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Home / Latest News / Echo columnist Dan O’Neill laments the loss of Cardiff’s tram network

Echo columnist Dan O’Neill laments the loss of Cardiff’s tram network

Every now and again some visionary trumpets “Bring back the tram” and who can disagree? But don’t hold yer breath. No chance.

Years ago a team of expensive experts explained how Cardiff could enter – make that re-enter – the Age of the Tram (their capitals) but what happened after this £100,000 study? You’re right. Zilch! Nada! Nothing. So what’s new?

Yet at the same time Nottingham and Manchester, Sheffield and the West Midlands brought back the tram to cheers from passengers. All we got was more jargon-filled reports about a rapid-transport system, guided light transport, a train-tram system and a “rubber-tyred tram-style vehicle.”

We had those once. Called ‘em trolley buses.

But no expert mentioned the most overpowering reason for the return of the tram. Not one stood up and proclaimed that the tram was the best-loved form of public transport ever seen in our cities. So I’ll say it instead.

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Some poetic passenger once called them the great, swaying, gliding galleons of our city streets and yes, there really was something special about Cardiff’s yellow-painted tramcars as they hummed and jangled through the town, sparks sputtering from iron wheels skimming over iron rails, fizzing from the point where mast met overhead wires, free fireworks, a display to brighten winter nights.

When the “electric tramcar” came to Cardiff in 1902 it was an Event. And at the controls of the first of a dozen swaying away from the old Town Hall was none other than the Mayor of Cardiff, Councillor J F Beavan, in full official fig, naturally, mayoral chain gleaming, Mayor beaming. Every tram was packed with our old town’s movers and shakers, all hoping for a turn at the steering handle, biblical-bearded dignitaries, weskits bulging, back to being boys again.

Buses just don’t generate that sort of wonder. Trams were different. They seemed almost alive, as if Disney had designed them and like ships, referred to as “She.”  To drive one was to be a Someone as a song they were singing at the Glasgow Empire before the Great War tells us.

“No more getting up at half past six, climbing up a ladder with a hod full of bricks, No more clay pipes only fat cigars, for now I am a driver on the town’s tramcars.”

The great Tony Hancock had a thing about tramcars. They kept popping up in ‘Ancock’s ‘Arf ‘Our. When asked about his family history he boasted “I can trace it all the way back to Peregrine ‘Ancock.” Then, after a pause, “My father. He was a tram driver.” He also claimed that the tram driver was  a working class aristocrat – which is why his childhood romance was shattered.

“Her father was a tram driver. Mine was only a conductor. So the gap between us was too much. It could never be.”

He knew what he was talking about. To be a tram driver was to be a member of an enviable breed, heroes to kids as they steered their clanging craft along Queen Street, those kids hitching a lift by balancing precariously on the big round bumper at the tram’s rear while the conductor yelled threats, frustrated when the kids hopped off.

He had to hop off, too, to reconnect whenever the mast slipped from the wires after a tricky turn, passengers cheering him on. No wonder every conductor wanted to be a driver, tiring work, conducting: up and down the iron staircase, always following the instruction in the tramways’ committee handbook: “Walk with dignity from passenger to passenger, asking politely, ‘Where to, please?’ before dispensing the ticket.” Lovely, that “where to…”

We won’t get the trams back but why not bring back the conductors? Then bus drivers could concentrate  on driving instead of waiting for a woman (always a woman) to go through six bags looking for her purse or pass before he explains to another women where she has to get off to visit Auntie Blodwen.

If conductors had to be built like Adam Jones we’d also see an end to the ever-growing menace of yobs on buses as well.

Ideally, the conductor should have a machine that goes Pinnngggg! whenever he turns out a ticket. He should also be attired in what looks like the dress uniform of a Bolivian general, shining with silver, blinding with brass. A peaked cap, naturally, and lots of leather.

Cardiff said a sad farewell to the tram in 1950.Who’ll be sorry to see the bendy buses go?

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