28 Nov 2017

Birmingham Trams - The Rise and Fall and Rise again

We currently have the Festival of Thinktank running here at Thinktank between November and February. As part of the festival I’ve enjoyed providing our audiences with amazing facts on the rise and fall and rise again of Birmingham trams. Along the way I will be providing you with some knowledge on our tram here on permanent display at Thinktank and how she came here. I shall also be explaining about a current tram called Ozzy Osborne! 

What (Watt!) started our tram story off?

Let’s depart on our journey through time. Our story begins with the steam science that started things off. In 1774, James Watt improved the steam engine and the whole world took note. Watt protected his improved steam engine with a patent, which stopped other inventors copying his improvements made.

Steam power to mechanical energy

However by 1800, Watt’s copyright on his improved steam engine had expired and with this, other inventors set about improving on Watt’s design by turning steam power into mechanical energy powerful enough to transport great numbers of people and goods. Richard Trevithick and George Stephenson were the principal pioneers of improving on Watt’s design, thus creating the railway system we know today.

Birmingham’s new transport - Laying down the Tramways

As Birmingham’s population grew, more and more people moved out to the new suburbs but they needed transport to take them to and from work. Along with the railways, a network of tramways quickly developed. In 1861, the Birmingham Improvement Act allowed the Birmingham Corporation to lay the first tramways; they brought the first suburbs closer to the city centre. In 1870, under the terms of the Tramways Act, the Birmingham Corporation owned all of the tracks within the city boundaries. However, they were forbidden from operating the trams themselves and so various private companies operated them under lease.

What is a Tram? Birmingham’s first trams Horses, Steam and Battery

A tram usually known in North America as streetcar, trolley car or trolley is a vehicle which runs on fixed rails and is designed to travel on streets, sharing road space with other traffic and pedestrians. In 1872, trams arrived in Birmingham and they were horse powered. There were problems with horses you needed hundreds to run the services and there was a lot of manure left behind on the streets! In 1876, the power of steam came in, however steam trams were very noisy. In the 1890’s came battery operated trams, but many passengers had to be revived due to the batteries giving out a tremendous whiff!

Electric! A better power - electric Siemens science

There had to be a better way of power! Electric! Let’s back track by a few years. Let’s have some electric science. In 1879, Werner von Siemens demonstrated at a science fair in Berlin the first practicable dynamo, which opened the way for electric traction by generating power at a fixed point and supplying it to a motor by conducting rail or overhead wire. In short, what Siemens did was to convert mechanical energy into electrical current energy! In 1880, the world’s first electric tram was operated in Sestroretsk near Saint Petersburg, invented and tested by Fyodor Pirotsky, who had used Siemens science in doing so. In 1881, Werner von Siemens opened the world’s first passenger electric tram in Lichterfelde near Berlin and with this the rest of the world soon followed.

Ernst Werner von Siemens (1816 – 1892) was one of the greatest inventors of modern times, creating the term “electro –technology”. Today - Siemens AG is one of the largest electrical engineering and electronics companies in the world.

Birmingham trams go electric

In 1901, the first electric Birmingham trams came into operation. In 1904, Birmingham Corporation Tramways took advantage of new legislation, which allowed it to operate trams in its own right as the original concessions expired, that same year trams powered by overhead cable were chosen to replace steam. In 1906, the last horse powered and steam operated trams ran. By 1912, Birmingham Corporation Tramways had taken over all of the privately operated lines and also took over other district tramways as the city boundaries were expanded. The corporation continued to expand the network into a comprehensive system. 

Birmingham trams...the decline and fall

By the 1930s decline had set in, several tram lines were converted to trolleybus, (electric bus operation), as this was seen as being more economical than replacing worn out track and rolling stock. Several of the least used lines were also abandoned and replaced by diesel buses. At its peak, Birmingham had 835 trams in operation. In 1937 Birmingham Corporation Tramways changed its name to Birmingham City Transport, reflecting that it now operated buses and trolleybuses as well as trams. In 1947, large scale closures of the tramways came into effect. Saturday 4th July 1953 was a day of sadness for Birmingham when the last trams ran. The last three lines operating were to Short Heath, Pype Hayes and Erdington.

The rise again of Birmingham trams and a tram called Ozzy!

In 1999 trams retuned, when the Midland Metro line was launched running from Birmingham to Wolverhampton. In 2015, trams returned to Birmingham city centre, after a 62 year gap, when the first part of the Midland Metro city centre extension was opened in Bull Street. In May 2016 the first tram to be named in Birmingham was called Ozzy Osbourne, in recognition of Ozzy’s achievements in rock music and for his Birmingham roots. The naming took place in Corporation Street and Ozzy commented “It’s a great honour to have a new tram named after me, I’m proud to be a Brummie and this means so much.”

Let’s take a look at our museums tram number 395

Tram number 395 at Thinktank

Our tram was number 395 and one of a 100 tram cars of the 301 class which was built by the United Electric Car Co Ltd of Preston and it was designed by Werner von Siemens. Our tram is one of the Birmingham Corporation Tramways tram cars and has the corporation’s colours of dark blue and cream. Our tram was built in 1911 and entered service between April 1911 and February 1912. Tram 395 was equipped with two 40 horse power motors, had a top speed of approximately 40 mph, is 29 feet, 9 inches long, with a width of 6 foot 3 inches and a height of 15 feet and 7 and a half inches and has a weight of 12 tons, 15 hundred weight. Our tram seated 52 passengers on its 2 decks and was crewed by a driver, who stood up to drive and a conductor who gave out tickets and collected the fares. A special feature of our tram was you could adjust the backs of the seats to face the direction of travel. Our tram bears the route number 78 and this service covered the route from Birmingham City Centre to Short Heath. During its busy service our tram also covered many busy routes along, Hagley Road, Bristol Road, Pershore Road and Coventry Road to name a few. One special route that our tram served, was from Birmingham City Centre to the Lickey Hills in Rednal, known as the lungs of Birmingham, due to its lovely parks and hills.

Withdrawn from service, saved and a new home in the museum!

Tram 395 was withdrawn from service in September 1950 after covering 1,200,000 miles in the service of the citizens of Birmingham. In November 1950, tram 395 was selected to be the only Birmingham tram to be saved from being scrapped and retained for preservation following a request from the museum department. After being withdrawn from service, 395 was transferred to a tram depot in Kyotts Lake Road, Sparkbrook where for a time it enjoyed occasional use as a depot shunter. Finally it was given a last renovation prior to its move to the Birmingham Museum of Science and Industry in June 1953. (our museums former name and site in Newhall Street in Birmingham’s jewellery quarter). In 1995, Birmingham City Council decided to relocate the museum to a new site and our former museum closed in 1997. In 2001, our museum was relocated to a new site at Millennium Point and our museum would now be called Thinktank – Birmingham Science Museum, and for our tram another place for all of us to enjoy looking and learning about her.

So here’s to our tram number 395, congratulations and very well done on completing 1 million and 200,000 miles! – (that’s the distance of going to the moon and back twice and almost going one more way to the moon!)

Please see her when you visit Thinktank, she’s on level 0, which is all about our past. 

Museum Enabler Steve inside tram number 395 at Thinktank

I dedicate this blog to my mother and father, Valerie and Stanley, who gave me a fascination for the old but not forgotten Birmingham trams…..I hope you enjoyed reading, best wishes, kind regards Steve.