Smooth, speedy, clean and green, they are "aesthetically breathtaking" and "exude reassurance". They are promoted as "the state-of-the-art public transport system" and "a network for the 21st century". Yet, just 50 years ago, they were being scrapped as cumbersome, antiquated, noisy and disruptive. The dinosaurs of the transport world, they were considered to be worthy candidates for extinction - not least because they were also regarded as irredeemably "working class".
Few inventions have moved so rapidly and so speedily into, out of, and back into fashion as the British tram. It has been a different story on the Continent and further afield. In Amsterdam and Nagasaki, in Basle and Melbourne, it has remained a popular and integral part of the transport network.
In Britain, a story of prejudice and under-investment led to the decline of the tram from 1920 onwards, until by 1960 (with the notable exception of Blackpool's seafront service), they had disappeared from our streets.
Then, in the 1990s, there began an increasingly rapid resurgence. Brand-new systems are already running in Manchester, Sheffield and Croydon.
Nottingham's system opens early next year and scores of other cities have plans or feasibility studies in development. But the new Supertram is a very different creature from the clanking tin boxes that once lurched around our townscapes.
The first electric street tramway opened in Blackpool on September 29, 1885, and thousands of visitors flocked to see this "fairy tale of science".
But science did not solve every problem. Those first trams took their power from an underground conductor rail buried in a conduit between the two running rails and, just as happens in modern systems, the return was through the track. Unfortunately, the inventor of the system, Holroyd Smith, did not quite understand Blackpool's climate. He soon had to make a public apology: "So strong are the periodic storms that, though the roadway is above the high-water mark, the waves dash over the roadwayI When the tide is over the line, the current makes earthI Working during the floodings has been abandoned." The conduit also rapidly filled up with wind-blown sand.
Then, in 1891, an overhead supply system was pioneered for Britain in Leeds. It soon became standard, with Blackpool converting in 1899. (Oddly, the conduit system survived on central London routes until they closed in 1952.) Elsewhere, the overhead electric tramway became the main form of urban transport, with some lines reaching out into the countryside. Between the wars, it was possible to travel (albeit with frequent changes) from Liverpool to Leeds by tram - apart from a seven-mile walk across the top of the Pennine moors.
Every town or city with tracks going anywhere out of town soon discovered it had gained an unexpected clientele: that route became the lovers' line.
In Liverpool, courting couples took tram 44 away from strict parental supervision in the Scotland Road to the leafy suburb of Southdene. London lovers met on the Embankment to ride an E1; while in Glasgow you could go 22 miles from Milngavie to Renfrew. For just a few pence, you won three hours of privacy.
Tramway travel was reliable and cheap. Early morning workmen's fares of just one or two pence for a return ticket allowed industrial workers to live further from their workplace - and led to the development of new suburbs. But this traffic also dictated the design of the tramcar. Before the First World War, the typical British tram was an open-topped double-decker. Downstairs, two Spartan benches stretched lengthways along the tram in addition to seats. Originally wooden, the benches were later covered with hard-wearing leather. Upstairs, there were wooden seats either side of a central gangway. When a tram reached its terminus, the uprights of these seats were "flipped over" so passengers would face forwards on the return journey without the tram having to turn round (there were driving seats at both ends).
The primitive seating had a purpose. It minimised the spread of fleas, lice and "other disorders". Nor was the notice in every tram, "Spitting prohibited", just a social nicety. Its intention was to limit the spread of diphtheria and tuberculosis - both prevalent among the poorer sections of society. Then, as slightly more comfortable seats were introduced (but before such developments at collieries as pithead baths), local bylaws had to be passed to enforce hygiene. "A person whose dress or clothing might, in the opinion of the conductor of the car, soil or injure the seats, linings or cushions of the car orI might for any other reason be offensive to passengers shall not be entitled to enter or remain in or on the car."
Gradually, the box-like roofed double-decker evolved, although it was still some time before the driver (or motorman) was protected from the weather by an enclosed cab. As one driver recalled: "There was little pleasure in standing with snow flurries building up by one's feet, sleet and slush from passing vehicles congealing on an already soaking great coat and frost in the beard."
In 1914, tram drivers and conductors were among the first to volunteer for the army. By the next year, women were being employed as "conductresses" on many systems - a move which did as much as anything to end the fashion for ankle-length skirts. By 1916, women had begun to work as "motoresses" or motorwomen - a major step towards women's emancipation, not least because in Glasgow they were paid the same wage as male employees. But the war also resulted in an end to track repair work as the maintenance men were called up for service. By the end of the war, many tramways were more like roller coasters.
There had also been a rapid increase in the cost of labour and materials, but local politicians were loath to increase fares to match these costs.
There was no budget for new trams. The post-war years also saw the advent of mass-produced motor cars, and motor buses were becoming available and more reliable. It became considerably cheaper to introduce a new bus route than a tramway.
During the 1930s, the number of tramways in Britain was cut by more than half. Blackpool, Liverpool and London were the only places where there was any major investment. In Blackpool, a worn-out fleet was replaced with new streamlined "rail coaches", while Liverpool and Glasgow also continued to build some new tramcars. Petrol rationing during the Second World War brought a temporary halt to the decline but by 1945 the tram systems too were in poor condition.
