Friday, 12 November 2010

Rails - A Guest Post

My guest poster is Derek Reynolds who contacted me after this post.  How could I resist a post from someone who understands trams.  Because I prefer a graphic to accompany my posts I asked Derek if he had any preference. He chose the above photograph and I thought his reasons deserved to be included in his post.

There are thousands of tram pictures, but the one that stands out for me (being a 'constructive' sceptic) is of the subsidence beneath track in the Woolwich Road, Charlton, S.E. London. The setts are subsiding and the rail joints are dished. Such arrears of maintenance in the late forties when this was taken, were not uncommon and of considerable concern. There are two tracks in this shot, between each set of rails is the slot in which the electric current was collected from an underground conduit system. This was a most expensive system to install and maintain, and demanded by the London County Council in preference to 'unsightly' overhead wires in the central area. The accumulation of dirt, leaves and water in such a system can only be imagined.

Now you know the history of the image I will post his essay and, even though you don't like trams, I'm sure you will empathise with the situation in Edinburgh.

Those Dasterly Trams

I am seduced by trams. Their sheer elegance enthrals me. They sigh and moan, hiss and purr, and do not offend the nose or ear like the brute bus. Trams are like beautiful women, or expensive cars; lovely to see; lovely to watch; lovely to hear - but they'll break your heart, and your pocket.

We live and work in the real world, not one of wishful thinkers, and I offer these observations from having been involved in transport, carrying fare paying public, and commercial goods in and around London for over thirty years.

Trams need specialised depots, hundreds of miles of steel track set into an existing road network upon which some of the vehicles are incompatible with, two wheelers especially so. On corners and junctions where slippery steel inlays are at their most complex there is considerable danger, another reason to; a) remove other vehicles, b) continue using the established motor buses. The servicing of underground electricity and communication cables, along with water and gas conduits becomes increasingly difficult with embedded track work. The comparatively straightforward notification of road works for sewer maintenance etc. will need rail engineers sanctioning for excavation beneath track carrying heavy electric traction sets. The track work itself wears out and needs replacing periodically. (The town of Grenoble is renewing it's tram track after just ten years of service [as at 2005] ), one of the reasons why London trams were eclipsed by the bus, as well as a backlog of maintenance and war damage to attend to. Tram tyres, steel variety, also wear and need replacing - and not by Kwik Fit – specialist engineering, and specialist transport required. They cannot be driven around accidents or temporary road closures for any reason. One power failure and the whole network can be affected. Overhead wirework is expensive to maintain in addition to track work. They are public transport in a straight jacket. Where they have long been established with continuous use and update, they have become part of that towns infrastructure and attraction. But where they have been eclipsed, like poverty before plenty, we should not wish its return.

Had we not aspired to the personal conveyance, and did indeed seek access from home to shop or work – had we wide boulevards allowing commercial and delivery traffic to exist alongside a fixed tramway network in a town with a fixed policy of no re-development – there may be room for the be-gowned ladies on steel. But this is not the case.
Compare with the motor bus:
With no rails or wires attached, total flexibility is achieved. Changes to a one way system? The motor bus can do. Overtake one another? The motor bus can do. Temporary diversion – a fire, an incident, perhaps a bomb threat? The motor bus is immediately diverted. The dream of a future transport system based on early twentieth century parameters in which the tram was a saviour from a long walk, or a rough ride in a trap, is folly. In every town in Britain where the tram has made a come-back, the installation and running costs have escalated out of all proportion to the comparable cost effectiveness of the motor bus.

Some claim trams are 3 times as fuel efficient as buses. Detailed figures are available from Transport Watch ( whose analysis show the electricity consumptions for some systems by using the calorific value 42.2 Mj per kg, the specific gravity of 0.84, the thermal efficiency of power stations set to 35% and transmission losses set to 4%. Passenger-km are available from Transport Statistics Great Britain. Hence, and in deference to the UK vernacular, they are able to quote
passenger-miles per gallon of diesel as follows: Strathclyde in 2003, 59: Tyne and
Wear in 1990, 52: London Underground in 1990, 95: Croydon Tram in 2002, 91:
Midland Metro in 2004, 75. In contrast a bus enjoying a tram alignment, no congestion and a stop spacing the same as for trams may return 8-10 miles per gallon. With 20 people aboard that would yield 160-200 passenger miles per gallon.

