Why has Leeds, birthplace of the tram, ground to a halt?

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The writer is a former FT intern

The journey of the first overhead-powered electric tramway in Europe began in 1891 with “exclamations of delight” and ended in frustration. A hundred or so aldermen, councillors and businesspeople arrived at Leeds’ Sheepscar terminus, and began luxuriating in well-cushioned seats and well-lit cars. But minutes into the voyage, disaster struck and the lights went out. Overheating engine crossheads brought the cars to a standstill, and one councillor remarked that nothing would please him better than to have their usual buses come and pick them up and take them back into town. Others alighted in frustration.

Today, the story of Leeds’ transport network is also one of dashed hopes. For decades, the council in my hometown has tried and failed to return light rail to the city, which is the largest in western Europe without a mass transit system. Boris Johnson called this a “scandal” and pledged to solve the problem; before him, the coalition government made similar promises, as did the last Labour government. Even John Major’s cabinet said there was a “robust” case for light rail in Leeds. On every occasion, councillors have drawn up plans, only to have them scotched by cost concerns. “We’re still waiting,” says Melvyn Reuben, who chairs the Leeds Transport Historical Society. “I’m 81 years old,” he says. “And I can see a pig flying over there.” 

At its peak in the 1950s, Leeds’ tram network was one of the most extensive in the UK. Men in greatcoats careened almost 500 vehicles across 200km of track daily, bringing in receipts of over £2.5mn a year. The trams were more frequent than the buses, and up to half the price for the same distance. In fact, some of the routes were quicker than the equivalent bus journey is now. And Leeds’ tram network was expanding even as others across the country were winding down.

But when Labour took over from the Conservative council in 1953, it began to kill off the trams. Mounting infrastructure costs in the postwar climate began to render the network politically untenable for the new socialist vanguards. And diesel was now in vogue. So the overhead wires were wound up and the ballast was buried. The central tram shed is now a car park. “Trams”, read one particularly trenchant headline in the now defunct Yorkshire Evening News, “are museum pieces with no economic future”.

Some vehicles from the elderly fleet have been retired to the National Tramway Museum at Crich, where they are polished to a shine. Some of them are still operational, and visitors can try them out for a short trip across the park. But it is hard to see these machines as anything other than a symbol of regional decline. In 1891, Leeds was an international leader in transport; now, it lags far behind its European peers.

Tracy Brabin, West Yorkshire’s Labour mayor, tells me that she and her team are still working to reintroduce mass transit back to Leeds. “This will require substantial investment, but we have the right people in place to deliver on our ambitious vision”, she says. Brabin is lobbying her party to make a manifesto commitment on delivering a northern mass transit network ahead of next year’s general election.

Trams have a historic resonance, but another option is a metro. An underground train could stretch from Leeds to Manchester and still be about half the length of London’s Elizabeth line. A metro that linked major conurbations across the North would be a serious antidote to our current growth qualms. In fact, internet users have already begun to daydream about how such a network might look, as if they are building a fantasy world in a video game. 

In the real world, however, hope is in short supply. The Leeds leg of HS2, which promised to bring thousands of jobs to the region, was scrapped in 2021. This summer, one northern rail operator lost its contract due to months of cancelled trains. Dozens of European towns, some with a population less than one-tenth of Leeds, have light rail. Leeds locals joke about how bad the bus service is.

The path to mass transit, it seems, is one of stops and starts — just like Leeds’ first electric tram journey 132 years ago. Admittedly, the return trip was made “with smoothness and speed”: maybe this is the lesson in persistence our local councillors need.

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