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The 50th Anniversary this week of the last tram running through Glasgow (which I witnessed as a boy) had me reflecting on the prospects for Scottish trams in the 21st Century.

Strathclyde Passenger Transport Executive’s 1995 proposal for a tramline from Maryhill to Easterhouse met with strong objections from First Bus which were sustained by the Westminster Commissioners, who rejected the scheme.

The advent of the Scottish Parliament means that we now have a democratic and transparent process for deciding on tram schemes and of course, Edinburgh has a tram line under construction.

But there are two risk factors which make any streetcar scheme in Scotland problematic. Firstly, streetcars require exclusive use of part of increasingly congested road space, for which other types of traffic compete. Secondly, the continued existence of bus deregulation in Scotland means that any streetcar service could be targeted and commercially undermined by competing bus services ; a less mentioned yet still attendant risk associated with the Edinburgh scheme.

Another way to use trams in a way that is virtually free of the above two risks is to run them on their own exclusive right of way, just like a train. Indeed, there is a strong case for selective conversion of some of Scotland’s Heavy Rail Lines to Light Rail i.e. tram running. One advantage of such conversion is that the capital cost of Light Rail rolling stock is around one third of the cost of Heavy Rail rolling stock . Another advantage is that modern tram vehicles can stop at and accelerate away from stations more quickly than trains. Indeed, this latter advantage makes it possible for additional station stops to be added to a converted rail line, thus expanding passenger catchment, without the time penalty on end-to-end journeys that additional stops impose on heavy rail .

Given the Victorian origins of many of our heavy rail routes, and given the fact that many residential communities are currently not within heavy rail catchments, deploying trams on converted rail lines, which the tram can leave and run as a streetcar for the “last mile” to serve such communities, makes a lot of sense.

Indeed, I have visited such a system in the German City/Region of Karlsruhe, where they go one step further and allow tram/trains to mix in with conventional rail traffic too, something the UK’s Railway inspectorate will still not allow.

Another major benefit of Karlruhe’s tram/trains has been the signicant shift from car commuting to tram commuting ; most cities in the developed world have a similar policy objective. But Karlsruhe transport officials made it plain to me that their comprehensive bus network , which pre-dated their tram/trains, failed to achieve a significant modal shift from car commuting ; many cities in the developed world have similar cultural resistance to bus commuting.

As a Glaswegian of a certain age, I remember Glasgow’s old trams with affection and I mourn their passing.

But it’s not nostalgia that makes may say that trams should be a big part of Scotland’s transport future...and bus deregulation must go.

Charlie Gordon 7 September 2012







© Charlie Gordon 2012