Some still championed the tram: its freedom from dependence on imported fuel; its ability to continue to run during the post-war "smogs"; and its longevity. The latter argument was double-edged, because it meant that 40-year-old trams were competing against five-year-old buses. At the time, no one raised the environmental issue of pollution. But the tram had one particular enemy: the motorist. When a tram stopped (the lines usually ran in the middle of the road), traffic was held up while passengers got on and off.
Even so, tramways enforced a kind of discipline and accident rates were lower in towns with trams than in others. But town councillors were largely all motorists. They did not want their towns to be full of wheezy old rust-buckets, still associated with "working class" travel. So they closed the remaining systems. Edinburgh's last tram ran in 1952, Liverpool's in 1956 and Glasgow's in 1962. The oldest system, Blackpool's, alone survived.
Spain, France and Italy also largely abandoned the tram, but West Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands bucked the trend, becoming centres of tramway development. Trailer cars became common. Larger articulated one-person-operated trams were introduced. In the communist regimes of eastern Europe, where the private car was a rarity, high-capacity trams remained a vital means of transport. Unlike Britain, where every passenger expected a seat, in all these countries the public accepted trams with fewer seats but considerable capacity for standing passengers at peak periods.
During the 1960s and 1970s, new passenger authorities were established in the major British conurbations, with potential government backing for integrated transport systems. Traffic congestion in many cities was reaching chaotic proportions, peak times were extending, and attempts to create motorways in urban areas to cope with the increasing numbers of private cars resulted in communities being scythed in two.
Manchester set up a planning study in 1982 which led to two elderly suburban electric railways being converted to tramway operation, linked by on-street sections running through the city centre. Metrolink opened in 1992. Within four years, it was carrying 13m passengers a year, compared with 7.5m on the former rail lines. A branch was opened through the dockside redevelopment area known as Salford Quays, and planning is in progress for five more lines. Reputable research indicates that Metrolink use has replaced 3.5m car journeys a year. Next was Sheffield's Supertram network, opened in stages during 1994 and 1995. Its articulated cars each carry 250 passengers at speeds of up to 50mph. The Midland Metro is now running between Birmingham and Wolverhampton, following disused railway tracks and new on-street sections.
The same mix is also employed in Croydon, where Tramlink opened in 2000 and is already so popular it has removed 4m car journeys a year from south London's streets. The Nottingham Express Transit system (NET) is now conducting test runs. A remark on a Croydon website is a measure of their popularity: "You can rarely travel far on the trams before you overhear praise of them from ordinary passengers."
Unlike their predecessors, the new breed of continental-designed tram is user-friendly. They have none of the disadvantages of deep underground travel, they create no pollution and their modern communication systems and general predictability generate an indefinable sense of security. The only puzzle is how we managed without them for 40 years.
Official websites of the new systems are at:Manchester:
www.metrolink.co.ukSheffield: www.supertram.comWest Midlands: www.travelmetro.co.ukNottingham ("play with the controls of a tram"): www.nottinghamexpresstransit.com Croydon (unofficial but highly informative):www.croydon-tramlink.co.uk
What's the difference between a tramway and a light railway? The term "tramway" ("streetcar line" in America) is used when the line runs at least in part along ordinary streets or on a "reserved" track alongside a road.
The systems in Blackpool, Croydon and Sheffield are tramways, Light railways are segregated from other traffic. Passengers get on and off at stations rather than in the street, and the cars run faster. Examples are the Docklands Railway in east London and the Tyneside Metro.
The LRTA (Light Rail Transit Association) is a society for supporters of both trams and light railways. Its by no means "nerdish" website provides information about tramway history and modern systems: www.lrta.org
WORKING TRAMWAY MUSEUMS
The National Tramway Museum
Crich Tramway Village, near Matlock, Derbyshire, DE4 5DP Tel: 0870 75 87267 www.tramway.co.uk
The musuem's education department (Tel:01773 853 215) offers teachers' guides; loan packs; and pupils' history, literacy and numeracy "trails"; curriculum links to technology and science and help with exam courses within the areas of Tourism and Leisure.
Beamish Open Air Museum
Beamish, County Durham, DH9 0RG Tel: 0191 370 4011 Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or Simon Woolley, Keeper of Education, at email@example.com www.beamish.org.uk
Provides curriculum links in maths, science and the environment, geography, technology, citizenship and history as well as for GNVQ tourism and leisure courses.
The Black Country Living Museum
Tipton Road, Dudley, West Midlands, DY1 4SQ Tel: 0121 557 9643; educational bookings 0121 520 8054) www.bclm.co.uk
This museum "illustrates how the area became the centre of industrial Britain" and includes a working canal and tramway.
East Anglia Transport Museum
Chapel Road, Carlton Colville, Lowestoft NR33 8BL Tel: 01502 518459 Email firstname.lastname@example.org www.eatm.org.uk
Open between April and October only.