City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

"A Streetcar Named Desire"

By actionman - Posted on 11 October 2011

The sub-title of this lecture to the Royal Scottish Society of Arts was, "What the Edinburgh Tram fiasco teaches us about our attitudes to transport and the cities we live in."   It was given by Professor Iain Docherty, the Professor of Public Policy and Management of the University of Glasgow Business School in the Augustine United Church in Edinburgh on Monday 10th October 2011.

We were treated to a mini-history of transport through the ages with reference to the pre-1840s when the majority of people walked with the well-off using carriages, on to the post 1840 to 1930 period when the railways emerged and then horse drawn vehicles gave way to electrified vehicles, with finally the post 1930 period when the car took over and all forms of petrol and diesel powered vehicles prospered.

Next came a potted history of the development of Edinburgh where Professor Docherty made the somewhat surprising claim that the make-up of the commercial areas today reflected the old tram layout which the city dispensed with some years ago.    By now his liking for the tram was becoming clear.

In discussing the impact that a tram system could have on a city, he took care to stress the very positive impact that he felt trams had on those living in cities.   He talked a lot of 'regeneration' and how the tram could, in the right circumstances help to achieve this - although showing a picture that resembled Cumbernauld did slightly dampen the enthusiasm for the body of pro-tram activists.   Sadly it reflected the ill-fated scheme that was tried out  - and failed - for Princes Street some years ago.

The Professor said he felt that Edinburgh had selected the wrong routes to start off the tram project, stressing the need to connect the Universities, centres of housing (presumably he meant the Leith development) and transport nodes.  (The audience noted that Edinburgh has carefully avoided connecting up any of these 'key areas' so far!)

He went on to ask, "what do you want transport to do?"  

There were mutterings about, "just to work!" but the Professor continued his theme with enthusiasm to reveal the Civil Service concept of "Space" and the obsession of governments with what he called the 'core policy process' of developing transport schemes; these he implied always seemed to be  too grandiose and reflected the desires of the planners rather than the population.   We were shown photographs of Waverley Station and told that the great majority of people arrived by rail and that Waverley was a shocking and most uninviting arrival point - which we all knew and agreed.

Professor Docherty also attacked the public for their lack of ambition - presumably in Edinburgh, because we were told that in Malmo some forty percent of trips were on foot; we saw Kensington High Street where all unwanted signage has been removed and then we were shown Buchanan Street in Glasgow,  which has been pedestrianised - all good examples we were told.  Obviously we have failed in Edinburgh!

In the final section of the lecture Docherty conceded that the tram would not reduce traffic, nor would it get more people out of their cars or transform the Edinburgh transport system (one wondered why do we need it then?) but he seemed to feel that as we had spent (wasted?) so much money on the project we should go ahead and as we built more and more lines people would feel the value and demand even more and more lines.  This failed to convince many people in the audience.

There was a huge demand for questions - one of which, asked by John Carson, formerly of Network Rail, enquired why the Professor, who had been on the Board of Transport Scotland had failed to oversee the Edinburgh trams project properly.

In reply, the claim that he "was only a non-executive director" failed to impress.   He also recommended the comfort and convenience of the trams which was shown to be misguided as there are only seats for some 78 out of 250 on the tram, therefore every chance of having to stand all the way from the airport!  

It was not a convincing display and those who were not tram supporters left far from satisfied that the Professor really understood the problems of forcing a light rail project through the centre of a city with a World Heritage Site and the resulting congestion, pollution and general disruption that are being caused and which will get worse in the future.

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The name of the lecture is instructive...streetcar means tram but what was designed for Edinburgh was a large, wide and heavy is it.

The word 'Tram' conjures up so many positive images of course, and a true tram network fulfils so many good functions as PART of an integrated transport system.

However here we have something I feel would be more accurately categorised as a Street-train (ie something that in most cities runs underground..London/Paris/Glasgow etc etc or on track that never intersects with other wheeled traffic (Tyneside Metro).

Is there any point at which a tram becomes 'a train', whether in terms of it's size, it's designed speed (which is another reason why Edinburgh gets enormous traffic displacement problems) or any other criteria?

Obviously, saying "We're going to build railways on the main roads as a money saving(I) measure", conjures up entirely different images to ..'We're building a Green integrated  tram system.'  But we can't conduct any sensible debate until the terms are clearly defined,---- or is the whole idea of using fuzzy buzzword labels to prevent any chance of sensible and open debate?

The idea that "so much money has been 'spent' on the project that we must go on"  is always a beguiliung but particularly bankrupt argument (in all senses), and it's indicative that the final refuge of the people committed to turning this disaster into a proper catastrophe is precisely this argument... ..but that's a whole other discussion for another place..


During the lecture the Professor mentioned the fate of the Sheffield tram system which had been sold on for a nominal sum of one pound to Stagecoach who now operate the system.   Professor Docherty suggested that a 'sell off' might be the fate of the Edinburgh tram project - one wonders whether this was a long term possibility which was actively considered - in secret of course - by the SNP to reward their largest backer - none other than Sir Brian Souter, the owner of a transport company....named Stagecoach!     It might just be that a predator could just be lurking in the wings to step forward when the tram fails operationally or becomes too great a burden on the city.    He could then 'come to the rescue' and secure a billion pound investment of public money for a token sum....stranger things have happened