it used much the same track as the Avon and Gloucestershire before following the route of what is now the Bristol and Bath Railway Path to central Bristol. This railway was opened in 1835.
When plans were first laid for a steam-powered railway line connecting Bristol to London (the first proposals were as early as 1824), there was much discussion as to where the Bristol terminus should be built. Many suggested that it should be near Old Market on the basis that it could make use of the existing railway infrastructure of the Bristol and Gloucestershire.
Another body of opinion suggested a site should be found nearer the City Docks in order to provide direct access to the port so that goods, the real commercial impetus for the railways, could be transferred directly from the railway to the ships - this was the solution taken by Bristol's great commercial rival Liverpool.
However, both options required the reuse of brownfield sites and demolition of existing buildings and structures, which in turn would involve some additional costs. In the 19th century just as today, greenfield sites were usually more profitable to develop than brownfield sites. In the end, ease of development took precedence over ease of inter-connectivity and a greenfield site at Temple Meads on the south side of the river next to the cattlemarket was selected as the Bristol terminus for the Great Western Railway.
As a result, following the opening of the new station the biggest growth industry in Bristol was that of the hauliers as goods were unloaded and trans-shipped by traditional horse and cart between railway and dock. By contrast, in Liverpool goods could be offloaded directly from the railway carriages into the holds of the waiting ships.
It would not be until 1872 that direct connection to the docks was provided with the opening of the first stage of the Bristol Harbour Railway from Temple Meads to Wapping Wharf (including the building of a tunnel under St Mary Redcliffe, the compensation for which allowed the church to purchase land at Arno's Vale for a cemetery). It would be 1906 before the majority of the City Docks would have a direct rail connection by which time the focus for Bristol's shipping trade was moving to Avonmouth and Portishead.
2) Trains Part 2 (1839-1854) The Gauge War - technological brilliance vs commercial pragmatism
As we have seen, there was already a railway line in Bristol before the Great Western Railway was constructed, and like almost all other railway lines in England, it was Narrow Gauge with a width between the rails of 4 foot 8 ½ inches.
Nevertheless, the GWR was convinced, largely due to the arguments of their chief engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, that Narrow Gauge was technically deficient and that a superior 7 foot Broad Gauge should be used by the GWR. The GWR accepted Brunel's arguments and proceeded to use Broad Gauge for its routes. Pretty much everybody else stayed with Narrow Gauge. Bristol and the West would thus plough a separate furrow from the rest of the country and once more the question of interchange was deemed to be of secondary importance.
Meanwhile, in 1839, an Act of Parliament had provided for the building of a 22 mile extension of the Bristol and Gloucestershire railway from Westerleigh to meet the Cheltenham and Great Western Union railway which ran to Gloucester.
The Bristol and Gloucestershire railway line, as we have seen, was Narrow Gauge. The Cheltenham and Great Western Union railway was Broad Gauge. At a meeting in Bristol on 31 March 1840, the now renamed Bristol and Gloucester railway company announced that the new extension would be Narrow Gauge to match the Birmingham and Gloucester railway due to open that same year. Where the new extension met the CGWU at Standish junction, the shared line on to Gloucester would be mixed gauge with shared maintenance and duplicated facilities. Bristol and Gloucester also announced plans to amalgamate with the Birmingham and Gloucester to form the Bristol and Birmingham railway – the merger eventually happened in 1844.
However, on 13 April 1843, it was suddenly announced that an agreement had been reached with the GWR that the entire line from Bristol to Gloucester would, in fact, now be Broad Gauge. Subsequently, Broad Gauge services from Bristol to Gloucester began in 1844. However, services north of Gloucester into the industrial powerhouse of Birmingham and the west midlands remained Narrow Gauge.
The result was chaos. Goods shipped from the west midlands by Narrow Gauge had to be trans-shipped by hand across the platform at Gloucester to the Broad Gauge trains waiting to depart to Bristol. Not only did this cause delays, but frequently goods were lost or damaged during transit. A system designed by Brunel to facilitate the transfer failed for reasons that were never properly identified but industrial sabotage was implied.
Whatever the cause of the chaos, if you were a manufacturer in Birmingham the choice for shipping goods overseas was fairly simple. You could send your goods to Liverpool where the route was entirely Narrow Gauge (thus no need for trans-shipping) and where the railways continued right up to the dockside for direct loading, or you could send them to Bristol, where the change in gauge would mean they had to be trans-shipped at Gloucester before arriving at Temple Meads where they would be trans-shipped again before arriving dockside.
