When I was a small boy in Edinburgh my father took me to see the last tram roll along Princes Street. The lord provost waved to the crowds as the tram disappeared into history. The next day workmen began pulling up the track. Fifty years later, the rails were relaid, only for Edinburgh city council to decide last week to abandon plans to run trams on them again.
Another expedition with my father took me to the National Monument at the east end of Princes Street. A replica of the Parthenon overlooking Edinburgh’s New Town was planned to mark the delight of citizens at the end of the Napoleonic wars. Unfortunately, the delight of the citizens was less than anticipated.
A few lonely pillars, colloquially known as “Edinburgh’s Disgrace”, have stood there since 1830 when the money ran out. As did the money for the tram. Edinburgh’s second disgrace will be a half completed tramway running from Edinburgh airport to Haymarket, some distance short of the city centre.
When the scheme for a new tramway was mooted, I wrote a column in this paper, prompted to ask what had changed in the decades since I travelled to school by tram. Nothing, I discovered. Trams were phased out because they were inferior to buses as a means of public transport. They still are.
A tram requires a dedicated track. A bus can use a dedicated track but need not: it can use a busway, a lane on a main highway, or simply share the road with other vehicles. This gives bus services flexibility to cope with varieties of traffic conditions and changing user requirements. Modern trams are cleaner and more comfortable than most buses, mainly because trams are ordered by visionaries who do not much care about costs while buses are operated by hard-nosed business people. You can buy 10 environmentally friendly modern buses and still have change from the cost of one of Edinburgh’s trams. The tram may have twice as many seats but the bus can offer a more frequent service. New Jersey’s Lincoln Tunnel expressway carries eight buses a minute; the planned frequency of the Edinburgh tram is six an hour.
The operating costs of a tramway are generally similar to the total cost of providing similar public transport by bus – roughly £1 a trip in a busy urban area. If the Edinburgh tramway had been completed as planned it might have expected
10m-15m passengers a year, mostly diverted from existing bus services, and accounting for perhaps 5 per cent of public transport journeys in Edinburgh. The bus service that takes you from the airport to the city centre in 25-30 minutes would have been replaced by a tram taking you there in 25 minutes. Anticipated revenues, for trams or buses, would have been in the £10m-£15m a year range. The tramway would have been a marginal proposition if it had cost nothing to build.
But the projected cost of the Edinburgh project was £545m. The Scottish government, flush with money in 2006, offered £500m of this. A year later, the newly elected Scottish National party government tried to withdraw funding but was outvoted in parliament. It now appears that the actual cost of the scheme would be closer to £1bn and thoughts of completion have long been abandoned. Even the almost useless line to Haymarket will cost another £250m or so to complete and commission. Edinburgh’s own mismanagement, and the insistence of the re-elected SNP government on letting the city council bear the results of its own folly, leaves the citizens of Edinburgh to foot this bill, at about £500 a resident.
The planned inquiry into the fiasco will inculpate the councillors and officials who wasted £750m of public money on a vanity project. But other groups should not escape censure. The consultants who deployed black box models to provide justification for the scheme and the civil servants who promoted – indeed insisted on – such pseudoscientific analysis. The naive enthusiasts and cynical contractors who have promoted trams to municipalities across Europe. Trams belong in a museum of transport history, not the streets of modern cities.