It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s… a tram


Here’s something I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever see – one of the Edinburgh trams that finally became operational a couple of months ago.  The other week I was briefly back in Scotland and, after arriving at Edinburgh Airport, at the western end of the new tramline, I decided to take a tram to Princes Street, near the line’s eastern end.



I’ve written about the Edinburgh tram saga before – about how the project was announced in 2008 and was supposed to be completed in 2011 but took twice as long; how its budget was originally supposed to be 375 million pounds but eventually crept up to a billion; how the whole thing became bogged down in arguments between contractors and Transport Initiatives, the project’s management company, who were embarrassingly ‘relieved of their duties’ in 2011; and how plans to have the trams trundle all the way to Newhaven, north of Leith, were trimmed back to a much shorter route between the airport and York Place, off the end of Queen Street.


All told, the Edinburgh trams scheme was, to quote Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It, an omni-shambles.  During the run-up to the Scottish referendum on independence, I saw on the websites of (mainly English) newspapers many posts from readers who held up the trams fiasco as conclusive proof that the Scots were way too inept to ever successfully run their own affairs – although the Scottish National Party had always opposed the project while the Unionist parties in Edinburgh Council were the ones who’d pushed ahead with it.


But now that Edinburgh has the things, and leaving aside the debate about whether or not they were needed in the first place, how do they actually measure up?  Well, firstly, when I stepped out of the airport terminal building, I was surprised at how far I had to walk to find one.  The airport tram-stop is some way beyond the embarkation point for the shuttle bus that runs to the city centre, and I suspect that the majority of folk who land there, laden with luggage, will continue to take the bus because the trams are just too distant.  Also, I wasn’t impressed by the fact that the ticket machines at the tram-stop don’t accept notes and don’t give change.  And for a five pounds a ride to Princes Street, it’s a tad pricey.


For a good part of the journey, as the tram winds its way through the industrial park / retail park / car park periphery of western Edinburgh and halts at places like the Gyle Centre and Ingliston Park and Ride, the cityscape outside is so anonymous that you feel you could be anywhere.  It isn’t until Murrayfield Rugby Stadium looms ahead that you remember you’re in the Scottish capital.  And it isn’t until after that, at Haymarket Station, where finally the tramline enters the middle of the street and the stately architecture of the city centre starts to scroll past the windows, that it finally hits you.  You’re in – wow! – an Edinburgh tram.


Here’s a photo of the stop I got off at on Princes Street.  That columned structure visible in the distance beyond the end of the tram is the unfinished National Monument on Calton Hill.  The fact that the city fathers never got around to completing the monument – they gave up on its construction in 1829 – have led some people to dub it ‘Scotland’s disgrace’.  Its presence in this picture alongside the tram is coincidental.



The nine best things about Tunis


After my previous blog-entry detailing the low-points of Tunis, here is a list of all the good things about the city – in my humble opinion.


Ancient history


The Vandals did their best to erase it in the 5th century, but thankfully the Tunis suburb of Carthage retains enough traces of its Roman / Carthaginian / Phoenician past to make it worthy of investigation for a day or two.  Visitors with an interest in history will find much to savour in the Punic Port, Sanctuary of Tophet, Paleo-Christian Museum, Musee de Carthage, Roman Villas and Antonine Baths.  Those last two sites are my favourite parts of Carthage, by the way.



The Medina


Tunis’s labyrinthine Medina was founded 14 centuries ago and is now, deservedly, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Its two main arteries that are used by tourists, the Rue de la Kasbah and the Rue Jemmaa Zaytouna are heavily congested and packed along their sides with souvenir shops.  (At least, these streets were congested before the revolution – they’re markedly quieter now and derelict, shuttered premises are, sadly, not an unfamiliar sight.)  However, you only have swerve off those tourist drags and follow a side-alley to discover a different side to the Medina – its many neighbourhoods where ordinary people live and work.  Suddenly there are workshops, and markets, and stores selling domestic goods.  You’ll want to loiter for a minute at the occasional Medina spice-shop for the pleasure of inhaling the scented air.  Meanwhile, the Souq de la Laine and Souq el-Berka, occupied by silversmiths and goldsmiths respectively, have a decorously fairy-tale atmosphere.  One of my favourite restaurants, the El Adeb, which sells deliciously hale-and-hearty grilled fish and grilled meat, is in the Medina too but you’ll have to explore far and search hard to find it.


The French bit


Spread out around the Medina are French-style apartment buildings from the colonial era, one of which I’ve spent the past three years living in.  These buildings are usually pimpled with satellite dishes and the external fan-boxes of air-conditioning systems; are notched with metal-railinged balconies that are crowded with potted plants and festooned with drying laundry and freshly-cleaned rugs; and these days sport a fair amount of graffiti along their street-level walls.  They’re rather the worse for fair but have a lot of dilapidated charm.  The drains, electrical wiring and plumbing – the whole infrastructure, in fact – are knackered in my building but the place is solidly enough built.  It occurred to me that in a Western country these apartment buildings would’ve been bought up en masse, renovated and sold off to Yuppies.  In Tunis this would be good aesthetically but undesirable in another way, because the process of gentrification would force out the ordinary working-class people who live in them at the moment.