Within a year of opening the entire route from Birmingham to Bristol passed into the hands of the Midland Railway. However, it was only in 1854 that the entire length of the line was converted to the same, narrow, gauge - it appears that conversion was not a priority for the Midland Railway probably because the overwhelming majority of its goods traffic now went to Liverpool not Bristol.
3) Trams Part 1 (1870-1875) – market driven or public service?
Before the 19th century, provincial British cities were small enough that urban transport was not considered to be a major need. The small size of most cities meant that residence, workplace and other amenities were within a short walking distance of each other.
However, as cities began to sprawl into suburbs in the 19th century, the need for efficient urban transportation became apparent. Horse-drawn omnibuses began to make an appearance in Britain in the 1830's but remained beyond the means of most ordinary people due to high operating and maintenance costs.
It was only in the second half of the century, when it was realised that the use of tramlines to reduce friction allowed the same team of horses to pull double the weight (and thus double the passengers per horsepower), that the possibility of cheap but efficient public transport became a possibility. The new horse-drawn trams also provided a step change in the quality of transportation with reduced noise, faster journey times, and a smoother ride in an era when most streets were cobbled.
However, Government legislation still favoured road-based omnibuses over rail-based trams and it would be nearly twenty years before the Tramways Act of 1870 was passed providing enabling legislation for urban tramways, legislation prompted by the success of the Liverpool Tramways Company. Yet again Bristol was having to play catch-up with its commercial rival in the north.
Within months of the Tramways Act being passed there were two private proposals for horse-drawn tramlines in Bristol. One was by a Bristol company, for a tram line connecting Bristol Temple Meads with Clifton and Hotwells. The second, by a London-based company, was considerably more expensive and extensive involving the construction of an entire network of lines at a cost of £120,000 (relative to share of GDP this would be equivalent to about £160m today).
There then followed lengthy debates in the local press and the council chamber about the merits of each scheme. Much of this debate had more to do with ideology than the technical merits of the individual schemes. Essentially there was one body of opinion that insisted that business ventures such as tramways should be run by the private sector responding to market forces in order to reduce the need for public subsidy – whilst their opponents felt that tramways were public services that if left to the private sector would see high fares and/or lowered safety and service standards in pursuit of profit. The debate continues to this day in one form or another.
In the end, swayed by local hostility against the rumoured London speculators said to be backing both schemes, Bristol's councillors decided to build the tramways themselves with the intention of leasing out the operation of the line to the most trustworthy bidder - leaving the council with the option of replacing the operator if it failed to meet the standards expected. Two lines were proposed - one from St Augustine's Parade to the bottom of Blackboy Hill via Perry Road. the second from Old Market Street to Lawrence Hill. Neither would connect to Temple Meads station – and costs were estimated at £14,000.
Unfortunately, almost as soon as parliamentary approval for the project was given, a rise in the price of iron led to a financial crisis and it became clear that the council's funding capabilities would not allow the building of both lines. In the end only a small section of the first line to Blackboy Hill was completed, and the resulting search for a trustworthy operator was a dismal failure.
The council was rescued by a group of local businessman who agreed to lease the existing line for 21 years (they eventually purchased it outright for £8,000 a few years later) provided permission was given to build further lines from Old Market to St George and Fishponds, as well as a link from Old Market to the original line via Perry Road.
Permission was duly given, and henceforth, Bristol's public transport service would be run by the private sector in the shape of the Bristol Tramways Company.
4) Trams Part 2 (1881 to 1910) - a successful Bristol transport story?
Despite the inauspicious start, by 1881 Bristol's tramway had expanded to provide lines to Blackboy Hill, Horfield (Egerton Road), Eastville, St George, Totterdown, Bedminster and Hotwells and was carrying over 6 million passengers per year.
One potential problem was the lack of a single central transport hub. With the obvious focus for a transport interchange - Temple Meads - being perceived as too far from the centre of the city, the less than satisfactory result was the development of three separate tram termini. South Bristol trams stopped at Bristol Bridge, east Bristol trams at Old Market, and north Bristol trams at St Augustine's Parade (which later became know as the Tramways Centre, and then just “The Centre”).
Although tramlines linking the three termini were built, journeys involving multiple trams required the purchasing of separate tickets, and a price premium. The problem of no single city centre public transport hub remains with us today.
Another key event in 1881 was the Bristol Tramways Company signing an agreement with the Great Western Railway and the Midland Railway to have the sole right to provide public hire service at Bristol Temple Meads "the base of all passenger carrying operations in Bristol". The company then leased this monopoly to third party carriage operators before eventually uniting them all into the Bristol Cab Company with the same directors and officers as the Bristol Tramways Company.
