April 2007 was the centenary of the opening of the electric tramways of Torquay in Devon. This postcard, published by "Directory Office" of Torquay and posted in 1906, shows the construction of a passing loop in the track of Union Street at that time, with the church of St. Mary Magdalene in the background.
Tramways were fairly late coming to Torquay due to the council's opposition to overhead wires in the town. The Torquay Tramway Co. Ltd., a subsidiary of the National Electric Construction Group, built the tramway by using the Dolter Surface Contact current collection method, fully described with our Postcard of Hastings. The track gauge was 3ft 6in. The first test run took place on 14th December 1906 and after Board of Trade inspection by Major Pringle on the 7th March, the initial route was opened on 4th April 1907. This was a triangular line of nearly 4 miles in length. It connected Torre station on the Great Western Railway in the west, St. Marychurch to the east and Beacon Quay on Torbay to the south. The depot was at St. Marychurch and an additional route from there to Beacon Quay via Babbacombe opened in November. In 1908 there was an extension from Beacon Quay to Torquay Station.
The Dolter System was soon in trouble. Salty sea air and surface contact switching do not mix well. There was a high level of current leakage to earth and problems with studs either going dead or remaining live after the car has passed. To help with the latter, in addition to the usual warning system on the trams, a horse drawn cart with flanged wheels and a contact skate fitted with two light bulbs was hauled over the tracks. If a live stud was met, the bulbs would light up and a gang would make repairs. After a public outcry over the dangers, a letter was published in a local newspaper from E. Auby, the president of the Conseil d'Administration, Société d'Exploitation des Brevets Dolter in France, offering to visit and give advice on suitable cures and in fact Henri Dolter himself, together with the Paris city engineer, made such a visit. It was to no avail and, due to the unreliability of the system, the Board of Trade would only issue operating licence renewals for six month periods and threatened complete withdrawal.
By 1908 the company wanted to extend the tramway along Torbay to Paignton and to use overhead power supply, including on the existing section from Grand Hotel back to the proposed terminus of this new route at Vaughan Parade. Torquay town council still refused to allow overhead on the section within its boundaries. The company took its claim to arbitration and won, allowing the whole system to be converted to overhead by 6th March 1911. The company at that date opened its new extension, giving it a total of nine and a quarter miles of route.
The initial rolling stock for the Dolter System was 18 open top cars built by the Brush Electrical Engineering Co. Ltd., of Loughborough. They had 22 seats on the lower deck and 27 on the upper. They were fitted with 4-wheel radial trucks of 8ft 6in wheelbase designed by Montague Brown Mountain and Geoffrey Marsden Gibson, with two 35 hp General Electric 58-4T motors and had British Thomson-Houston B-18 controllers. In the 1920s some of these cars were given new Brill 21E trucks. The livery was maroon and cream (brown and yellow after 1929). An additional 14 similar cars but on Brill 21E trucks were added in 1910-11, with further cars added in the 1920s including four single-deckers from Taunton and six new bogie cars, bringing the fleet total to 42.
Like so many other tramways, the system suffered at the hands of the bus competition and the last tram ran on 31st January 1934. A dozen of the best trams were sold to Plymouth, six of the re-trucked original cars and the six bogie cars. However the tramway company does leave a legacy. In 1926 they had opened the 5ft 8in gauge Babbacombe Cliff Railway, which was sold to the town council in 1935 and is still in use today.
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