The figures quoted in June 2005 for the West London Tram Link were in the region of £400m. More up to date figures are around £700m. The variance over such a short period of time may be indicative of a scheme capable of escalating to astronomic proportions. If the motor bus in its segregated lane cannot move people efficiently enough, what benefit would any tram avail us, being further entrapped on its predestined rails of steel?

The beauty of the modern tram can be seen here Mostly on dedicated track. Precious few other vehicles or pedestrians are visible in the various scenes shown. Very seductive. The UK pages are here Scroll down to ‘Hurdles and Barriers’ for a synopsis of red-tape to be overcome, but bear in mind this is a pro-tram site. Light rail systems on dedicated land alongside railways or motorways may yet have a future. But to re-introduce a spider’s web of surface and overhead steel into existing crowded street scenarios, will have long lasting effects of future development and planning. We cannot afford such risk. The spider’s fatal attraction may lead to bankruptcy.

A quick cast back in time -

In 1949 Lord Latham, Chairman of the London Transport Executive, delivered a speech outlining plans for the tramways conversion program in which he stated: "The loss on the trams is about £1,000,000 a year." 1949 remember. In the same year it was announced that the Trolley-Bus system would also be scrapped. (The scrapping of trams was to become known as ‘Operation Tramaway’).

Sir Cyril Hurcomb, Chairman of the British Transport Commission, was quoted as saying that maintenance on vehicles and tracks was costing around one and a half million pounds a year - March 1949. Two months later, on 16th May, the same theme was taken up in the House of Commons by Mr Callaghan, the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport. He reiterated that the Government did not favour retaining systems, which required keeping a fixed track in the public road.

In the July 1952 issue of London Transport Magazine, a message from the Chairman of the London Transport Executive, Lord Latham sums up, what to him were the main features of the conversion to Buses with the conclusion that: 'The final replacement of the trams by a more modern, more flexible, and more manoeuvrable vehicle will be a landmark in the history of the capital which we serve, and a major work of civil importance'

What has changed? The failure to learn from history, or the wilful ignorance of the facts? It is said that history oft repeats itself. The scheme that Ken Livingstone and TfL are planning for West London (and elsewhere) will close the main roads that currently carry a large percentage of through traffic and local service traffic at choke points in Acton and Ealing to allow the trams to run, all other traffic will be shuffled off into the back streets. Roads are the arteries of commerce. They need as free a circulation as possible - not choking to death. 
If you want to travel on a tram, there are living museums to cater for your requirements, and if Croydon is not to your taste, you could travel abroad and experience long established networks with modern vehicles. The re-introduction of trams to the already crowded London streets will bring chaos. The complete flexibility that the rubber tyred, steerable road vehicle gives us – is irreplaceable. We have adapted our road network to it, with a smooth, safe – easily replaced surface for all vehicles. Our service industry and commerce in general relies upon it. It has given us golden eggs – we should leave the goose alone!

I like trams, I would like to travel on them for pleasure – they are novel to British eyes. But like expensive toys, the novelty wears off when one gets used to them, and begin to wonder - was it worth it?

D. Reynolds.


Jess The Dog said...

The Edinburgh tram is using a lot of off-road space as a way of bypassing bottleneck congestion on the A8. Because of economies of scale it is not cost effective to build a limited network. The main problems are in the City Centre and Leith, particularly on shared roadspace and where there are complex underground utilities that need to be moved to the side of the road for future access. These vehicles are more like trains than buses...they reach high speeds off-road and are light rail...which is effectively heavy rail under design and safety standards. Throw all that into a City Centre with a reactionary approach to development...when it suits them...and you can see the trouble.

JuliaM said...

And this is what makes reading blogs so worthwhile; the chance to see, with fresh eyes, something you may never before have even considered!

JRB said...

Can’t argue with any of the points made

… but

Call me an old romantic fool, but having been brought up in Glasgow, the ‘Caur’ will forever hold a place of fondness and affection in my heart.

I still have the ticket from my last ever tram ride, and tucked away safely in a drawer is an old penny bent in half, having been placed under the wheels of Glasgow’s very last tram.

