The UK used to be covered in trams, with networks in virtually every city and town, but now just eight (or six, depending on what you include) British metro areas use a light-rail system. Could they be set for a comeback? The popularity of Edinburgh’s trams suggest a renaissance in the making. The network opened in 2014, delayed by three years and millions over budget, but it’s partly made up for that by posting a profit two years ahead of schedule and winning the hearts of passengers. Watchdog Transport Focus recorded a 99 per cent satisfaction rating for Edinburgh’s system and 93 per cent for trams across Britain — the type of polling score reserved for dictators. Imagine loving your commute that much.
And no wonder. Buses offer better coverage, but in London congestion has slowed them to a stately average speed of 9.2mph. Trains are faster, but require more expensive infrastructure to be constructed — just look at Crossrail. Also known as streetcars or light rail (there’s debate around the nomenclature, naturally), trams offer riders speed and reliability, are cheaper (though not cheap) and easier to install than rail, and offer side benefits like no emissions and can help underpin neighborhood regeneration projects — though the latter’s not always welcome, of course.
“Think of trams as an urban development project rather
than a transport scheme,” says Martin Wedderburn, Transport Planner and
Associate for thinktank the Centre for London. “The physical permanence
of the rails has a much bigger impact on developers and investors,
especially in the UK where bus routes can be changed or withdrawn at
such short notice.”
Yet while light-rail use in England is at record highs of 268 million journeys, the highest since records began in 1983, they make up fewer than 3.1 per cent of all public transport journeys in the UK, and Transport for London (TfL) has been accused by a Croydon councillor of putting trams at the “bottom of their priorities”. (In response, TfL pointed us to the London mayor’s transport strategy, which does mention boosting the Croydon network.)
With all this in mind, did Britain go from tram leaders to running to catch up? Blame cars.
They may be seen by some as the future of transport, but trams are decidedly historical. “Electric trams first appeared in the UK in the 1890s, with a positive boom in the 1900s when every city and all major towns in the country had a council-run system installed,” notes Oliver Green, the former curator of the London Transport Museum and the author of Rails in the Road and Trams and Trolleybuses.
It was Britain’s golden age of cities and tram networks were their transport of choice. “This all happened when there was also a great ‘municipalisation’ expansion going on: cities expanding their boundaries, flexing their muscles and anxious to show that their town was seen to be doing well and in the vanguard of ‘progress’,” Green says. Six of the modern British tram systems now have a total network of 125km, but in the 1930s, CityMetric notes, the tramways of Birkenhead alone pipped that by two kilometers at 127km.
The glory days didn’t last. Buses soon provided competition, as they required no tracks or overhead wires, and petrol driven motor vehicles were seen as more modern. In 1927, Green says, there were 14,000 trams in use across the UK. A decade on that halved, and by 1950, there were just 4,700. “After the war, their fate was sealed and urban planners were obsessed with car-based redevelopment of war damaged cities, a vision which never included trams on urban motorways or roundabouts,” says Green. Aside from one holdout network in Blackpool, the last British tram was shut down in Glasgow in 1962, with 250,000 Glaswegians watching a parade of 20 trams through the city.
And that’s a shame, says Christian Wolmar, transport expert and the author of Are Trams Socialist? “If London had the network of trams it had in the 1920s, it would be a much more liveable place,” he notes. “There were 20 or 30 tram routes in the centre of London, stretching in and out quite far. It was an amazing network and it’s a great shame we lost that… It’s one of the great tragedies of urban planning.”
That’s a lesson some have learned. While Britain was doubling down on private cars, light-rail was taking off “practically everywhere else,” notes Green. “France has led the way with over 30 city tram networks opened in the last 25 years and more coming on stream,” he adds. “The world’s largest urban tram network is in Melbourne, Australia and even Los Angeles, the ultimate car city, has now opened three light-rail metro lines.”
