Trams on Wrong Tracks ?

Trams came to the city of Edinburgh in 1871 when a horse drawn line was opened between Bernard Street in Leith and Haymarket via Leith Walk and Princes Street.  This was followed over the years by some 26 further southern and northern routes throughout the city. For some 85 years until 1956 trams provided the main means of on-road transport with a pretty comprehensive assortment of routes.

From those early years after 1900 there were no great numbers of cars or buses as such, however, Edinburgh Corporation introduced its first motor bus in 1910’s and in the late 1920’s given the increasing importance of buses, the Edinburgh Tramways Department was renamed the Edinburgh Transport Department. Over the years, slowly but surely and by the early to mid 1950’s buses and cars were perceived to be the best way forward and the widespread tram network in Edinburgh was discontinued.

Nevertheless, a programme to replace trams with buses was introduced in the early 1950’s and Edinburgh’s last tram operated until the middle of November 1956.  At the time of closure, the total length of the various tram routes was 47 miles.  As a comparison  the revised 2016 ELR proposal is probably a few miles less.

Now, 146 years on, one new tram route (which became fully operational at the end of May 2014) runs from York Place to Edinburgh Airport via Haymarket including an off-road section from Haymarket to the Airport, a total distance of 8.7 miles -the section of this planned route between York Place and Newhaven via Leith Street, Constitution Street and Ocean terminal was never built.  Other routes were planned between Haymarket and Granton,  Ingliston to Newbridge and Granton to Newhaven but due to the trams costing more than double the original budget, contractual difficulties, missed deadlines, a delay of over 5 years, the original tram network being halved and financial constraints, they have not as yet been taken forward.

On the other hand, the 1840s was a time of mass railway development in Britain as steam trains were cheaper and faster than canal boats or horse drawn carriages.  While the first steam trains had appeared before Queen Victoria‘s reign, by the 1840s and early 1850s private companies had built about 8,000 miles of railways all over the country and transformed Britain.

The major change to rail passenger services in Scotland became apparent in the late 1950s, with the introduction of diesel locomotives, diesel multiple units and most of all, the electrification of the Glasgow area local services with the introduction of the “Blue trains”, with the final withdrawal of steam locomotives in 1967.

Of course during the mid 1960s many heavy rail routes were closed under the “Beeching Axe”, along with some after Dr Beeching’s resignation, the most notorious being the Waverley Line from Edinburgh to Carlisle, which partly reopened to passengers on 6th September 2015, which now terminates at Tweedbank, which lies between Galashiels and Melrose. The distance between Edinburgh and Tweedbank is 30 miles, which is less than a third of the original Edinburgh to Carlisle line.

The policy which replaced rail services with buses also failed as in many cases the replacement bus services were far slower and less convenient than the train services had been that they were meant to replace, resulting in them being extremely unpopular with the public.  Furthermore, it seems initially that replacement bus services often simply ran between the disused station sites, some of which were remotely situated from the communities they were supposed to serve.  For all these reasons, most of the replacement bus services only lasted a few years before they were removed due to a lack of support thus effectively leaving large parts of the country without any means of public transport.  In practice, this policy proved unsuccessful, as the travelling public never saw a bus service at the time as a suitable replacement for a rail service and travelled by car instead as this had become more affordable.

So, to a lesser extent buses and to a greater extent cars were the demise of many heavy rail train services and not only it appears, in terms of both the north and south suburban railway lines but many other local lines as well.  The demise of the car will not be the new tram route, the bus or indeed the proposed Edinburgh Light Railway Company Limited (ELR) light rail train solution, but, the proposed ELR light rail train solution will offer a much more extensive service and more choice to a much larger catchment area, resulting in a significant reduction in the amount of cars requiring to either traverse or enter the city.

While trams by and large have to compete with pedestrians, bicycles, motorbikes, cars, buses and lorries for road space unless dedicated tramway and other routes are designated, the associated traffic management solutions put in place have allowed for a workable system.  Any light rail train network on the other hand, unless merged with tram routes, would for all intents and purposes remain, as heavy rail trains have in the past, isolated from other traffic.

Redundant track coming from the Millerhill depot which used to form part of the old Waverley line and the branch to Loanhead / Straiton, taken in July 2010. Of course the new Waverley line has a new route in this area which takes in Shawfair, although the ELR proposal advocates utilising this line once again for the proposed Edinburgh Cross Rail Extension via Danderhall and the ERI, as well as the Loanhead / Straiton links, all crossing over the new Waverley line

The ELR proposal advocates mainly single track extensions to part of the existing heavy rail network and similarly would construct the light rail train routes on single track – each of these additional routes would of course require passing loops at either stations or other locations and determined as planning of the network develops. As we know, the estimated costs of funding additional double track heavy rail lines or a network of tram routes across Edinburgh in the longer term is likely to be exceedingly costly, suggesting that a light rail train solution is not only going to be more beneficial in terms of construction costs, it will be quicker to construct, there would be little or no disruption to traffic, more functional in terms of the number of different links it will provide, more innovative, more practical, more affordable and given the current thinking on developing mass transit systems by using existing and available railway formations, the most plausible way ahead.