This monopoly proved devastating to the tram company's rivals who were providing horse-drawn omnibus services, and within a decade the last two independent omnibus companies in Bristol failed, at which point the Tram and the Cab companies duly merged to formed the Bristol Tramways and Carriage Company (BTC) in 1887. By 1891, the number of passengers carried by the company had almost doubled to 11.2 million.
Free of any real competition, the BTC began to address the increasingly obvious shortcomings of using horse driven trams. The cost of fodder for the almost 900 horses used by the company accounted for 34% of operating expenses, almost the same as the costs associated with it's human workforce. When veterinary fees and stabling were added, costs associated with the horses rose to some 50% of revenues.
The company began to look enviously across the Atlantic, where the success of electric tramways in the United States, especially the Richmond Street Railway opened in 1887, showed that there was the opportunity to both reduce operating costs and improve the effectiveness of tram services.
Across the Atlantic, electric trams had been shown to be clean, quiet and reliable. The ability to use double-decked carriages, with improved speeds and faster turnaround time offered considerable opportunity for cost efficiency savings. The trams had also demonstrated that they were fuel efficient enough to offer both lower operating costs and lower fares despite the considerable capital outlay required for electrifying the line.
One final advantage of particular importance given Bristol's topographical situation was the ability of electric trams to cope with steep gradients.
Convinced of the need to introduce electric trams, BTC began work on the electrification of the Old Market to St George line and its extension to Kingswood (which included some challenging gradients). The line opened on the 14th October 1895 and was a resounding success - schools and factories were closed in east Bristol as people flocked to see the new clean and innovative technology. Over a million passengers used the service in its first four months.
The "improved facilities and lower fares" (fares were lowered by a quarter) led to a public clamour for the conversion of existing lines and the building of new ones elsewhere in the city. An intense period of capital investment followed, and by 1901 the entire network had been electrified involving the conversion of 16.5 miles of existing track and the construction of 11.5 miles of new track. BTC now offered services to Staple Hill, Kingswood, Hanham, Brislington, Knowle, Bedminster Down and Ashton Gate. Later extensions were added up to Filton (1907) and Westbury on Trym (1908) whilst passenger numbers averaged almost 47 million per year between 1906-1910.
Meanwhile, BTC's operating profits, which as a percentage of revenues had averaged 19% in the five years before electrification, now jumped to an average of over 34% for the five years after electrification.
However, hidden beneath the success of the tram, could be found the causes of the tram's eventual downfall.
5) Trams part 3 - (1910-1941) - The cost of capital and market insecurity.
Although the wide distribution of shares in BTC (over 400 shareholders from a wide range of backgrounds but all from relatively prosperous areas of the city) gave it access to capital beyond the means of companies in which ownership was concentrated in the hands of a few directors, nevertheless the capital intensive nature and sophistication of creating an electrified network placed considerable strain on the company's financing.
Between 1895 and 1902, during the period when Bristol's tramways were electrified, the paid-up capital of BTC increased by 400%. On top of this, the effects on investor confidence in tramways of three separate pieces of legislation need to be considered. Firstly, in the original 1870 Tramways Act, a clause gave local authorities the power to purchase privately owned tramways after 21 years (and every 7 years after that). In Bristol, agreement had been reached which meant that this option could not be exercised until 21 years after the extensions to the line completed in 1892. This meant that the council could only exercise its right to buy the tramway in 1913, any takeover before that would have to be by negotiation.
A further development came in 1893 when the House of Lords ruled that the purchase price should be based on the cost of construction less depreciation - with no allowance made for goodwill or profitability - thus reducing the potential price of purchase considerably. This was then followed in 1896 by parliamentary legislation empowering local authorities not only to own tramways but to operate them as well. Within a year five northern cities were doing just that with encouraging results and by 1913, Bristol and Norwich would be the only major English cities which still had privately run tramways.
It was within this context that a row broke out over who should supply electricity for the soon to be electrified tramway. With Bristol having been one of the first cities to undertake electricity supply, the council argued that BTC should contract with them to supply the power for the tramway operation rather than building their own power stations.
BTC refused, insisting that they should have full control over their own power supply. In response, the council set up a Tramways Purchase Committee to look into buying the entire tramways system as per the 1870 act. The dispute continued into 1898, when eventually, under pressure from a Bristol public keen for a cheaper, faster and more efficient tramway, the council eventually backed down. BTC built its central power station on Temple Back next to Counterslip Bridge and directly across the road from the council's own central power station. The private sector versus public sector conflict set in stone.
