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Chester's tram system was on the 'right lines' says enthusiast

Transport buff says modern day Chester could benefit from trams

Students living just feet from tram lines in a new city centre complex are unlikely to suffer the same fate as Spanish Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí because the trams stopped running in 1930.

Gaudi tragically died three days after being struck by a tram in his native Barcelona in 1926.

Students returning to their Tramways homes late at night must only make sure they don’t trip over the rails (they're sunken any way) – a rare example of in situ narrow gauge tram lines – which have been preserved to mark the spot, near the train station, where Chester’s tram depot once stood.

When Chester’s last tram ran on February 15, 1930, there must have been many who lamented the end of that particular era in our city’s rich history. Tram enthusiast John Murray, who recently led two tram walking tours around the city, explains that his late grandad would have shared this view.

“When they did away with the trams, they made a big mistake. One day they will realise it and they will bring them back’,” said John, recalling the words of his grandfather John Stephenson, a Liverpool tram and bus driver, who was the inspiration for John’s love of trams, trains and buses. Fortunately, grandad lived to see his prophecy come true with modern, successful tram systems in cities like Manchester and Sheffield.

“Chester’s tramway history started in 1878 when a private company, the Chester Tramways Company, built a horse drawn tramways,” explained John, of Queen’s Park, straddling the tram lines which lead into the new student housing and can still be viewed at close quarters by the public.

The original route went up City Road, along Foregate Street/Eastgate Street, down Bridge Street and Hough Green as far as St Mark’s Church in Saltney. In 1907 the network was extended out to Boughton.

A ticket from the terminus by The Town Crier, then called The Albion Hotel, to The Castle would have cost a penny ha’penny. Races specials took punters directly from the railway station down to the Roodee.

But horses were expensive and slow. There was experimentation with different methods of traction, including compressed air, but the leather seals were poor and the air loss too great.

Electrification began to come in from 1885, with the last horse-drawn Chester tram in 1901. The modernising Chester Corporation used its powers to buy the tram system and by 1903 overhead cables were delivering 550 volts of DC current supplied by the hydro-electric station on the Dee. The rails were relaid in a narrower three feet six inches gauge to allow double tracks on the city’s confined streets.

Aside from the tracks, some still discernible just below Chester’s road surfaces, there are other remnants of the system if you remember to look up. Ornate cast iron ‘roses’, which used to carry the overhead cables, are fixed to buildings – conveniently one has been fixed just above head height by Pound World in Foregate Street, another stops The Grosvenor hotel sign swinging in the wind.

Hidden in the undergrowth, at the end of the line in Saltney, keen tram spotters can find a pole close to the site of the original terminus. And tram jacks were recovered for safe-keeping when the bus depot, which stood on the same site at the tram depot, was pulled down only a few years ago.

This is most of what remains of the tram network which closed as it came to the end of its life and motor buses gained favour. But the tramway renaissance means suggestions for a modern generation are never far away.

During the 2015 general election campaign, Lib Dem parliamentary candidate Bob Thompson proposed bringing back the trams. And John, who along with his friend Nick Jones helped restore an abandoned Chester tramcar, agrees.

“I think they have been a proven success in Manchester and of you look at the continent there are many small cities of a similar size to Chester, where they are using narrow gauge tramways,” said John, whose wife Anne accompanied him on the last walking tour and has her own transport ancestry, her Chester-based great great grandfather William Anderton was killed in a rail disaster, north of Shrewsbury, exactly 150 years ago.”

Anyone who wants to hear about future tours can email: tramwalks@chesterweb.com

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