KEN TOWL reviews an extensive and exhaustive new book about the local light rail network, which opened for service in May 2000
As former ITN newsreader and “The Voice of Tramlink”, Nicholas Owen notes in his foreword that the transport system officially called “London Tramlink” is more commonly referred to as the Croydon trams.
Gareth’s David’s new book Croydon Tramlink, A Definitive History quite rightly puts Croydon at the heart of its 20-year history of the south-east’s only tram system.
Indeed, David looks back to the years before the opening ceremony on May 10, 2000, and charts the development of the trams as Croydon’s response to the threat posed by a booming Docklands served by a light railway system of its own. Croydon was looking tatty by comparison and faced a future of decline and falling property rents.
In addition, New Addington had remained isolated and ill-served by public transport since it grew up after World War II. A tram line could be a lifeline.
Support was by no means universal: Sir Paul Beresford, Croydon Central’s Tory MP at the time, told Parliament during the second reading of the Croydon Tramlink Bill that residents of Lynden Hyrst on Addiscombe Road “feel that when they step on to the pavement, the Tramlink will virtually run across their toenails”.
Croydon Tramlink is a substantial book written by an experienced, professional journalist (David worked on the business desks of The Times, Observer and Sunday Times for 10 years) that details the system’s planning, building, opening, financial meltdown, rescue by Transport for London, and a section dedicated to photos of trams. Indeed, the book is what an advertiser might be tempted lazily to describe as “lavishly illustrated throughout”.
The book is full of intriguing vignettes that illustrate the perhaps inevitable friction between planning evangelists and the nimbyist tendency of the local fauna. A woman who lost part of her back garden to the line near the Sandilands stop (described perhaps uncharitably by a transport official as “slightly mad”) apparently informed the Parliamentary Committee that the squirrels she fed would “all be devastated”.
David’s book does not skirt around the 2016 tragedy either. The chapter “Accidents and incidents” documents a litany of apparent suicide attempts, careless motorists, tram-surfing and a handful of fatalities, setting the scene for what David refers to as “a defining moment in the history of Tramlink… 06.07hrs on Wednesday, 9 November 2016… Britain’s worst tram disaster for almost a century”.
For the first time, the fatalities were passengers of the tram itself.
David applies a light touch to speculation about why the tram came off the rails at the bend near Sandilands, briefly exploring statements made by passengers, employees, British Transport Police and the chief executive of First Group, the parent company of Tram Operations Ltd, before focusing on recommendations and enhancement to safety made as a result of the crash.
Finally, David looks at the potential expansion of the network. He is a passionate advocate for extending it.
From the long-mooted spur up to Crystal Palace to the ill-considered and ill-fated “Dingwall Loop” documented previously in Inside Croydon, none have become reality. That loop, of course, had been predicated on the arrival of the great 200,000 sqm Westfield shopping centre. Another possible extension, given tentative approval by the then London Mayor, Boris Johnson, is a Wimbledon to Sutton line which could potentially link the system, and Sutton, of course, to the Tube network via the Northern Line at Morden.
That’s certainly the transport investment which David thinks would serve south London best.
This book is something of, well, a trainman’s holiday for David, a life-long railway enthusiast whose CV includes the interesting nugget that he has travelled most of the narrow gauge railways across Europe, including the entire network of Albania. Living in Guildford these days, he is a working volunteer on the Mid-Hants Railway vintage line.
Ahead of the important anniversary of what has proved itself an enormously successful piece of transport infrastructure, we are fortunate to have David chart the history of Tramlink which is, above anything else, a Croydon institution.
It has changed the way many of us move around, it has provided an umbilical cord between the denizens of New Addington and the burghers of Wimbledon, to the benefit of both, and it provides us all with a quick and cheap lift to places as diverse as Morden Hall Park, the Addington Hills and the Tesco at Elmers End.
David says that his favourite stop is among its most remote: Coombe Lane. “It is such a delightful spot, and with a pleasant walk back to Lloyd Park alongside the tramway”.
You don’t have to be a light railway nerd to be interested in Croydon Tramlink, A Definitive History, but for anyone who has the good fortune to live in Croydon, it must be worth at least a look at the story of “how one corner of Greater London identified, and then created, an environmentally-friendly and sustainable solution to its urgent need for improved local transport”.
Croydon Tramlink by Gareth David can now be ordered online from publishers Pen & Sword at a 20 per cent discount by clicking here
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