If ever a man was destined to run a transport system it was the aptly named George Train. This flamboyant American entrepreneur gave London its first trams, a means of travelling round the capital that would last for over a century. At their peak 2,500 tramcars carried over seven million passengers a year round London, and when the last one of the first generation made its swan song journey from Westminster to Woolwich in July 1952, thousands turned out to give it a good sendoff.
Train was responsible for one of the very first tram services in the UK, a horse-drawn one started in 1860 which ran the length of Victoria Street, from the station to Parliament Square. It was a success with passengers, though not with other road users because the rails on which the trams were pulled protruded over a foot above the ground. Goodness knows how the horses pulling the trams coped with those, let alone all the other horse-drawn traffic that crowded Victoria Street at that time.
In 1861, Train was arrested for the unusual crime of “breaking and injuring” a London street – the Uxbridge Road where, presumably he intended to expand his business. But trams were catching on, and several news lines were started following an 1870 Act of Parliament, which required rails to be recessed into the carriageway.
Trams had advantages for their owners because the use of steel rails reduced friction, which meant fewer horses were needed for pulling heavier passenger loads, which boosted profits. It has been estimated that 50,000 horses were needed to keep the public transport system running in Victorian times. They were reckoned to eat the equivalent of a quarter of a million acres of food a year and deposited huge amounts of dung on the roads. A team of 12 horses was needed to keep a tram operating for 12 hours a day, each one working for three to four hours. Small wonder that the electrification of trams and the coming of motorised transport triggered the decline of the horse on London streets.
“Citizen Train”, as he called himself, followed many other paths. He became a ship owner, a busy writer, a presidential candidate and a friend of French revolutionaries. In 1870 he embarked on a trip around the world and claimed to have completed it in 80 days. This was probably true, as long as you discount a month involved in revolutionary tactics in Paris. Two years later, Jules Verne published Around The World in Eighty Days, probably inspired by this much-publicised achievement. For Phileas Fogg read George Train.
Vic Keegan’s latest book of poems, Selective Memories, has just been published and can be bought here. All previous instalments of his brilliant Lost London series are archived here.
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