Published by EH.NET (December 2006)

Alberte Mart?nez, Carlos Pi?eiro and Carlos Velasco, La Compa??a de Tranv?as de La Coru?a, 1901-2005: Redes de transporte local. Madrid: LID, 2006. 370 pp. ?24 (paperback), ISBN: 84-88717-95-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jes?s Mir?s-Araujo, Department of Applied Economics I, University of La Coru?a (Spain).

Industrialization’s second wave brought the development of networked services, a topic which has been studied with renewed dynamism in recent years. In this book Mart?nez, Pi?eiro and Velasco focus on one of those networks, urban transport, as they analyze the evolution of the Tram Company of a Spanish city, La Coru?a. Probably the most outstanding feature of the research is that it combines both business and urban history techniques, though the authors attempt to adopt a broader approach, as they also apply methods of social history. In sum, more than a simple history of the company — which is fully fulfilled — this volume intends to put into context the evolution of the business with the evolution of the city. As this service has been greatly influenced by technical changes, this book’s structure is conditioned by technical transformations.

The publication is divided following a chronological sequence, into four main parts, which are linked to the technical changes introduced by the company. These are structured into twelve chapters, plus a brief introduction, conclusions, appendices, sources, references, and endnotes. The first chapter is devoted to an introductory discussion, in which the authors explain the long genesis of public transport in the city, throughout the period 1876-1903. A brief chronicle of the former urban transport systems is carried out, as well as the projects delineated during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. There is a feature common to other Spanish cities, the enduring inability of local treasuries to fund transportation infrastructure. Given the high initial costs and the need to apply modern management systems, Spanish councils were forced to pass on the building and development of these systems to private firms, and sometimes even to foreign capital.

The second chapter analyzes the beginning of the management and the building of the early horse-drawn trams (1903-12). This was a difficult period for the Tram Company. CTC urgently needed to attract private capital in order to face the high investment cost hidden in the change of traction to electrical energy and the enlargement of the network. However, the issues of capital and fixed rents of the company did not find a positive reaction, and local capital was barely involved in the project. Therefore, the company had to apply a financing plan that was intrinsically unbalanced, and created a dangerous situation for the future of the company and the quality of the service. The profit margins during these years were low, not directly as a result of an inefficient management or deterioration of the urban economic environment, but as a result of the very nature of horse-drawn trams, inherently inefficient as transport demand increased. In this chapter the evolution and productivity of the lines are analyzed, as well as projects to amplify service away from the city.

The third chapter deals with the electrification, expansion, and peripheral extension of the lines (1913-29). During the 1910s several plans led to the building of a new tram system with electrical traction, and its penetration towards the north of the metropolitan area. The change of traction was carried out progressively, but it was almost immediately very profitable to the business. The most damaging aspect was the beginning of the operation of a peripheral line that connected La Coru?a with the town of Sada (20 km), open in 1922. This meant an outstanding increase in the length of the urban network, which reached a maximum in 1929 (25 km), remaining stable up until the late 1940s. Yet data on the results of exploitation show the low profitability of this route.

In the fourth chapter, the business during the 1930s is examined. This was a stage of managerial continuity, marked by two critical events, the 1930s slump and the Civil War (1936-39). Trams slowed down during those years. Despite this, the company attempted to provide new services, obtaining new concessions (of trams and railways) all around the province, in order to expand the service areas. CTC also initiated some pioneering bus-line services in several suburban routes. But a crisis arose, due to the inflation of costs, low vehicle occupancy rates, and the decline of income on the line to Sada.

Chapters five, nine and twelve embody the social approach of the work, as the employees of the company are considered. During the first third of the twentieth century the most outstanding feature was stability in labor relations, as a result of the combination of a relatively protective policy by the company, employment stability and moderate salary increases. The 1930s, on the contrary, were harsher, because of the economic crisis and labor conflicts that arose during the Second Republic (1931-36) created considerable instability. The most critical change took place after the war, as a result of the modification of the labor policy of the Franco dictatorship. The freezing of salaries caused a serious deterioration of employees’ purchasing power, although it did not provoke significant labor conflicts, due to political repression and the counterpart of employment stability. The 1960s witnessed the start of regulation that was based in labor agreements which are still in force, and have allowed a gradual improvement of the labor status.

The problematic management during the post-war period (1939-48) is the object of chapter six. At first, demand grew. Although deterioration in per capita income levels may be perceived, the strong demographic growth of the 1940s increased the use of transport services, which benefited from the relative reduction of fares. The troubles came from the supply side and transport companies suffered declining profits for several reasons: inflation in the Spanish economy, increasing State regulation and controls (especially on fares), energy bottlenecks and problems with importing equipment and parts, due to an autarkic commercial policy. These factors introduced severe inefficiencies in the management of the service, which brought about a strong decrease in the company’s real income.

During 1948-62 (chapter seven) the company replaced trams with trolleys. This change was driven by the deterioration of the tram network during the post-war period — due to an increasing utilization and the lack of maintenance — and from the social perception of relative technological obsolescence. As well, urban and national economic activity was recovering, and this stimulated the company to face new investments. Tramlines in the city were gradually replaced. This transformation had positive effects on profitability, above all from the mid 1950s, when the coefficient of utilization in the new vehicles significantly increased, although the line to Sada and the urban trams showed negative results.

The third change of traction, the replacement of trolleys by motorbuses, is the object of the chapter eight. The last tramline was closed in La Coru?a en 1962. The city council began to display a new strategy, elaborating a Plan of Transport Coordination (1962), whose goal was to supply new neighborhoods, as well as to replace trolleys (which reached 34.2 km) with motorbuses. However, the project was not officially authorized until 1978. In parallel, another company was created (Autobuses Urbanos de La Coru?a, in 1965), which provided transport services to the city through motorbuses and which was finally purchased by CTC, after a lengthy process.

Chapter ten synthesizes the crisis and reorganization of the service that took place between 1979 and 1989. The impact of the inflation of costs derived from the economic crisis of the 1970s intermingled with syndicate demands that took place in the context of the political transition in Spain, and with the irregular increase of fares. The efforts during those years were directed — by the city council — to elaborate a global and actualized plan of urban transport and to attain an adequate level of fares to guarantee the economic viability of the business. The restructuring of the service was achieved by the late 1980s.

Finally, chapter eleven explores what the authors call “peaceful managing,” between 1990 and 2005. This stage was characterized by slower demographic growth in La Coru?a and by the stability and progressive modernization of the service, once the restructuring of urban transport was solved. There have been important increases in the number of passengers transported, as well as in business profitability. The main challenge now is the future growth of the metropolitan area.

Alberte Mart?nez is Lecturer in Economic History at the University of La Coru?a (Spain). Carlos Pi?eiro is Permanent Lecturer in Financial Economics, and Carlos Velasco is Lecturer in Contemporary History, both at the University of La Coru?a.

Jes?s Mir?s-Araujo is Associate Professor of Economic History in the Department of Applied Economics I of the University of La Coru?a (Spain). His latest publications include “Shifts in the Economic Structure of a Medium-sized Spanish Town during the Post-war Period: La Coru?a, 1939-60,” Urban History (2004); “The Spanish Tramway as a Vehicle of Urban Shaping: La Coru?a from 1903 to 1962,” Journal of Transport History (2005); and “The Commercial Sector in an Early-twentieth Century Spanish City: La Coru?a, 1914-1935,” Journal of Urban History (2006, forthcoming). His research focuses are on urban history, public services and tertiary sector development, in Spanish cities.