Reading Corporation Tramways / Transport

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Before this there were: Horse Tramways

In a meeting of the town council on 8th January 1900 the mayor moved that the council should seek the powers required to construct an electrified tramway in Reading to cater for the town's growing population, the town had grown far beyond the bounds of the privately owned horse tramway. A Bill had to be presented in Parliament, and progress in getting approval was slow. There were objections from a number of companies and people around the town. The Bill was passed by Parliament on 19th June 1900, and then was moved to the House of Lords for Royal Assent. Some objections were renewed in the upper house, but the Bill finally received Royal Assent on 30th July 1900. The lines included in the bill were a Whitley to Caversham route, a Bath Road branch, an Erleigh Road route, an Oxford Road to Wokingham Road line route and lines involving the depot.

As soon as the Bill received Royal Assent tenders were obtained for the various sections of working involved. The contract for the track was given to Messrs. Nuttall, Trafford Park. They established a depot and dump for materials in Great Knollys Street, which is interestingly where in the late 1990s the company's main bus depot was moved to when the Mill Lane depot, originally built to house the trams was demolished. All track work was completed by the first week of March 1903. A well equipped power station and car shed was constructed on Mill Lane at the site of the old St. Giles Mill. At that time Mill Lane was a rough tow path along the mill stream, which meant that there a direct connection between the depot and the Whitley Street section of the network was not possible, even though it passed very close to the depot. Tram cars instead always had to travel via Broad Street to take up service on that section. The stream was later built over and flowed below what was Mill Lane before the Inner Distribution Road was built.

The initial rolling stock was of 30 four-wheeled cars supplied by Dick, Karr & Co of Preston with bodywork by the Electric Railway and Tramway Works, Ltd. The cars were carried on Brill 21E type trucks. The first trial trips were run on 8th July 1903 with car No. 11, and from then the Erleigh Road section was in daily use training motormen. On 14th July 1903 the system was inspected by the Board of Trade inspector, and he required that large signs telling passengers to "Keep your seats" be put on the Caversham and Oxford Road railway bridges were there was little clearance. Caversham Road had to be lowered below the bridge a few inches so that double deck cars could operate, this indicating the small amount of clearance that there was! These bridges prevented closed top cars from operating in Reading. Permission was given for public services to commence, and they did on 22nd July 1903. The Mayoress switched on the current and formally declared the tramways open, and a procession then left the depot with cars in numerical order. The mayor drove car No. 1, with No. 2 and 3 behind carrying important people. Less important people then following in car Nos. 4-10. They did a tour along Oxford Road, back to Wokingham Road and then the guests alighted at Broad Street. Large crowds then surged to be the first fare-paying passenger. Services commenced on all routes simultaneously and cars were packed on every journey up to a very late hour, and even then some people went away without a ride.

Complaints were received from time to time from the local clergy regarding the noise the tramcars made, and a request was actually made that the running of cars should be suspended during the hours of divine service. This did not happen, but all motormen were instructed to drive as quietly as possible when passing places of worship.

The routes initially operated were:

Oxford Road - Wokingham Road, every 10 minutes
Oxford Road - London Road, every 10 minutes
Caversham - Whitley, every 9 minutes
Caversham - Erleigh Road, every 16 minutes
Bath Road - Erleigh Road, every 16 minutes

From 15th February 1904 a different arrangement was introduced in the light of operational experience:

Oxford Road - Wokingham Road, every 10 minutes
Oxford Road - London Road, every 10 minutes
Bath Road - Broad Street, every 10 minutes
Caversham - Whitley, every 15 minutes
Caversham - Erleigh Road, every 15 minutes
Bath Road - Erleigh Road, every 15 minutes

The last three services were worked as a triangular service, providing a 7.5 minute headway on each leg. From April 1904 further changes were made, and the services remained like this for many years. The Oxford Road - Wokingham Road line became known as the main line and all the other routes as side lines:

Oxford Road - Wokingham Road, every 5 minutes
Bath Road - London Road, every 10 minutes
Caversham - Whitley, every 15 minutes
Caversham - Erleigh Road, every 15 minutes
Bath Road - Erleigh Road, every 15 minutes

In 1904 the only additions to the fleet were made when six bogie cars, Nos. 31-36 and a water car, No. 37 were delivered. They were ordered in February from Dick, Karr & Co, Ltd and were delivered in July. No. 31-6 were eight-wheeled cars, carried on Brill 22E trucks and had more seating space than the first thirty. The first trial run using one was made on 29th July 1904, presumably with No. 31. They were used throughout their lives on the main line, and only on rare and special occasions did they appear on the side roads. The water car was a four wheeled vehicles on a Brill 21E truck, and was equipped with a large rectangular water tank. A small open wagon and tar boiler wagon were also provided which the car could tow.

