The Glasgow Tram Story
Updated: Jan 6
We all know and love (or hate?) Edinburgh's tram system, but did you know Glasgow had one too? Student journalist Amy Lyall found out more, including the discovery that her own great-grandmother, Peggy Montgomery, was one of Glasgow's longest serving female tram drivers until 1962!
Derived from the Scots language, use of the terms tram and tramway dateback to 1516, referring to small railroad wagons used in coal mines. Over 300 years later, on 6 November 1871, the first horse-drawn passenger tram appeared in Scotland, in the capital city of Edinburgh. Gradually the development of steam, cable and electric tram systems were integrated nationwide, serving until the mid-20th century.
However, one regional network stood out in terms of longevity and scale: Glasgow.
Operating from 1872 until 1962, Glasgow Corporation Tramways were one of the largest urban tram networks in Europe. The system eventually extended over 100 route miles from the city centre to burghs, rural areas and neighbouring towns as far as Paisley, Clydebank and Uddingston. A fleet of over 1,000 shuttles offered Glaswegians an accessible mode of travel, while the unique operation of widened track gauges permitted railway trailers to transport steel and other materials to the Govan shipyards.
Glasgow was the last major city to offer a tram service in Britain, as the country transitioned towards trolley and diesel-powered buses. On the final day of service, 250,000 people lined the streets of the city centre to watch the last procession of the trams, paying tribute to the citrus coloured shuttles which had served the city for 90 years.
Alongside the closure of the system came the loss one of the earliest examples of workplace gender equality. In 1915, almost half of the tramways’ male employeesh had enlisted in the army, and so, struggling to cover shifts, Glasgow became the first transport department in Britain to recruit women. The war effort
depended heavily on industry, meaning that conductresses, known as ‘clippies’, and female drivers became Glasgow icons, clanging across the city transporting workers to factories and shipyards. Women received the same pay and working conditions as men, with the tramways manager, James Dalrymple commenting that the city’s 818 female employees were “strong physically, and knew what it was to do a days work.”
Many also had large families, having to juggle childcare and housekeeping alongside their 51-hour working week. Even after the war, female drivers continued to serve the city, their tram careers ultimately ending in 1962 as women were not permitted to drive modern buses.
However, the legacy of the Glasgow trams continues to be acknowledged today. The largest collection of rolling stock is displayed at the Riverside Museum, while the city’s last working tram, number 1245, can be visited at Summerlee Museum of Scottish Industrial Life in Coatbridge. Here, you can also ride a former Glasgow Corporation tram on what was the only operational electric line in Scotland, before Edinburgh reinstated a passenger tramway service in 2014.
The reintroduction of this alternative mode of transport in our capital city seemed such a novelty – conjuring images of rickety trolleys and sailing streetcars on black and white film. Trams were surely a thing of the ‘olden days’, what advantages could they offer us in the modern motorised age? However, after considering the updated sleek, eco-friendly design, convenience in avoiding congestion and overall cost-effectiveness, it is a wonder why there aren’t more modern tramways making a comeback in Scotland.
In saying this, a new chapter of Glasgow’s tram story arrived in April 2019. A two-phase report by the Glasgow Connectivity Commission proposed the combination of tram and rail networks to better-connect areas of the city which are “cut-off” from the transport options currently available. The initiative discusses the potential for a line from Glasgow Airport into the city, and also a link between Buchanan Street and the West End. If plans go ahead, tramways could be reappearing on the streets of the city, reviving the not so distant memory.
And so, the story continues…