I now find it vastly amusing that a lifetime later, a new generation has discovered the tram and wish to introduce them into our cities.

You must watch -

Apogee said...

Have to agree with the points made.Trams are back to the past, they were a solution to a problem at the end of the 19th century,they will cause big problems in the 21st century.A few days ago there was an article here about the trams in Melbourne.The original system was built at a time when the population was small and land was plentiful, the width of the roads testified to that.In 1960 I was working in Melbourne, for all of three weeks and as it happened trams were the easiest way to get to work,because it was a 10 mile run and a lot of it was light rail,not on the road.
For the first few days it was a novelty which very quickly wore off. Noisy, draughty if the doors were left open, and downright dangerous in the city when you had to cross two lanes of traffic on each side and remember to watch for trams coming the other way as well.
must be a lot worse now.I noticed in the clip that the old trams are still in use, that would be very old trams now. Edinburgh will certainly have a interesting experience, If the system is ever completed. Hope they can afford it!

Demetrius said...

Great post. I have the "heads or hearts" problem. I even have a Trams folder on file for when I am in a sentimental mood. My heart wants to see them rattling through the streets again. But my head says that in most places it is an expensive and inflexible solution. It can work on the streets only if there is a massive reduction in urban area traffic. One of the pities is that so many urban areas once had rail networks which if retained and linked would have made decent light rail frequent stopping systems.

Joe Public said...

I just wish those authorities which authorise such grandiose schemes pay for inevitable cost-overruns out of their existing budgets. [i.e. Taxpayers don't inherit extra costs]

As Derek correctly points out their notional 'efficiency' ignores real-life inefficiencies created by operational inflexibility.

You can guarantee that the creators of such 'efficiency' calculations conveniently ignore consequential inefficiencies. [They probably qualify as candidates for the Nobel Prize for Fiction.]

subrosa said...

Even someone like me could see problems before the project was started. I remember the problems Dundee had taking up the rails far less laying them Jess.

Good to see you BTW.

subrosa said...

I'm sure Derek will be pleased to read that Julia.

subrosa said...

Thank you for that link John. I remember the last tram coming up Dens Road, Dundee but I have no souvenirs. We crowded the pavements and everyone stood silently. Yes, an era was over.

subrosa said...

They were noisy, draughty and could shake false teeth out of a mouth I'm sure Apogee.

I think transport in Edinburgh will be a nightmare once/if this rail link ever becomes reality.

subrosa said...

That is one of the pities Demetrius. I understand some rail networks in Edinburgh would have been a viable option but that was rejected.

Aye, I'm just a romantic about trams but I can see they won't solve any Edinburgh traffic problems.

subrosa said...

This project, like the SP, has been abysmally handled though Joe.

Dark Lochnagar said...

You've obviously never been in sales. Sell the sizzle!

subrosa said...

DL, you've lost me completely. :)

Derek said...

Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. I read somewhere it is also classified as a medical condition, in which case I am as sick as anyone!

Just yesterday, I acted as conductor on a private hire Routemaster bus carrying a wedding party across London. The guests were appreciative of the bus, and one stated she would love to spend all day riding across London on such a vehicle. But she can - London is full of double deck buses that would carry her thus, but does she? No, because they are there, surrounding us daily, commonplace, that which is familar breeds contempt. It is only when such things are gone that the heart strings are pulled, and we succumb to that with which relates and connects us back to childhood, or past qualities of life.

Many thanks for the comments, and to Rosie for a space for expression.


Derek said...

'The Last Tram'

That's a wonderful film, superbly edited and shows just how much life in a City has changed. The crew rooms, the banter - everything.

Thanks for the link JRB.

Edward Spalton said...

For all those feeling nostalgic, we have an excellent tram museum at Crich in Derbyshire, often with themed Forties weekends etc.

When I was first acquainted with my Glaswegian wife, she mentioned the tram depot at Auchinshuggle. I really thought the name must be a comedic invention, like Ballygobackwards in Ireland. Then we visited the museum and, sure enough, there was Auchinshuggle on a Glasgow tram's destination board, "But" said Herself " That number never went to Auchinshuggle"..

There is also a Trolley Bus Preservation Society. I just happen to know of it because my noble friend, the doughty Eurosceptic Old Labour peer, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, is its President.

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