A system of route indicator lights was introduced in January 1910, positioned just above the drivers head, the colours shown were:

Wokingham Road....Red
Oxford Road....Red
London Road....Green
Bath Road....Blue
Erleigh Road....Violet
Whitley....White
Caversham....Orange

The different colours were obtained by rotating a set of coloured glass discs which were arranged in a fan shape. Oddly the colour for both Oxford Road and Wokingham Road was red, which resulted in cars on this route displaying a red light on both the front and the rear. This was rather confusing to passengers and also dangerous, on a single track section, traffic had no clear indication as to which was the car was travelling. This lasted until January 1929 when it was replaced by a rather unsatisfactory blue and white "quartered" aspect.

In February 1912 a sub-committee was appointed to consider how desirable it would be to extend the tramway system, and consequently gave a report to the council in September 1913. The urban district of Caversham had been brought inside the Reading boundary in 1911, and a decision was made to promote a Bill in Parliament to allow a tramway extension into Caversham over Caversham bridge. Powers were also included in the Act for the construction of certain trolley vehicle routes and the operation of motor omnibuses. However the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 put an end to any action being taken to use the powers the act gave them.

The war put a great strain on the undertaking, by March 1915 35% of the total staff had left the department for war service. To start with the London Road - Bath Road section was cut from every 10 to every 12 minutes, but other car mileage had also to be cut. It was decided to give new engines to the bogie cars and their engines be given to the smaller cars for further use. There was some delay in the equipment arriving, it eventually came in 1916. In December 1915 the staffing problem was getting worse, so it was decided to employ woman as condors, a number of whom were later trained as drivers. In 1917 over 75% of the original pre-war staff had now left to join the forces. As the war ended, the company's staff returned, the female conductresses had all left by the summer of 1919. Fares were reviewed on 13th January 1919 with rapidly rising costs and both the track and cars being seriously run-down after the war. At this time a motor tower wagon was purchased.

Corporation motorbuses began running on 6th December 1919 on a route from Caversham Heights to Tilehurst, the original fleet consisting of three AEC vehicles. At this point Reading Corporation Tramways became Reading Corporation Tramways and Motors. In 1920 and 1921 the tramways made a deficit, the only time ever in their history. Changes were made to maintain the existing frequency using fewer cars, and to cut services on lines when they were not frequently used.

Administratively the routes had been allocated the following letters:

Route A: Oxford Road - Wokingham Road (the mainline)
Route B: Bath Road - London Road
Route C: Erleigh Road - Caversham Road

From 1924-6 a track renewal program was carried out, and some changes were also made to the Caversham Road terminus in connection with road widening works carried out after the new bridge to Caversham was completed. Also a process of rebuilding the cars was done, being spread over about 10 years from 1920-9, as each car was earmarked for attention, it was not immediately withdrawn from traffic, but continued in service in a flat grey livery. New bodies were constructed at Mill Lane, and when ready one of the grey cars would be brought in and the body exchanged for a new one. Four 21E wide wing trucks appeared under Nos. 5, 6 8 and 14 during this time. All of the four wheel cars were rebuilt except for No.10, the trams also not being attended to in numerical order. Upon rebuilding the words "Rebuilt at Mill Lane Depot" were fitted on oval shaped number plates over the doors. No.10 did very little work after 1930, and didn't feature on the annual stock returns after 1935. Of the bogie cars, only No.36 had a thorough rebuilding, Nos. 31-5 received normal maintenance only, although at times this amounted to near rebuilding.

In August 1929 Reading placed in service it's first covered top motorbus, a Leyland Titan. It became obvious that a system tied to open topped tram cars due to low bridges could not hope to compete with the new omnibuses. For this reason it was decided not to consider extending the tramway system any further. The Bath Road tram route has always been acknowledged as a "white elephant" and was always the first route to suffer in time of crisis. Being a short route passengers could get to town more quickly by walking than waiting 15-20 minutes for the next car if they were to miss one. Also motor bus extensions over and beyond the tram tracks to rapidly developing suburbs rendered the tram service redundant. At the full council meeting on 1st October 1929 a resolution was adopted to consider the possibility of abolishing the Bath Road route, and the result was in December 1929 was that they decided to abandon the route on 31st March 1930. From the 1st April the service from London Road operated to Broad Street or Oxford Road.

On 19th November 1931 a plan was laid before the tramways committee proposing an extension from the existing double line terminus on Oxford Road by a single line which went about 150 yards further west. This was to help cope with extra traffic generated by the Reading Stadium, a greyhound racing track which was opening in September 1931. Plans for an extension in this area had been shelved a couple of times before, the trams lines terminating in the middle of an increasingly busy road junction. Now the line pulled up safely at the kerbside. The London Road terminus was altered in 1932 to a single line stub in the centre of the road rather than the double line which was there previously. This was to allow traffic to pass trams waiting time more easily.

