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25 January 2013

Progress is Circular

Isn’t it interesting how much of our “progress” is “regress”? One normally thinks of progress as moving forward, whereas in many respects we are, so to speak, recycling.London Trolley-buses   Back in the 1940 and 50s, so-called “working-class” families in cities lived in terraced housing. They went to work using buses, trolley-buses, and trams (see left).
This is a bit confusing for American readers, because I believe what the British call trams, the Americans call trolleys. If I talk about trolley-buses I mean electric buses using the roadway but powered by overhead cables. If I talk about trams I mean ‘buses’ running on rails (again powered by overhead cables). (See below left).

As for the trains, most of the national network was running on steam.

By the time we had entered the “Swinging Sixties” trolley-buses and trams in London had been phased out, all replaced by diesel buses. Other cities around the country followed suit (with the notable exception of the iconic trams running along the sea-front in Blackpool).

During the same period we bull-dozed the streets of terraced houses and replaced with them with high-rise apartment blocks.
British Rail phased out steam locomotives, broke them up or consigned them to scrapyards, and started pulling trains with diesel and electric locomotives.

Fifty years later, cities that ripped up their tramway lines have reintroduced – or are in the process of reintroducing, tramway systems. Cities that tore down the trolley-bus overhead cables and consigned the silent buses to the transport dustbin, are now considering the reintroduction of trolley-buses. (Below: Sheffield tram and proposed Leeds trolley-bus)

There are currently eight new city tramway systems in the UK. Four more systems are proposed or in preparation. Leeds and London are looking at plans for trolley-bus routes.
Last week a policy “think tank” recommended that high-rise apartment blocks should be demolished and replaced by – guess what? – terraced housing.

Whilst mainline train routes are unlikely to return to steam, it is notable that enthusiasts rescued hundreds of those discarded steam locos and restored them to running order. They bought up abandoned branch lines and developed a hugely successful collection of “heritage” railways around the country. Even more remarkable is the fact that a group of lunatics (sorry, enthusiasts) got together in 1990 and actually built, from scratch, a brand new Peppercorn A1 Pacific from the original 1940s plans found in the National Railway Museum in York. They named it Tornado and by 2008 it was up and running. It is now pulling special steam excursion trains on the national network all over the country.


And so it seems that the more we progress away from the past, we simultaneously return to it, albeit in different (and hopefully improved) forms.

As for flying .. have I mentioned hot-air ballooning?





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