The end of an era... or start of an error?

The convenience of cars and buses saw to the demise of Guernsey’s trams way back in 1934, but Rob Batiste believes a modern service might well prove popular in this more environmentally aware era...

NOT sure about you, but I think the single most dopey decision our States ever made was to pull down the Odeon.

Then again, virtually every time I find myself stuck in a Banques traffic backlog my thoughts switch to the other lousy move our ‘House’ made which was to close down the trams service.

So it was losing a bit of money... but doesn’t Aurigny?

Just think how our lives would be different if trams had survived the onslaught of the motorcar and the 1930s politicians had been able to see into the future.

Fast forward 86 years after the very last tram ran and the passengers sang Auld Lang Syne in the Hougue a la Perre tram shed and the return of the tram is far from being a ridiculous idea.

After all, consider its original pathway and nothing has been built to stand in its way were a modern operation to return and make all our lives better.

Trams travelling along Les Banques, near the Red Lion, on their way from St Peter Port to St Sampson’s, and back. (28697275)

In its 60-year existence the original trams carried one million plus passengers every year until, with the car taking a hold on our roads and powering people faster and to their very door, the numbers slipped to half a million in its final full year of operation.

My calculator tells me that is 1,369 passengers every day of the year, so not great but not so bad.

How the figures would differ in 2020, who knows, but you fancy that in these days of collective worry over the future of our planet and zero emissions, an all-electric and reliable service between the island’s two main population hubs would go down well.

That’s enough of the fanciful thinking.

What about those first trams?

How did it all start and, after four decades of travel triumph, subside to the point of withdrawal?

You have to go back to 6 June 1879, a Friday, for the tram’s Guernsey debut.

That Friday they were utilised throughout the day, up until 10pm and left the guard house [the Picquet House] every hour. Fares were two shillings and three shillings.

Upwards of 2,000 passengers were carried that first day and the numbers stayed pretty much the same for the next week.

Even though speeds were hardly giddy, no local was considered ‘modern’ until you had ‘railed’.

When the steam-powered carriages travelled around the bend between Piette and Salerie, as well as the curve near a house called Radford’s Coffee House, and also the corner of the Bouet road, the tram would have to slow to just 4mph.

One of the Guernsey Railway Company Ltd’s electric trams, which operated between St Peter Port and St Sampson’s from 1892 to 1934. This one is pictured at the terminus by the Town Church some time after 1914, when the buildings on the seaward side of the church were demolished. (28693067)

By 1892, when electric replaced steam, speeds had pulled up and the service was hugely popular, especially when you were aboard ‘The Shooting Star’ or the ‘Sampson’, two particular favourites.

The original steam trams were a mere 20-horse-power operation and comprised of a saloon car and a smoking car which, of course, would not be required in a 21st century reintroduction.

Then, shortly after the First World War, it all began to get sticky for the Guernsey Railway Co. Ltd.

Rival motor buses quickly ate into their business and even though the tram service was increased, the bus services were improved too.

The trams began operating at a loss.

By the late 1920s, lunch-hour express trams were introduced with no waiting at sidings.

They proved popular, but nothing could beat the buses’ flexibility of route.

Only the cheapness of electric power derived from the ‘Destructor’ built close to the tramsheds at the Bouet kept the tram business going for as long as it did.

As it happens, the Destructor was as ugly as it was tall and for decades lived up to its name as it helped boost the electricity demands.

But no sooner were the Germans on their way home, the Railway Co. announced that it would have to be rebuilt and the Board of Health recommended it incinerate all the island’s refuse.

Negotiations carried on for months and when the Victoria Avenue quarry was closed on the orders of the St Sampson’s Constables, the company stated that the Destructor would have to cease work as there was nowhere to dump the clinker.

The ‘Big D’ survived until the spring of 1947 when it was closed down, largely as the parish constables refused to pay the increased charges for refuse destruction.

But back to those trams.

After losing £4k over seven years spanning the late 20s and early 30s, the business folded, the concession annulled by the States.

The company’s land between Richmond Corner and Longue Hougue was ceded to the States and within a week of the plug being pulled, work began on removing the rails, poles and wire.

For the record, that very last tram journey in 1934 featured many of the northern parishes’ great and good – Mr W. Bird, John Leale Snr and Jnr, and William Corbet.

And as the last tram pulled into the generating station for the last time, its passengers held hands and sang ‘Should Auld Acquaintance be forgot’.

From there, in a solemn, largely silent walk for the party back into Town, opposite the Royal Hotel was the symbol of the dead past and the new future – in the shape of a deserted rail track and a line of motorcars parked along the front.

The end of an era or the start of an error?

A tram on the Bridge. (28692861)

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