I’ve always like cities that have tram systems – although I didn’t actually see a tram until I was 17 years old.
At the time, I’d just finished working as a grape-picker in a vineyard in French-speaking western Switzerland and was using my earnings from the grape-harvest, such as they were, to travel around the rest of Switzerland and then around Germany. The trams I saw clanging and clunking down the streets of Basel, Bern, Zurich, Munich, Heidelberg and Bonn, with their wheels trundling along rails set in the asphalt and cobbles, and their trolley poles skittering along overhead wires, looked positively Victorian to me. Yet in terms of comfort, they were a pleasure to ride on – especially compared to the city buses I was familiar with in Edinburgh, which were noisy, smelly and covered in grime. Indeed, while I dreamily wandered about those Swiss and German cities and watched the trams rumble by, I was lucky on more than one occasion that I didn’t wander too close to them and get ground into their rails. Yes, I was so wet behind the ears in those days that I was practically equipped with gills.
Since then, trams have been a feature of several cities I’ve lived in and a feature of other cities I’ve visited that made a big impression on me: Prague, San Francisco, Istanbul… In Australia, Melbourne felt to me more like a ‘proper’ city than Sydney did, possibly because of the majestic street-cars that glided through its thoroughfares. When I briefly worked in Dublin in 2004, the city had just had its first tram-line installed, from St Stephen’s Green to Bride’s Glen, and everyone I spoke to was as pleased as Punch about it. The Dublin tram system is called the ‘luas’, which is an Irish Gaelic word meaning ‘speed’.
Even the Japanese city of Sapporo, where I lived and worked in the 1990s, had a tram system. Known as the ‘Shiden’, it was a tiny affair, confined to eight kilometres of track that ran between the inner-city district of Susukino and the bottom of Mount Moiwa on the city’s south side. It looked its age too – it’d started operations in 1909 – but public affection for it had prevented the city authorities from ever scrapping it. What I remember most about Sapporo’s Shiden was that in the evenings you could hire it out and hold a party on board it. You could enjoy the trundling run from Susukino to Mount Moiwa with a giant barrel of ice-water and beer-cans in the middle of the coach and a bunch of drunkards packed into the seats around you. But that was the 1990s – maybe Japanese Health and Safety culture (if such a thing exists) has now consigned those drunken tram parties to history.
And in Tunis, where I live at the moment, what redeems the downtown area of the city for me is that, despite the piles of uncollected rubbish and the fetid-smelling sewers, you are liable at any moment to see a stately, green-painted tram go cruising along the French-colonial streets. (Invariably, there’ll be a couple of truanting schoolboys traveling for free by sitting on the coupling pin at the back of the last coach.)
In the United Kingdom, however, we do things differently. Whilst city-dwellers in other countries have retained their tram systems into the 21st century, we began the process of dismantling ours in the 1930s. This was done with the encouragement of the automobile and oil industries, who assured British governments that as soon as the way was cleared for mass car ownership, life would be clean, uncluttered and utopian. Actually, the axing of the tram networks caused a public outcry as loud as that which greeted the slashing of Britain’s rail system in the 1960s (done under Lord Beeching, who was the Freddie Krueger of British transport history). But with both trams and trains, the country’s politicians assumed that they knew best and what the people thought was ignored.
Glasgow’s GCT network was the final one to go, in 1962. After that, the only surviving British tramway was in Blackpool.
However, recent years have seen something of a comeback for trams in Britain, with new lines being installed in Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham and Croydon. And I was pleased, initially, when in 2008 it was announced that work had begun on a new tram system in Edinburgh, which would link the city airport in the west with Leith and Newhaven in the east and run along Princes Street in the centre. There was something appealingly steampunk in the idea of trams operating again in the city of Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – I could easily picture them trundling along Princes Street between Jenner’s Department Store and the Sir Walter Scott Monument, with Edinburgh Castle on its crag forming an ornate backdrop.
Unfortunately, as any Edinburgh-er will tell you, the saga that has unfolded since 2008 has been the stuff not of fantasies, but of nightmares. Supposed originally to have been up-and-running in 2011, the Edinburgh tram system isn’t due for completion now until 2014. Its budget, meanwhile, has rocketed from an initial estimate of 375 million pounds to over a billion. And the project has been bedevilled by disputes between contractors and the management company, Transport Initiatives Edinburgh, which was finally relieved of its responsibilities in 2011.
The Edinburgh public has been subjected to endless inconvenience around the city centre, where tramline excavations have disrupted transport (and been a continual blot on the cityscape). The Scottish government, now run by the Scottish National Party, inherited the project from the previous administration, has been wildly unenthusiastic about continuing it and would’ve scrapped it if they hadn’t been outvoted on the matter in the Scottish parliament. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has announced his intention to hold a public enquiry into the Edinburgh trams debacle in the near-future.
Meanwhile, as costs have mounted, the planned tramline has been gradually whittled away. No longer will it go to Newhaven, but it’ll stop in St Andrew’s Square just off Princes Street. Indeed, it was mooted for a time that the line should be curtailed at Haymarket Station, far short even of Princes Street. Speculation among original tram enthusiasts (who these days seem to be thin on the ground) that the network might be extended to the north and south of the city, with future trams rattling away to places like Granton and Newcraighall, now sounds like pie in the sky.
So how did the Edinburgh trams project go so catastrophically off the rails, before anything had actually started running on those rails? Alex Salmond claims that he knew ‘in his water’ – Alex Salmond’s water, incidentally, is not an image I want to carry around in my head – that the scheme was a bad idea, because it involved making too many excavations in a historical city where the soil is cluttered with relics from past eras. In a perceptive article for the Scottish Review of Books, accessible at http://www.scottishreviewofbooks.org/index.php/back-issues/volume-six-2010/volume-six-issue-four/367-the-route-to-nowhere-georgie-rosie, the learned Scottish journalist George Rosie describes workers encountering “100-year-old water pipes, cables from the previous tramway, the remains of a Carmelite priory and a leper hospital, a Victorian water culvert running under Princes Street and more than 300 long-dead corpses lying under Constitution Street in Leith, some of which had lain there since the end of the fifteenth century.”
In fact, Rosie sees the problem with the project as being part of a wider narrative. Scotland’s industrial sector – which a couple of generations ago could have lain those tramlines and knocked out all the trams needed in the space of a few months – has declined nearly to a state of non-existence and the Edinburgh project has had to draw on engineering and consultancy companies from Spain, Austria, the USA, Germany and France. A Frankenstein’s monster of stitched-together components from two continents, it’s perhaps surprising that more things didn’t go wrong with the scheme.
I was in Edinburgh two months ago and such was the scale of the tram-works in St Andrew’s Square and on Princes Street that the city centre looked like Beirut, circa 1982. Let’s hope that the place looks slightly less apocalyptic when the crowds arrive for the Edinburgh Festival next month. Here are a few photos:
Meanwhile, Iain Rankin must be kicking himself that he ended his Edinburgh-set series of crime novels featuring Inspector Rebus back in 2007. If he’d extended the series a little longer, he’d surely have had material for one more novel – one where Inspector Rebus had to investigate irregularities in the Edinburgh trams project and found himself embroiled with dodgy contractors, corrupt local politicians and financial embezzlement and wheeling-dealing on a scale not seen since Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.