What seems to be happening here, alas, is that these old buildings are gradually disappearing.  Just a couple of months ago, a block in my neighbourhood vanished practically overnight.  In its place they’ve established an unappealing gravel-surfaced car-park, enclosed by a square corrugated-iron fence.





There isn’t a city in the world whose appearance and atmosphere hasn’t been improved by having a tram system.  (All right, Edinburgh is a possible exception to this rule.)  And central Tunis definitely feels a little classier for the presence of its stately green trams – although this stateliness is lessened slightly by the couple of truanting schoolboys whom you inevitably see riding for free by sitting on the coupling pin at the end of the back coach.





I wouldn’t say Tunisian food is my favourite cuisine in the world, but it offers a variety of tasty dishes like kamounia, klaya, Djerba rice and brik, plus some good seafood options.  My greatest Tunisian weakness, though, is for ojja, a stew composed of eggs, tomatoes, peppers and harissa and often mixed with prawns or merguez (spicy sausages).  In fact, thinking about it now is enough to make me close my eyes, moan and salivate messily down my chin, just as Homer Simpson does when he thinks about hamburgers and Duff Beer.



Blokes’ pubs


There exists a sub-species of Tunis bar in which you won’t find women, children, food or music, or for that matter much in the way of décor or comfort.  You will find, however, smoke, grime, babble and lots and lots of blokes.  Service is usually provided from the counter by grey-haired and grey-moustached gentlemen wearing French garçon-style white shirts, waistcoats and bowties, which are inevitably soiled and crumpled but nonetheless give off a certain faded dignity.  There are also often guys positioned across the drinking areas, selling beer-bottles directly from plastic crates.  By any conventional aesthetic reckoning, these places are the pits.  But when I’m in the right frame of mind, they’re wonderful.


Examples include Café le Rendez-vous des Sportifs (my local), La Source, Chef’s Bar, L’Ambassadeur, Café de Rossini Palace, Le Parisien, the big one on Avenue Habib Bourguiba next to the Café de Paris and the one at the back of Schilling Restaurant of Avenue Mohamed V.  There’s also the strange courtyard-like pub in the middle of the ground-floor shopping centre on Avenue Habib Bourguiba between the junctions with the Avenue de France and Rue de Marseille.  This is sealed off from the surrounding shops on three sides by concrete pillars and thick, red, velvety curtains, while on its fourth side it has an alcove containing a bar counter: it also has a retractable roof whose halves slide apart in the late afternoon, once the sun has reached a position in the sky from which it can no longer shine in.  Above the counter-alcove is a large sign with lettering in both the Arabic and Roman alphabets.  The latter lettering spells out ‘Salon de Thé’ and what looks like, weirdly, ‘Le Kilt’.  Is this place really called Le Kilt?  And if so, was it founded many years ago by a Scotsman?


Sidi Bou Said


I’ve rhapsodised before about the loveliness of Sidi Bou Said, between Carthage and La Marsa in the Tunis suburbs, but I’ll do so again.  The village offers a panorama of white walls embellished with panels and stripes of blue – blue doors, blue doorframes, blue window-shutters, blue window-frames, blue railings, blue grills, blue pillars, blue roof-beams – with big leafy and flowery masses of green, purple, red, yellow and pink erupting out of the alleyway walls.  On a summer’s day, when the place is sandwiched between the flawless blueness of the sky and that of the Mediterranean, and illuminated by a bright, crystalline light, it’s easy to see why the artist Paul Klee was unable to get away from it.



At the very heart of Sidi Bou Said, up a flight of steps, is the picturesque Café des Nattes, which has on its wall pictures of famous old patrons such as Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and Andre Gide.  (The aura of lofty intellectualism is dispelled somewhat by a picture of someone else who visited, a certain Richard Nixon, who stuck his grisly face into the café in 1971.)



The spirit of 2011


The lustre of the Tunisian Revolution, and the Arab Spring generally, has faded considerably in the two years since it happened.  This is thanks to an unravelling security situation, economic stagnation and decay, strikes, assassinations, much bickering between politicians, and some censorious and unsavoury individuals who’ve crawled out of the woodwork to attempt to impose their medieval notions of morality on everybody else.  That said, Tunisians can be proud that their country hasn’t plumbed the depths of political and social unrest that have been plumbed by post-revolutionary Egypt.


Still, I’ll always be grateful to Tunisia for two things on Friday, January 14th, 2011, when I found myself among the crowds that’d amassed in front of the Ministry of the Interior building on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, in defiance of President / dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and his regime’s huge and nasty police / security apparatus.  This gave me (1) the unique experience of being present at and witnessing history being made; and (2) an unforgettable demonstration of what can be achieved by people power.


And… cats


I know, Tunis’s population of stray cats can be a massive pain in the arse.  They tear open rubbish-bags and make an unholy mess on the streets, they scoot out in front of you and trip you up, and when you’re trying to get to sleep, they produce an evil-sounding cacophony as they indulge in nocturnal feline love-making.  But, occasionally, they can be very… cute







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, 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.