London Transport was the main operating body behind London's bus, trolley bus, riverboat, tram, and underground railway services for over 60 years. In recent years it has been broken up and privatised, with the Tube now a seperate entity, and the bus services contracted out to numerous private operators.

Also note that suburban rail services running through London (such as the North London Line or the Thameslink) do not and did not fall under London Transport's jurisdiction, although LT travelcards are valid on these services.

The name London Transport was retained only as a blanket term for transport services in London, and has since been replaced with the rather naff 'Transport for London' name, with an information website at:

The History of London Transport
NOTE: This WU only concerns surface transportation, if you are interested in the Underground please read my other WU, The History of the London Underground.

The first public transportation in London was provided along the river Thames by small rowboats called 'wherries'. These were fast, especially given that before the 19th century, the actual city centre only extended about a mile from the shores of the river. After 1815, paddle steamers replaced the wherries, to be in turn replaced by railways (and the underground railway) in the 1860s and 70s.

Like many European cities, the streets were narrow and more conducive to pedestrians rather than wheeled vehicles. The first vehicles for hire appeared in the early 17th century. Called hackneys, derived from the French word for a strong horse from hire - 'hacnqueneé', these four-wheeled carriages were strictly licenced but proved popular, rising from 300 in 1654 to 1100 by the start of the 19th century.

Meanwhile, longer distances were run by stagecoach, which could only operate from a terminus in the yard of a large inn. These were very expensive, and could not compete with the 'hackney carriages' who now held a monopoly over transportation in the centre of London. This monopoly, brought about as a half-hearted attempt by the city to reduce traffic congestion (yes, 200 years ago traffic in London was already a nightmare!) was ended in 1831.

The Omnibus ('for all' in Latin)

With the abolition of the hackney monopoly, two new forms of public transportation that had been lurking in the shadows finally arose. The first was the humble cab, a two-wheeled horse-drawn carriage for hire. The second was the omnibus. The first omnibus company had been founded in Paris in 1828 by Stanislaus Baudry, and served to inspire George Shillibeer, an English coach builder. In 1829, two years prior to the lifting of the hackney monopoly, Shillibeer ran a small omnibus service outside of the monopolized area: from the City, via Islington, to the Paddington Basin area. Fares were still high, but far lower than that of the stagecoaches, and further, the buses ran to a schedule rather than requiring a booking.

Success breeds imitation, and there were 376 licenced omnibuses racing about the streets of London by 1834. Racing is indeed the correct term, for, competing for fares, the drivers would often race one another, attempting to steal each other's passengers. This behaviour inevitably lead to complaints, and so a proposition was put forward that a central regulatory body was needed. 1838 saw the introduction of licences for drivers and conductors, followed by the establishment of numerous operator's associations to pool revenues and regulate previous competing services.

A general slump in business followed the Great Exhibition of 1851. However, this soon passed with another dose of French inspiration - all the Parsian omnibus firms had recently been united into one huge company, and a London Equivalent, the Compagnie Générale des Omnibus de Londres was established in 1855. Known in English as the London General Omnibus Company or LGOC, this new company had little trouble taking over the struggling London omnibus operators. Within a year, the LGOC was the largest omnibus company in the world, controlling 600 of London's 810 omnibuses.

Clang clang clang went the... tram

Trams are in many ways superior to buses, particularly in the mid-19th century when they were pulled by horses over smooth rails as opposed to rough, cobblestone streets. The LGOC was refused permission by Parliament to build a tramway, and it was the aptly-named George Francis Train who succeeded in building the first tram line in London in 1861.

Train's original three lines (Bayswater Road, Victoria Street and Westminster Bridge to Kennington) all failed, as he foolishly built in posh neighbourhoods where the residents all owned their own carriages. Further, his rails protruded dangerous from the street, hampering other vehicles. As a result, all three lines were removed after a scant few months.