But not all have been a success. For every streetcar success like Portland, there’s an Atlanta or Washington, with both new networks hit by high costs, delayed rollouts, complaints about routes, and fewer than expected riders.
The UK has also had “a modest roller coaster ride” of hits and misses over the past 25 years, says Green. Manchester and Nottingham both have successful tram networks, while the Sheffield Supertram has been unable to expand because of compatibility problems, he claims. Midland Metro was an “underachiever” until it was extended to the city centre of Birmingham — “a one-mile extension that took five years to build.” Croydon’s trams are well used but in 2016 a derailment caused by a speeding tram and apparently sleeping driver killed seven early-morning commuters. And then there’s Edinburgh Tram, which faced long delays, high costs, and the “abandonment of half the original scheme.”
But despite such challenges, trams in the UK have been “transformational,” says Wolmar. “Edinburgh is a fascinating story as they were deeply unpopular when they were being built,” Wolmar says. “There were huge arguments against it and the massive overspending, and yet now they’re already talking about having to expand the system.”
To work, trams need two things, says Wolmar: they need the right route, which may sound obvious but has been at the core of failed US systems, and they need priority on the road over cars, be that through a dedicated lane or preference at traffic lights. “In Toronto, the trams get fouled up by other traffic,” he says. “Whereas in European cities, they get priority.” Otherwise, you may as well just run a bus.
Down the line
Despite the potential benefits, trams remain niche in the UK, a mere echo of their historical heydey. There’s a few reasons for that: they take up road space, making them a tough sell to drivers already tired of traffic; they’re more expensive than buses because of the outlay for rails and central government isn’t willing to dole out the necessary investment; and they’re at the whim of fashion and political whimsy.
Indeed, plenty of smaller UK cities want to build trams — Leeds has been begging for one for years. Because of government frameworks, trams are better for cities to invest in than trains. Trams (and buses) are locally run and operated, meaning local authorities not only have control over schedules but they also get to keep the profit. That’s not true for heavier rail, which is nationally controlled. “It makes sense on their balance sheet,” says Steve Chambers, public transport campaigner for the Campaign for Better Transport.
But building a tram requires capital funding from central government or looser borrowing rules. “It’s such a hurdle to get the money up front,” Chambers says, noting Leeds has gone “cap in hand” to the government multiple times only to be turned away, and is now considering trolleybuses instead. To drive this infrastructure spending, the government could set up a tram fund from which to dole out capital costs or simply allow cities more financial independence to raise the cash however they can manage to, such as raising taxes or (more likely) via borrowing.
Such moves depend on the whims of politicians, and trams fall in and out of favour faster than bridges over the Thames. Ken Livingstone cheerfully touted trams as mayor of London, with plans for an Uxbridge to Shepherds Bush line and the Cross River Tram, which would have run from Peckham to Brixton and on to Camden — imagine the pub crawls. Neither of these were built, with the West London plans seen as too disruptive to traffic. “There was a change of mayors to Boris Johnson and he wasn’t so keen on trams,” says Chambers. “The politics of it — it goes in and out of fashion.”
What does current mayor Sadiq Khan think of trams? They’re mentioned in his transport strategy, with a possible extension to Sutton on the cards if local councils cough up funding, but there’s no mention of the epic Cross River Tram. “Everyone deserves trams, but maybe the transport is good enough in the centre, and we should be encouraging people to walk and cycle,” admits Chambers.
Indeed, trams may be the future of public transport from Australia to America, but they’re not on the cards for the UK. “Unfortunately there is little prospect of the situation changing in the near future. We are less likely to do anything like
Europe now that we are leaving the [EU],” says Green.
Plus, we’re too easily distracted by new mass-transport ideas, such as on-demand rides, hyperloops, and driverless cars. “The media obsession has moved on to the fantasy of driverless electric cars, which are definitely not the answer for planning our cities now or anytime in the near future,” Green adds. Once again, it may be a misplaced focus on cars that holds back British cities’ dreams of tram transport.
All Rights Reserved for Nicole Kobie