TRANSPORT COLUMN: Going back to the future

An Edinburgh tram in Princes Street
An Edinburgh tram in Princes Street

A hundred years ago, every city in Britain, and most towns above a certain size, had an electrified street-tramway system, Blackpool having led the way in 1885.

Blackpool was also the only system never to be abandoned in favour of motor-buses, though it had those as well as time went on.

Some tram systems were converted to trolleybuses during the century, so that the same electrical supply was used, as it was usually the same council that supplied electricity to the town.

The last electric street tramway in Britain, other than that at Blackpool, was in Glasgow, which closed in 1962. The last trolleybus system was in Bradford, which closed 10 years later.

Some, but not all, places on the continent followed the British practice of total dependence on motor-buses, but many places kept their trams going.

By the 1970s, motor-bus services in towns were being disrupted by increasing levels of traffic congestion and thought was given to the principles necessary for the provision of fast, reliable public transport in towns and cities.

The leader in the next revolution in urban public transport was Newcastle, whose suburban railways had suffered the loss of their pioneering electric trains, dating from the early years of the 20th century, because the electrical supply equipment was worn out and were being served by slower and very much dirtier diesel trains, which polluted the atmosphere terribly as they accelerated away from their frequent stops.

A plan was drawn up to re-electrify the lines and connect those on the north bank of the Tyne with those on the south bank by a tunnel under the city and to introduce new light-weight trains at higher frequency.

These were designed to use the existing railway platforms, so were not suitable for street running.

The Metro began operation in 1980 and emboldened other cities to push the concept further.

Manchester followed in 1991, the first of the new generation of electric street tramways and after that they followed thick and fast. Even Blackpool’s historic tramway has now been rebuilt as a modern light railway, while keeping some of its ‘heritage fleet’ for special occasions.

The infrastructure of a tramway system is very expensive, but lasts a long time, and the trams themselves are cheap to run compared with buses, so high-frequency urban tram services are more affordable.

A modern tram typically has the same number of seats as a bus, but can carry twice as many passengers standing as seated, while a bus can carry only a handful. This is perfectly acceptable for the short journeys made by most tram passengers.

The recently-opened Edinburgh tramway was so badly built in the city centre by its first contractors that it had to be rebuilt, with consequent time and budgetary consequences, and only half of the planned system has been built so far.

The preparatory work (moving services, kerb-work etc) was done in Leith Walk several years ago, so laying the rails for the next section should be comparatively quick and easy.

For smaller flows, in the suburbs and the wider hinterland of cities and large towns, work is progressing on making motor-buses more eco-friendly. A wholly electric single-deck bus has been produced, but it is still impossible to raise the storage capacity of batteries sufficiently to make electric buses practical for intensive use.

A better solution is a compromise, like all good solutions. Hybrid buses run on batteries, but carry a small diesel engine to top them up as necessary. These are coming into service in increasing numbers.

As battery technology improves, it seems likely that it will be more practical to reduce the amount of topping-up necessary in a hybrid bus rather than increasing the range of wholly electric buses.

The opponents of HS2 keep trying to persuade us that it is a bad thing and the money could be better spent, but we do not hear the same arguments voiced so strongly about new sections of road (except from those on whose land they are built!).

It is astonishing that the real purpose of HS2 is not more clearly explained. The worrying thing is that even the designers seem to be treating it as a new self-contained railway and it would be desirable to see it linked more obviously to the existing network to fulfil its function of providing a fast link from north to south and vice-versa without the delays caused by local traffic in the midlands and the commuter belt.

Another astonishing thing is how many people seem to be treating HS2 as an immediate threat to the status quo. It is, sadly, unlikely that the writer of this column, or even many of its middle-aged readers, will experience its benefits. That will fall to our heirs and successors.