Magazine article The Spectator

If I Am Wrong about the Lunacy of Trams, I'll Crawl over Waterloo Bridge on All Fours

Magazine article The Spectator

If I Am Wrong about the Lunacy of Trams, I'll Crawl over Waterloo Bridge on All Fours

Article excerpt

Metropolitan Spectator readers bear with fortitude our witterings about country life, so forgive me, green-wellie brigade, a column about trams. Disturbing news this week demands that I repeat the argument against an idiotic and expensive vogue.

Trams are to public transport what outside lavatories are to domestic sanitation: a great advance in their time, long overtaken by happier arrangements, obsolete.

Unfortunately, we are experiencing a new fashion for trams. Weak-minded transport strategists are bringing them back. I dare say there will be a fashion for outside loos, too, in due course; but the money that it is possible to waste on retro-chic sanitation is small change by comparison with the billions being blown, or projected to be, on new urban tramways. Manchester now has them and is covered in steel poles. Croydon has them. Sheffield has them. And this week it has been announced that the metropolis is to get them: two extensive tram systems are to be built in London. One, in west London, will run from Uxbridge to Shepherd's Bush via Acton, Ealing and Southall; the other will run from Camden and King's Cross through Euston and Waterloo to Peckham and Brixton.

The mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, says that they will cost about half a billion pounds and take about ten years to complete. Certainly the work can be done in that time ten years of appalling traffic jams in central and west London while all the roads are closed and dug up is as much as anyone can be expected to bear. But about the cost Mr Livingstone is simply wrong: there is no way that the infrastructure and rolling stock can be provided for less than 1 billion, and if in ten years' time he can prove me wrong, I'll crawl on all fours across Waterloo bridge, which by then will be infested with hideous overhead poles and cables ruining its present beautiful, clean silhouette.

Let me remind you why trams were abolished in the first place: because they were slow and noisy and expensive to build; did not mix easily with other road vehicles; had poor braking and acceleration, making them dangerous to life and limb; required a truly disgusting tangle of overhead metalwork (the street furniture is an aesthetic disaster); and because they were liable to block not only all following trams, but other traffic, too, whenever a tram broke down.

Let me remind you why buses took over: because a bus is basically a tram on rubber wheels which can be steered. This gives faster acceleration and safer braking, quieter running, the ability to manoeuvre round any unexpected obstruction, including other buses, and the flexibility to change routes or be operated away from any route and anywhere in the world. Buses can therefore be mass-produced in standard models and are much cheaper; and they require no infrastructure of rails, poles or cables because they use the road which is already there. At root a bus is more forgiving: of things in the way, of failures of power supply, and of sub-standard road surfaces.

Beyond sheer nostalgia (and the socialist's anal obsession with anything which runs on rails, cannot stray, and can therefore be tidily packaged in a municipal transport planner's mind), there are five arguments for a new generation of trams.

Though steel wheel on steel rail still makes for noisier running and poorer adhesion, modem trams are faster and quieter and can brake better than their predecessors; but they remain inferior to buses. …

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