With new projects hitting opposition, is this the end of the line for the tram, asks Philip Thornton

The return of the tram to Britain's streets is dividing communities up and down the country. It seems that the streetcar many cities desire is beginning to turn some people off.

To its advocates, the tram combines the convenience of the bus with the elegance of the train. But to its critics, it is yet another obstruction to the free flow of traffic in already congested towns that will add more traffic jams than it can possibly relieve.

Trams revolutionised transport, particularly for the urban working class, since they provided cheap transport at a time when cars were an expensive luxury item.

But the massive bomb damage to cities during the Second World War, combined with constricted economic conditions after the war, tolled the bell for the tram as local authorities seized on the cheaper option of replacing the old trams with buses. The last electric trams were withdrawn from service in London in 1952.

Half a century on, and they have enjoyed a phoenix-like recovery on the back of mounting concern over levels of traffic congestion and the pollution that inevitably brings.

Manchester was the first, in 1992, when an initial 2.7km of new street tramway was built as part of a system that relied on old rail lines to the suburbs. Sheffield followed in 1995 with its Supertram, and London in 2000, with its 181/2-mile Tramlink system between Wimbledon and Croydon in the south of the capital. Nottingham became the most recent British city to set its Express Transit trams rolling, in 2004.

Councils in cities as far flung as Swansea and Leicester have been caught by the tram bug and have, likewise, drawn up proposals. But plans for tram lines in west and central London and in Edinburgh have met with stiff opposition.

The issue hit the headlines in May after the newly elected Tory administration at Ealing council in west London withdrew its support for a proposed £650m project.

It means that all three boroughs along the route from Shepherd's Bush to Uxbridge (the others are Hammersmith & Fulham and Hillingdon) oppose it. Last year, a public consultation showed that 55 per cent of 17,000 people surveyed opposed it. Hillingdon withdrew its support in January because of a host of unresolved concerns, including the impact on local traffic.

A spokesman said: "The council was concerned that the width of the Uxbridge Road, which is extremely busy, would be narrowed because of the tram route, and that it would then mean ordinary traffic spilling off into adjoining residential areas, which would obviously be something that local residents would not appreciate."

Not surprisingly, local-resident groups agreed. "We would oppose any tram proposal that involves the diversion of traffic on local residential streets," said the Churchfield Community Association.

In Ealing, Will Brooks, a local councillor who is a member of the cabinet for environment and transport, said the Conservatives had been opposed to it from the outset because the plan to build along the length of the Uxbridge Road had created a number of "congestion pinch points".

"We did not see it as the best way to tackle the congestion problem," he said. "With that amount of investment, you could make a radical change to bus transport in the area."

Transport 2000, the environmental campaign group, is a strong advocate, however, saying trams would provide a "clean, quiet, accessible and attractive" alternative to the car.

"The introduction of trams would bring improved road safety, encourage a shift from the car to other modes and provide an opportunity to remodel the environment of Uxbridge Road and improve facilities for pedestrians and cyclists," it said.

A Transport for London spokesman said: "There is likely to be traffic displacement from the Uxbridge Road, but we are carrying out complex modelling work in order to keep this to an absolute minimum.

"Evidence across the capital has shown that drivers can be encouraged to change from the car to public transport where a quick, safe, reliable and attractive alternative is provided. Twenty per cent of tram passengers in the UK have moved from car to tram."

These statistics seem to be winning the argument across town. Consultation on a 16.5km tram route through central London from Camden to Peckham is under way.

An initial public consultation on the scheme in 2000 identified 92 per cent support, and the plan has the backing of the five affected boroughs.

North of the border and Edinburgh's plan for a £700m tram system, meanwhile, has been upset by a rash of executive departures. TIE, Edinburgh Council's arm's-length firm set up to oversee the project, has lost its chief executive, chairman and a number of senior project directors, although the scheme has now won final approval from MSPs.

A column in praise of the scheme that appeared in the local newspaper, the Evening News, by an editor of a trams magazine, triggered a furious debate.

One supporter, a property lawyer, said investors were keen to buy locations near the scheme and dismissed opposition as "ill-informed nonsense from self-interest groups".

But a critic responded: "Those sceptics have been proven right from the outset: the cost, lack of reduction in congestion and the lack of improvement in air quality."

The tram may already have had its (second) day. A planned link between Liverpool and Kirkby was blocked by the Government after the local councils refused to guarantee to underwrite any overruns.

More significantly, York council has opted to endorse the "ftr" (text- speak for future): a bus designed to look like a tram. It benefits from a short section of segregated busway and a satellite-controlled system that can give traffic-light priority to late-running vehicles.

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