Monday, November 21, 2011

Edinburgh Needs Trams!

If you’ve driven around Edinburgh recently, you’ll have noticed that every second street seems to be blocked or partially blocked by roadworks, traffic cones and temporary lights. Even Princes Street, the main road through the city centre, is entirely closed. Roads that remain open and free of obstruction are jammed with slow-moving traffic. Serious delays have become a way of life. I must admit, I am surprised that no one has worked out how to fix the travel chaos, as the answer is obvious. What Edinburgh needs is a modern, cost-efficient, ecologically-sound tram system – preferably one extending from Haymarket train station to the shopping mall at Ocean Terminal.

Why has no one thought of this before? Well, I don’t know. As I walked around Princes Street last week, I noticed that there are already ancient tram tracks on the road! Many of them are in appalling condition and will need to be re-laid and some of them are clearly inadequate for the weight of a modern tram, but I’m sure we can trust the council to do its homework right. Let’s say we import the wrong weight of tram from Spain and have to send them all back. It would cost around £300,000 to send them here and (I suppose) about the same to return them. That’s only £600,000, which is not bad for a bit of ill-researched speculation! Even if that doesn’t include the costs of the trams themselves...

It amounts, in fact, not even to a “small glitch”, which a bigwig at Edinburgh City Council has set at £200 million. Losing that amount of money in a major public project is only a “small glitch”, quite normal and not a problem, she seemed to say, which is a great relief. For one minute, I thought losing £200 million of taxpayers’ money might be grounds for mass council resignations, but it’s reassuring to learn that such losses are unimportant. We can always pay more council tax and shred spending on public services like education, rubbish collection and health services, and we’ll have that £200 million back in no time.

Some people have pointed to one of the best bus services in Britain and questioned the need for trams, especially as they will end up costing more than £1 billion. That’s not the point. Buses can’t get round the dug-up streets and temporary lights any better than a car. But with trams, you can build the tracks anywhere. For instance, there’s a patch of land down by Broomhouse which was dug up and tram tracks were indeed placed there – must have been some bizarre social experiment. There’s now no question of trams going anywhere near there and the land is now being dug up again for no apparent reason (although it has created employment, don’t forget that). The point is that it proves digging up random wasteland is possible and if a tram theoretically could go down there one day, it’s been worth doing as far as I’m concerned.

Others I have spoken to about this have looked at me with a glazed expression and argued that building the tram tracks will close off even more streets. This is true, but tram tracks are easy and quick to lay. I’d estimate – if we started now – the trams would be up and running by summer 2013 at a cost of only £545 million. There may be several “glitches” (I’m not sure how many “small glitches” are normal and acceptable, but let’s say five are acceptable – that’s only an extra £1 billion) and there’s always the possibility of contractual disputes, but I can recommend a German company who specialise in sorting these out and will not tolerate the inconvenience of work taking place until everyone is happy. Even if establishing mutual happiness takes years. And happiness is what it’s all about, right?

Finally, it is really important that not everyone is allowed to use the trams. Pensioners shouldn’t be allowed to use their passes. We don’t want old people on those beautiful new forms of transport. Nor do we want habitual bus-users – carriers of colds and wearers of old clothes – to soil the trams, so season tickets for buses shouldn’t cover tram-use. Trams should be reserved for people who have cars with four-wheel drive, especially those who currently drive them to work with no one in the passenger seats. They will, of course, continue to do this when the trams are built, but it’s all about opportunity. I believe strongly in creating further opportunities for people who already have more that they can realistically cope with. That’s the measure of a developed society, after all. It's also vital that trams stop as infrequently as possible, so that no one gets taken where they want to go. Long brisk walks will cut the current strain on the National Health Service.

I hope Edinburgh City Council are listening. And Alex Salmond and the Scottish parliament. I know new ideas like trams will take a bit of getting used to, but I’d recommend councillors take a number of trips to beautiful cities in southern Europe where trams are already established and, over a few glasses of Rioja, sign up for trams and make sure the cost of getting out of the contracts is astronomical. That way there’s no temptation to turn back if things are going disastrously. Until the trams arrive, I also demand that they provide every household with computer-generated images of trams gliding silently down a Princes Street without traffic cones, wire fences and the constant racket of pneumatic drills. There are, as all theologians argue, trams in heaven for those who believe.

(acknowledgement: I got the photo at the top from this site)

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