A Local History of the Wirral Peninsula
Birkenhead Heritage Tramway
Birkenhead will be remembered for the location of the world’s first traffic lights and the world’s first passenger tramway opened on 29th August 1860. The tramway was the brainchild of George Francis Train who was an American entrepreneur and the real life character upon whom Jules Verne based his fictitious character Phileas Fogg in the book "Around the World in 80 days". The tramway system that the town possessed was originally horse-drawn but was later converted to electric power in 1901.
Birkenhead’s nickname is “The One Eyed City” and this is said to come about because of the single headlight on the trams appearing through the fog, smog and mists that were a feature of the town in years gone by.
In line with the trend to move away from tramways in most towns and cities and the eventual predominance of the internal combustion engine, the tramway closed in 1937 and the rolling stock sold for scrap. Under most of the modern road surfaces the old cobbles and tramlines still exist and from time to time, when road works are being undertaken, some of the original tram tracks are exposed along with the cobbles that used to be the standard form of road metalling in the town.
In 1993 the tramway was reopened from Woodside Ferry to Pacific Road where there was a small transport museum using restored trams from Wallasey, Liverpool and Birkenhead. The tramway possesses one of the fine examples of one of the double decker units, which inaugurated the first electric tram service in 1901. This vehicle, an open-topped 1901 Birkenhead tram number 20, the 1920 Wallasey tram 78 or the 1931 Liverpool tram 762 have been restored over a number of years by members of the Merseyside Tramway Preservation Society. They operate on the tramway as well as two purpose-built Hong Kong trams.
The Hong Kong trams were designed in 1948 built in 1992 and were delivered to this country by P & O Containers free of charge. They were built to British standards in order to run on the standard voltage and rail gauge (4 ft " 8½ ins) used in the U.K and painted in the old Birkenhead Tramway colours of maroon and cream.
The tramway is operated by Blackpool Corporation Tramway for Wirral Borough Council. As the tramway became more popular it was extended past Egerton Bridge to a new terminus in Taylor Street with plans for a further extension across Price Street, along Europa Boulevard as far as Conway Street where a new purpose built terminus will be constructed.
The present terminus at Taylor Street also houses a Heritage Centre housing a collection of restored and part-restored local buses and trams, and vehicles. Along with Birkenhead Priory, Woodside Ferry, Shore Road Pumping Station (which is home to the “Giant Grasshopper”… the original steam driven water pump which used to pump water out of the Mersey Railway Tunnels which were the first in Europe), Egerton Dock Bascule Bridge and the Historic Warships, the tramway forms part of the Birkenhead Heritage Trail.
With a little foresight the disused railway track from Bidston Station, along Beaufort Road and Corporation Road could also be utilised. A large car park could be constructed at Bidston Station and a Park and Ride scheme utilising the tramway could transport passengers to the town centre, taking the strain off the town centre car parks. The tramway could be connected to the disused line with a new section of track constructed opposite Egerton House and the existing track used to service Wirral Metropolitan College’s campus at Twelve Quays (Shore Road) and Woodside Ferry. It would be nice to think that this scheme would be a possibility but financial restraints and the fact that it does not fit into Merseyside and Wirral’s Transport Policy ensure that it would be a non-starter… but we live in hopes!
As well as the usual tourist passengers and enthusiasts that travel on the tramway, school parties are a regular feature as are themed weekends when the staff dress up in period costumes. An unusual passenger on the tramway travels from the Taylor Street Terminus to the Waterside Crèche at Wirral Metropolitan College’s Twelve Quays Campus. It is none other than Father Christmas who distributes presents to the children at the Crèche.
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Updated - 24-09-09