The end result of this combination of rising capital costs, ongoing disputes with the council, and the possibility of the entire tramway being taken over relatively cheaply, meant that the appetite for further private investment in trams was at a low point. Following a decade at the end of the 19th century in which 14 separate new lines or extensions were completed (as well as the electrification of the entire network), the first decade of the 20th century saw just two further tram extensions - from Durdham Down to Westbury on Trym, and a link from Horfield to the new Bristol Aeroplane Company works at Filton - the latter largely due to the ownership links between the Aeroplane company and the Tramways company. Other less capital intensive public transport possibilities started to look more attractive.
In 1905, the Tramways company purchased a dozen double-decker motor buses for some of its tramway feeder routes. The following year it opened a bus route to Clifton following continued rejection by local residents of tram proposals for the area. As petrol engines became more efficient and reliable, and dis-satisfied with the standard of the buses purchased externally, the company decided in 1908 that instead of investing in tramways susceptible to a council takeover, it would instead invest in construction works at Brislington to produce some 300 motor vehicles (including buses) per year. It was the shape of things to come.
Although the number of passengers carried by the company continued to increase - reaching 63 million in 1916, there was no further extension to the tramway itself after 1908 whilst the trams themselves remained the same basic model used in 1895 with no real further innovation. .
Inevitably, the question of public ownership was raised again in 1913 when a report estimated the value of the tramway at £600k, and that it would produce an annual profit for the city of £37,000 per annum. It noted the increasing use of motor buses but concluded that trams offered the most effective and economic way to provide the travelling facilities required by the Bristol travelling public.
This report added weight to the results of an earlier study produced by the National Civic Federation in 1907 which found that fares in Bristol were 66% higher than for those cities where the trams were publicly owned, whilst staff were expected to work much longer hours for less pay than their public sector brethren.
In the end following a long dispute in the press and parliament, and despite a Parliamentary Act approving the purchase of the tramways and a poll showing a majority of Bristolians in favour of taking the tramway into public ownership, BTC remained a private company after the company insisted on a valuation of £2 million for its tramways and the council subsequently lost its appetite for the purchase with the onset of a recession and then war.
Discussions about ownership would be raised again in 1922, 1929 and 1936 and the indecision and uncertainty about ownership continued to have the effect of reducing the incentives for private tram investment whilst simultaneously preventing public investment. Instead, what limited investment was available for public transport in Bristol went into the expansion of the bus network.
The 12 buses in 1905, had become 44 buses by 1914 (although this compared to 169 tramcars). After World War I, the mix would increasingly be in favour of buses, and the production of Bristol tramcars ceased in the 1920's.
By the 1920's, the tram was no longer seen as a viable alternative to the bus in Bristol. This was essentially confirmed on the 11th January 1922 when proposals to construct a two lane road with a high speed tram link on its central reservation were thrown out when councillors voted in favour of buses rather than trams "to allow complete interplay of all forms of private, commercial and public transport". As a result the ensuing road became one of the first four lane highways in the country when it was opened in 1926 as the Portway.
The timing was significant – in the inter-war period, some 30,000 new homes were built in Bristol the vast majority of them on low density estates expanding out in to the surrounding countryside. With no new tramlines or railways to connect most of these new suburbs, their residents became increasing reliant on bus services as the only source of public transport.
Finally, after decades of uncertainty, on 1st October 1937, the Bristol Transport Act received its Royal Assent, and, for the price £1,125,000, the city council took over the city's tramway undertaking. It then almost immediately began to close the tram routes down, with the Westbury-on-Trym route being the first to go on 7th May 1938. The reasoning was that the bus was now the way forward - trams were no longer considered the most effective and economic way to provide the travelling facilities required by the Bristol travelling public.
As a result, the 1937 Act had also provided for the council to pay £235,600 towards half the cost of replacement bus services and the setting up of a Transport Joint Committee, with representatives from both the Council and the Bristol Tramway and Carriage Company. It would be this body that would co-ordinate Bristol's public transport services – a service entirely based on the bus and known as the Bristol Joint Services.
The planned gradual reduction of tram services was abruptly accelerated in 1941 when a Luftwaffe bomb damaged the central power station on Temple Back. Rather than restoring the electricity generation it was simply decided to abandon the trams services there and then.
The era of rail-based urban transport in Bristol was over – from now on the focus would be on the provision of road-based services both public and private with only local rail services available to offer any alternative to road transport.
Nichols, Gerry: Public Transport in Bristol 1945-1965 (included in Post-War Bristol 1945-1965 – Twenty years that changed the city, editor Peter Harris, published by the Bristol Branch of the Historical Association, 2000)
Harvey, Charles & Press, Jon: Sir George White and the Urban Transport Revolution in Bristol, 1875-1916 (included in Studies in the Business History of Bristol, editors Harvey and Press, published by Bristol Academic Press, 1988)