1869 saw the authorisation for three further tramways, the first, the Metropolitan Street Tramway Company's line from Brixton to Kenington, began operating on May 2 1870. This was followed a week later by the North Metropolitan Street Tramway Company's line connecting Whitechapel and Bow, and finally, the Pimlico, Peckham and Greenwich company began operating that December on the 13th. These trams succeeded, as they offered cheap transport, special half-price workman's fares during peak hours, and so within its first six months the North Metropolitan had carried a million passengers.

Tramways began to expand rapidly as a result, and the passing of the Tramways Act of 1870 prevented a hackney-style monopoly by requiring local councils purchase the tramways in their areas after a period of 21 years. However, the city centre and West End remained the domain of the omnibus.

The LGOC had recently begun to face competition in the omnibus stakes from the London Road Car Company, or LRCC. Established in 1881, the LRCC held many innovations over the LGOC, such as improved omnibus design and a superior ticketing system. The LGOC was quick to copy these innovations.

Good news for the glue factory: former LGOC horses for sale - cheap!

As the 19th century wound down, technology began to make its impact felt to the tramways. Attempts at steam trams in 1885 failed due to the obvious smoke and cost, while a small cable-driven system using the same technology as San Francisco's cable cars saw only limited success between 1884 and 1892. Electricity was the key, but again, batteries were inefficient, heavy, and not the solution.

The solution came in two forms. For the majority of London, trams were powered by a trolley pole contacting an overhead wire. However, in the city centre, where the London Country Council (LCC) had just come into possession of the tramways in its jurisdiction, a more expensive conduit system was used, where the power is supplied by a trough between the rails, beneath the city streets. Although costly, this appeased environmentalists (NB: mentalists) who considered the overhead wires to be unsightly. The first electrified tram in London began operating on April 4, 1901. By 1910, the LCC had electrified 120 miles of its tramways, reaching 149 by 1920.

Unfortunately, by this time trams could not compete with motor buses for flexibility and comfort. Similar failures with steam and electricity that had afflicted the trams also hit the buses in the closing days of the 19th century, and the solution came from the internal combustion engine. (metalangel asks: Why did nobody consider an internal combustion-powered tram?) Gasoline/Petrol engines were still unreliable in the 19th century, thus the first motor bus did not begin operations in London until 1904. Other companies followed suit, and by 1907 there were over 1,000 motor buses in London of varying types and manufacturers - none of them reliable, especially in the face of the electric trams.

On July 1, 1908, the expense of motor bus operation saw numerous small operators absorbed into the LGOC, who was developing their own reliable, standardized motor bus. They struck gold in October 1908 with the B type, which at its peak was being rolled out of the Walthamstow factory at the rate of twenty a week. By 1911, the B Type bus had replaced all the obsolescent horse buses.

Pirates, Indie, and trams crushed beneath the relentless rubber of the trolley bus

The LGOC was taken over in 1912 by the Underground Electric Railways company. For simplicity's sake, the names 'Underground' and 'General' were kept for the railway and bus operations respectively. The new company made the Walthamstow bus works its own company, Associated Equipment Company or AEC. AEC concentrated on developing bus technology specifically for the LGOC, in direct competition with other bus builders Leyland and Dennis, who supplied independent bus drivers. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Police began relaxing its regulations on bus licensing, resulting in larger, more comfortable buses which soon outstripped all but the finest trams for luxury. This was reflected by the fact that by 1923 the LGOC bus service was carrying more than either the trams or the Tube.

The giant bus/underground/tram company, which became known as the Combine, in 1913 absorbed the last two remaining independent tube lines. Thus, the city centre's transportation was almost entirely monopolized by the Combine, and passenger numbers rose despite falling numbers of buses. After the First World War, the Combine was crippled by AEC being unable to supply enough new buses, and the rival suppliers took the opportunity to supply the numerous independent companies who had sprung up seeking to profit from the holes in the Combine's service. Due to this state of competition, the Indies became known as 'pirates'.

