When observing transport projects such as the tramways being built in Nice or Edinburgh, it seems that where rail transport is concerned, serious cost benefit analysis goes out the window while people are usually commercially hard-nosed in their attitudes to buses. Perhaps there is something psychologically irresistible about vehicles on iron roads, although it is difficult to know exactly what it is.
The main thoroughfare of Nice is called the Avenue Jean Medécin after the city’s long-serving mayor. At Easter it was practically impossible to navigate, even as a pedestrian, because the city is building a new tramline.
When I was a small boy, my father took me to see Edinburgh’s last tram. The city’s mayor, grandly titled the Lord Provost, waved graciously as a decorated tram rolled along Princes Street into history. The following day, workmen began ripping up the tracks. But today Edinburgh is planning a new tramway. Trams used to be seen as noisy, expensive, dangerous and inflexible: relics of a past age, doomed by the efficient modern bus. What has changed?
Nothing at all. People’s love of rail transport is independent of economic realities. People like modern trams because they are clean, fast, reliable and comfortable. They are clean because they are powered by electricity, they are fast and reliable because they run along their own tracks and they are comfortable because they are newly built, spacious and well sprung. The same companies that make the trams can build electric buses to the same designs, to run along dedicated busways, which would be equally clean, comfortable, fast and reliable. But we do not ask them to. Buses are typically cheap and nasty, diesel powered and compete with other vehicles for space on congested roads. It is like comparing two composers by listening to one on a wind-up gramophone and the other on a modern hi-fi system.
Buses have big advantages over steel-wheeled vehicles. They are more versatile – a tram off its rails is useless and dangerous, while a bus benefits from its own tracks but does not need them. Traditional electric buses are still restricted by their overhead cables but buses powered by fuel cells or batteries can go anywhere. Building and maintaining busways costs a small fraction of the price of a tramway and creates a fraction of the disruption.
The main advantage of the tram over the bus is that it can carry more people. You can couple trams together to make a train and if the engines are powerful enough a train can be a mile long. But the back of a bus cannot be too far away from its driver. At busy times, 40 trains an hour carrying more than 1,000 people each run along each track of London’s underground Central Line. In the same interval, 500 vehicles with 60 to 80 seats each use the bus lane in the Lincoln Tunnel from New Jersey to Manhattan. But very few routes are as heavily travelled as these.
The benefit of larger vehicles is the opportunity to save operating costs by carrying higher passenger numbers at lower frequencies, with fewer drivers – a benefit to the operator rather than the user. That is why commuters rightly complain that rail services are not frequent enough, prone to overcrowding and tend not to go very close to where they want to be.
So why the ruinously expensive Nice and Edinburgh tramways? The capital costs of tramways are typically 10 times those of a bus system, with no material advantages. Where rail transport is concerned, serious cost benefit analysis goes out the window while people are usually commercially hard-nosed in their attitudes to buses.
The answer seems to be that there is something psychologically irresistible about vehicles on iron roads, although it is difficult to know exactly what it is. E. Nesbitt could write a charming novel about The Railway Children, but The Bus Children would have gone directly to the publisher’s rejection pile. Small boys and their fathers play with model railways.
I share the sentiment. The daily transit of “The London” through the Perthshire village where I spent each summer was even more exciting than the last tram: two steam locomotives would pull the daily service to and from the capital through the foothills of the Scottish Highlands, the train that Richard Hannay used to evade his pursuers as he sought The Thirty-Nine Steps. Alfred Hitchcock would never have let Robert Donat catch the overnight bus.
Childhood fantasies and adolescent romances are well worth the price of a novel or DVD. But it is a mistake to spend billions on inferior realities by relaying iron rails. Last month, FirstBus unveiled the new vehicles it plans for York in England’s north-east, which are disguised to look like trams. Perhaps they have found the answer.