The South Bank Tramway
Keith Watson has been looking into the history of our local tram service.
The South Bank Tramway was an electric overhead tramway route from York Railway Station to South Bank, operating between 1913 and 1935.
The story of the South Bank Tramway ultimately goes back to the beginning, when an idea for a tram way system in York was approved by the Act of Parliament in 1879 for the York Tramways Company. The construction of the 4-foot gauge tramway started in July 1880, with a route to Fulford opening in April 1881. The Board of Trade originally approved the use of steam power, but that proved unsuccessful and horse-drawn power was finally used. Eventually three routes were opened from York to Fulford, Railway Station and Knavesmire.
The horse-drawn tramway system was acquired by a new company, the City of York Tramways Company, in 1886, a subsidiary of the Imperial Tramways Company. The City of York Tramways Company itself was finally taken over by the York Corporation Tramways on 27 February 1909.
On 30 April 1909, a poll of electors voted in favour of replacing the previous horse-drawn tram system with the construction of an electric overhead tramway system. Work commenced in 1 September 1909, and the first route from Fulford opened on 20 January 1910.
In October 1911, York Corporation considered expansion of their current tramway network, looking at five new routes. It was ultimately decided that only one route would go ahead initially, that being the 'Bishopthorpe Rd or South Bank Route', from York Railway Station to South Bank via Nunnery Lane, New York St, Bishopthorpe Rd, Balmoral Terrace and Queen Victoria St, terminating opposite the Post Office at the junction with Albermarle Rd.
Construction of the tram line at the junction of Nunnery Lane and Blossom Street 1913
This planned tramway extension was the same as the rest of the existing city network, but unlike most other tramway systems in England. It had a track gauge of 3ft 6 ins (1.167 metres), using the overhead line system running 1 mile, 1 furlong and 3.7 chains in length, from a junction with the existing lines at the corner of Nunnery Lane and Blossom St. It was to be of double track throughout, except for one short length of single track, extending 1 furlong 7 chains in Balmoral Terrace and Queen Victoria St (although the Queen Victoria St section was later doubled with a new scissors crossover at the terminus). A widened curve was constructed at the junction of Balmoral Terrace and Bishopthorpe Rd, to accommodate the trams, as they would not have been able otherwise to negotiate the sharp curve. The total estimated cost of the extension (including the cost of additional new tramcars that were required) amounted to £16,440.
A York Corporation tram heading to South Bank
Four new tramcars to the same specification as those already in service elsewhere on the Corporation’s tramway system were ordered in December 1911, from the British Thompson-Houston Company, at a price of £550.10s 0d per tramcar. The tramcars were of the Brush 4-wheel type, with an 8-foot 6-inch (2.59 metres) wheelbase and two 25 horsepower motors. They were an open top double decker type, with an open staircase, canopy platform, 30 upper deck seats, and 22 lower deck seats. Livery was royal blue and ivory cream, with lining and lettering in gold the words 'City of York Tramways', plus the City coat of arms.
These additional tramcars were delivered in 1912 and became nos. 24 to 27 in the fleet. As a result the Tramcar Depot at Fulford Cross had to be expanded, in order to accommodate them. They were later fitted with roller blinds in November 1916 and re-numbered 23-26 in 1924.
In 1912, the South Bank Tramway (Light Railways Extension) Order was obtained, authorising the construction of the South Bank Tramway. A tender from Mr. William Dobson of Edinburgh for the laying of the track was accepted, at a cost of £15,147 5s 6d. The overhead equipment and cables were erected by the York Corporation Electricity Department.
Construction work commenced on 25 March 1913 and the tramway was opened on Wednesday, 30 July 1913, with traffic running from York Railway Station to the South Bank terminus in Queen Victoria St. The new service was the only one to terminate in the city centre at the Railway Station. There were two tramway shelters built along the route – one half way down Nunnery Lane and the other at the junction with Bishopthorpe Rd and Ebor St.
A tram arriving at the Queen Victoria St terminus, South Bank
During 1914, the first full year of operation of the South Bank Route, the volume of passengers using the route amounted to 13% of the total network. A re-arrangement of routes took place in 1918 and services from South Bank no longer terminated at the Railway Station, as it became impracticable to reverse the tramcars here, so they started to continue alternately to either Haxby Road or Fulford. That year, on the South Bank route, the fare was only 1d penny from the station to the outer terminus, a distance of 1.37 miles (2.20 kilometres). However, in December 1920 a flat fare of 2d was introduced across all routes.
In the next few years a few improvements were made, including several roads widened and the installation of automatic trolley reverses at all termini, including at Queen Victoria St. In March 1923 the York Corporation Tramway Committee was formed, as the tramways were previously managed by the Corporation’s Electricity Department. During 1925, the trams had new legends 'York Corporation Tramways and Motors', because of the introduction of motor and trolleybuses on other city routes.
In March 1926, the alternate routing that was in place was changed again, so that all South Bank trams ran to Fulford only. However, due to numerous complaints from the public, this was later reversed in October 1926, with South Bank trams alternating between Haxby Rd and Fulford once again.
The York tramway system infrastructure was becoming worn out by the early 1930s, while Ministry of Transport regulations on 3’6” gauge tramcars meant that the vehicles could not be updated. In February 1932, the Corporation was approached by the West Yorkshire Road Car Company, (a subsidiary of the London & North Eastern Railway), with suggestions for co-ordination of services within the city. After much negotiation, as from 1 April 1934, a Special Transport Committee was formed, with all the York Corporation’s tramway network becoming part of a joint committee arrangement between them and the West Yorkshire Road Car Company, for a minimum of 21 years, to co-ordinate and operate stage carriage services. The tramcars were subsequently re-lettered, from 'York Corporation Tramways and Motors' to 'York – West Yorkshire Joint Committee'.
At a Joint Committee meeting on 18th July 1934, the ageing tramcars were discussed and it was agreed that inevitably, the trams would have to be replaced by motor buses, and new services across the city were to be introduced. The Dringhouses tramway route was abandoned on 5th January 1935, and was the first stage in the abandonment of electric traction in the city. At a Joint Committee meeting on 4 April 1935, it was decided to abandon the remaining routes, including the South Bank route. An application was made on 27 September 1935, for all remaining tramcar routes to be replaced by motor buses. Once this was granted, the date was set for the tram services to cease on Saturday, 16 November 1935, when the last tram left the South Bank terminus.
From the following day, the route was replaced with motor buses of the York-West Yorkshire Joint Committee.
J.O. O’Connor & G.J. Mellor, 'Tramways of York' Tramway Review 18 & 19 1954
West Yorkshire Road Car Co. Information Service, City of York Tramway, trackless, & motor bus operations up to 1935, 1977
Keith A. Jenkinson, 'York City Buses' Autobus Review 1984
Joe Murphy, City of York Tramways, privately published, 2002