In March 1932 the manager reported that the state of tram tracks on the Erleigh Road route was such that it would soon be advisable to convert to motorbus operation. The trams ceased to run to the Erleigh Road terminus on 7th August 1932, at which point the Caversham - Whitley section was operated as a straight route at a 7.5 minute headway. At this time the motor bus services which went past the boundaries of the tram lines commenced operating along the same route from Broad Street to the Oxford Road terminus as the trams, previously they travelled along Tilehurst Road so that they would not compete directly. They did however operate with a higher, protective fare. Even with this tramcar receipts dropped, and with a view to economy a tram car was withdrawn from the Oxford Road - Wokingham Road service after 7.00pm. The London Road service was modified to operate between Broad Street or the Barracks on Oxford Road every 15 minutes. During 1932 the office accommodation at Mill Lane Depot was reconstructed, with a second story being added. In December 1933 the company name changed to Reading Corporation Transport, the Tramways Committee becoming the Transport Committee etc. The rolling stock was always repainted in numerical order, cars running about two years between repaints.

A Tramways (Future Policy) Sub-committee had been in existence since December 1931. It had to decide what type of vehicle should be operated if and when the tramways were abandoned. After numerous meetings and visits to other towns it was decided that the remaining tramways should be converted to trolleybus operation. It was suggested that initially the Caversham - Whitley tramway should be converted. The work converting the route began in about May 1936 and the tramcar operation ceased on 15th July 1936. Just prior to the opening of the first trolleybus route work had begun on the demolition of the car sheds preparatory to the erection of a new garage for the fleet of trolleybuses which would be required to operate the main line when the trams were finally withdrawn. To accommodate the tramcars temporary tracks were laid in the small bus garage on the east side of the power station, the buses displaced being housed in various buildings in the town temporarily rented for the purpose.

The power plant had been in continuous use since the opening of the electric tramways, now 33 years, and was in need of replacement. It was decided to discontinue generating current at Mill Lane and to take power from the Corporation Electricity Department, transforming and rectifying to the required traction voltage. The change over was accomplished without a hitch on 31st October 1936. The boiler house was converted into repair shops.

After works on Kings Road replacing bridges the bogie cars had not been used very frequently as the temporary bridges erected could not carry their extra length. A special siding had been created for them by the Caversham terminus, and they were only used for football specials. They were last used on 11th January 1936 when all six were on operation of football specials. No.31 and 32 were broken up in May 1937 and the remainder in November. Of the single truck cars Nos. 4 and 5 were taken out of traffic in August and dumped in tact in the depot yard. They were joined by No. 28 in October and No. 12 in November 1936. On 24th December No. 16 also joined them after a rather bad collision with a corporation bus No. 2. However in January 1937 No. 5 exchanged trucks with No. 30 and reappeared back in service, a week later No. 18 also turning up. No. 4 was broken up, and No. 12 was a month later. In March 1937 a surprise came when No. 28 reappeared completely reconditioned and repainted, shortly afterwards No.s 21 and 29 also having work done and the damaged No. 16 reappeared fully restored and repainted. No. 5 was decorated and illuminated by hundreds of bulbs for a week for the Coronation of TM George VI and Queen Elizabeth in May 1937. Immediately after this it was broken up. No. 18 disappeared in July 1937. There were now 25 vehicles left in service, repainting continued in numerical order until 18th August 1938 when No. 11 was turned out, being the last car to be treated.

In 1936 a provisional order was obtained allowing the company not only to replace the existing tramway services with trolleybus services, but also to extend them:

From Wokingham Road to Earley (Three Tuns)
From Oxford Road tram terminus to Tilehurst (Plough) motorbus terminus together with an extension to the Bear Inn
A turning circle at the junction of Norcot Road and Oxford Road

Work on the erection of the overhead on these routes began in the closing months of 1938. On 1st May 1939, notices appeared on the tramcars that "Circumstances permitting the new main line trolleybus route will be opened for the conveyance of passengers on Sunday 21st May 1939. A further announcement will be made later." This announcement came giving the time of the final tramcar departure. The last car was No. 13, and did not have any special decoration having been in service for the whole day. The mayor and chairman took turns in driving the car back to Depot amid cheering crowds.

Tramcar 22 (40524 bytes)

This is Brill 21E Tramcar number 22 on Broad Street heading for Wokingham Road. It is outside the Midland and Lloyd's Banks, two institutions that are still there today. Thanks to Andy Crump for supplying this photo.

After these came: Trolleybuses

If you would like any further information about this company, please contact me and I will be happy to help if I can.

Related sites to visit:

British Tramway Badges - Reading
British Tramway Buttons - Reading
Tramway Information Website