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Scottish Tramways - a personal view by Neil Mackenzie: Edinburgh meeting of 24 April 2012

Trams dominate traffic, whereas buses are dominated by it. With at the height of development 37 Scottish undertakings of which 20 started with horses, trams in Scottish towns were transient, too capital-intensive for their small networks, so had the bus been invented earlier these short-lived systems would never have been necessary: with the sole exceptions of Falkirk, which was successful until bought up and shut down by the bus company, and Rothesay whose open-top cars would today be a major tourist attraction.

The four cities were a different matter, but while the Continental equivalents were modernising their systems, Dundee and Edinburgh never possessed any reserved track. Edinburgh's misfortunes had started much earlier, with the aberration that was the adoption of cable trams in response to a campaign by Baroness Burdett-Coutts against the cruelty of horse-trams.

The old- a Glasgow tram seen at Summerlee Museum.d

The old- a Glasgow tram seen at Summerlee Museum.

© John Fender, 2012

Conversion was complete by 1897, requiring interchange at Pilrig with Leith's overhead-wire system, but the system with trams having to disconnect where two cables crossed was already an anachronism since the USA had begun converting its cable cars in 1891 except in San Francisco whose very steep hills necessitated retention.

In 1923 following Leith's absorption into the capital R. S. Pilcher led the replacement of cable with electric trams, declaring that the creator of cable should be given a medal then taken out and shot, but rather than seizing the opportunity for wholesale modernisation the existing vehicles and routes were retained.

Sheerness had been the first English town to abandon its trams in 1917 due to wartime difficulty in obtaining spare parts. A Royal Commission on transport in 1930 received advice that trams were inappropriate to small towns but decided instead to recommend their elimination even in cities, which was achieved by London in 1952.

In Scotland only the trams in the four main cities had survived World War Two, with some modernisation but retention of ancient vehicles including in Aberdeen the last open-balcony cars in Britain. Edinburgh saw a campaign to retain its trams in 1953, but three years later the last ones had gone from there and Dundee, with Aberdeen and Glasgow following in respectively 1958 and 1962. Trolleybuses the next best thing were liked by the public but difficult to operate, and all had vanished from Scotland by 1967.

The new - one of Edinburgh's new trams in Princes Street.<d

The new - one of Edinburgh's new trams in Princes Street.

© John Fender, 2012

The resurgence of trams was led by the mayor of Nantes in 1975, with other French cities including Grenoble, Montpelier and even (on circumferencial routes) Paris following his example. Of 460 systems now in operation worldwide, 150 are newly-built: and there are grounds for hope that Edinburgh will grow beyond its initial one line.

However the city has made mistakes, rejecting Netco's low-cost solution in favour of a shortlived faith in guided buses that had been evolved in Essen for the purpose of taking buses underground, and tram expert Scott Hellewell had rejected as unsuitable to trams the conversion of the guided-busway alignment as a route to the Airport because it skirts centres of population such as Broomhouse to run through Edinburgh Park which is dead at the weekends.

Edinburgh's tram vehicles are too long (extra segments could have been inserted later) and too wide, with the rejection of any single-track sections resulting in pinchpoints at Shandwick Place and Princes Street, and at a fleet-size of 27 there are too many (surely an option would have been possible to order more later?) for initial requirements with the loss of the Granton route which would have benefited regeneration: while the lack of crossovers on the approach to the city centre may make for lack of flexibility.

Report by John Yellowlees. Photographs by John Fender


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