The Indies were far more flexible than the Combine, changing routes and dodging traffic jams at will. The Combine's response was to flood the Indies' routes with buses in the hopes of reducing the take per vehicle, thus making the Indies unprofitable. The local councils complained about the wear and tear to roads caused by so many buses, which had now reached 5,000 (over 3,522 in 1913, and 3182 in 1920). Meanwhile, the Combine was starting to lose the battle to provide service to the whole city as the Indies would head for the most profitable routes, reducing the profits which the Combine would have used to subsidize their less profitable suburban routes.

The solution came in 1924 with the London Traffic Act which required each bus company to register its schedules and intended bus allocations, and also restricted the number of buses permitted to operate along each street. The ratio of Indie to Combine was also fixed, and so by 1930 passengers carried by Indie buses dropped to 5% from 13% only five years previous. The Combine soon set to buying out all the near-bankrupt Indies, who tried to save themselves by converting to long-distance coach runs, only to be squashed by the Combine's own Green Line bus service.

Service continued to improve and by the time the entire city's transport services were unified in 1933 into the London Passenger Transport Board (or London Transport - LT), London had the largest, most modern bus fleet of any city in the world. That same year AEC became an independent company, and supplied buses to numerous transportation companies until it was finally amalgamated (that is to say, absorbed) with old rival Leyland.

Meanwhile, trams were in a bad way. They were spartan and no match for the comfort of the latest LT buses, and their fate was sealed by a 1931 Royal Commission on Transport recommendation to 'phase out' tramways. Later in the year, the replacement for trams arrived - the trolley bus (I am become death, destroyer of trams). Originally described in its infancy as a 'trackless tram', the trolley bus had advantages in that it was more maneuverable than a tram, yet could use much of the existing tram infrastructure. Work on converting trams to trolley buses began in 1935, and delayed by the Second World War, was not completed until 1952 when the trams left London, seemingly forever. Again, London was now a world leader, its 1811 trolley buses making the largest fleet in the world. But again, LT could not leave well enough alone.

Trolley buses crushed by diesel buses

In spite of having a new delivery of trolley buses, LT decided they would now scrap their only just completed trolley bus network in favour of diesel buses. They began work on the new Routemaster class bus with AEC, with the first Routemasters entering service in 1959. Three years later, the trolley bus service ended, and the Routemaster became the dominant double decker bus in London. Many are still in service, and have yet to be bettered in design or reliability.

Diesel buses continued to dominate in both single deck and double decker forms, but after hitting a peak in 1949, LT's ridership fell as the number of privately owned vehicles in London rose from 480,000 in 1950 to 1,920,000 in 1965. Buses became part of the traffic jams once again, and the new suburban areas catered to by the underground and railways meant fewer people living in the city centre area. Bus Lanes appeared in the 1970s to combat the traffic jams, and single-man operated buses began to replace the Routemasters and their conductors on the quieter routes.

The Modern Day - Privatisation rides again

As it stands now, London Transport no longer really exists. Instead, routes are divided up between a number of private operators such as London General, Metroline and Arriva who run a variety of buses from various manufacturers throughout London. For familiarity, the buses remain bright red yet are also decorated to reflect their owners (there is one exception - the Korean-owned Capital Citybus company whose buses are bright yellow and operate throughout the East end). The tram, meanwhile, reappeared in Croydon. There are also night bus operations, which are loathed by residents due to their poorly-designed network (which usually involves travelling all the way to Trafalgar Square and then back out again to your destination). The riverboats are also again being considered as a means of practical transportation, although at the moment they're mostly just good fun (at least, if you have the crew I had... good funny lads)

The story of London's transport system is a complicated one. A mixture of silly decisions, greed, strange laws (covered double-deck vehicles were illegal as the Met considered them unsafe, and remained so until 1925!) and all the twists and turns that make truth stranger than fiction. The Routemasters still run on a few routes, and the single-man operated buses (who give change, something drivers in many, smaller cities refuse to do) are not a patch on both the efficiency and nostalgia of the rear platform with the conductor.

source for much of this is personal experience, with some help from the London Transpot Museum's 1980 guidebook

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