A proposed flagship tramway in the London borough of Croydon, supposedly heralding the return - for south Londoners at least - of a golden age of transport, is now in doubt.
Contrary to press reports last week a preferred bidder has not been chosen: London Transport is still considering whether the system makes economic sense. According to the trade journal Local Transport Today, the Government is insisting that the cost of the scheme be cut from pounds 180m to pounds 150m before it will provide its pounds 100m grant. "My feeling is it will be resolved, but nothing is in the bag until the contract is signed," says Peter Hughes, LTT's editor.
The hiatus in Croydon is an example of the caution that has slowed light- rail or tram schemes everywhere. "Everyone in the world is worried about costs," says Tony Depledge, managing director of Blackpool Transport Services, the only place in the UK never to have stopped running trams since they started in 1885. "Our international trade association held a conference last year called `How can we afford light rail in the future?' "
This retrenchment is particularly noticeable in the UK because trams have only recently made a comeback. Three schemes are complete or are under construction - in Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham - but it seems likely that many planned systems will be replaced by better traffic management, "guided buses", or by a new generation of low-cost trams.
Trams disappeared from the streets of every British town except Blackpool in the Fifties and Sixties, killed off by their antiquity and the spread of suburbs. Comfortable, heated buses nudged them aside and ruled the roost until the late Eighties, when congestion and the environment put trams back on centre stage. People who travelled in Europe saw swift, pollution-free vehicles carving through the traffic jams and concluded that their time had come again.
The tram-making industry had all but died in Britain, but was still healthy in continental Europe. Until recently the biggest tram maker in the world was Tatra of Prague, which supplied the Eastern bloc with all its units. Now the big manufacturers are Siemens, ABB and GEC-Alsthom, with Bombardier of Canada expanding fast through investments in Europe
The Docklands Light Railway in London was a precursor of the tram revival proper: its cars were built by a Bombardier subsidiary in Belgium.
The DLR did not have government support, mainly because the Docklands property developers were prepared to contribute. But the three tramways built since have all received public money. Phase one of the Manchester Metrolink cost pounds 155m, half of which came from the taxpayer. The Government has also funded half the pounds 240m cost of the Sheffield Supertram and pounds 40m out of pounds 145m for the Midland Metro.
Several other proposals are on the drawing board. Apart from Croydon, these include schemes in Leeds, Cardiff, Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow, Medway, Portsmouth/Fareham, Nottingham and an extension of the Manchester Metrolink. But there is a feeling in the industry that the nature of the projects will have to change from a "continental model", where quality not price is key, to a British model, where the priorities are reversed. Mr Hughes believes this is no bad thing: "It has become clear that the pounds 200m a light-rail scheme costs could fund a whole range of traffic-reduction measures for a town."
Traditional trams are expensive, costing pounds 2m for a two-unit vehicle, against pounds 110,000 for a bus with about half the carrying capacity. That is why other measures are under consideration. These could include more rigorous traffic management - such as blocking off bus lanes - and the introduction of guided buses. These are ordinary buses with horizontal rubber wheels that guide them between concrete ridges - cars cannot get in the way and the busway need be hardly wider than the bus. Leeds introduced a guided busway last September, and passenger numbers have risen by 10 per cent since. Similar schemes are being considered in Bristol and Liverpool.
But the tram still has appeal because it is robust, and because it can make commercial sense when linked to a rail network. One of the main benefits of the Manchester Metrolink has been that it has revived little-used rail lines, with passengers linking to the tram system.
The most experienced tram company in Britain is Blackpool Transport Services, which still carries 7 million passengers a year in its 60-year-old trams. It has been advising CentreWest in Croydon and is also involved in TramPower, a consortium developing a new vehicle that it says will be half the weight and cost of a traditional tram. "We are taking knowledge from other industries to find out how we can make trams cheaper, easier, lighter," Mr Depledge says.
Jim Boswell, managing director of PSV International, a design company involved in TramPower, says the secret is in the philosophy. "People typically take train theory and downgrade it for tram use," he says. "We have worked up from commercial vehicles." Pullman, based in South Wales, is building a prototype, but the consortium hopes to license manufacture out to whoever wants it. "I would say you will see this tram raising its head in every new tram proposal," Mr Boswell says.
The export potential of a new-generation low-cost tram like this could be immense. Britain, unencumbered by a significant tram-building industry of its own, could in theory leapfrog its "gold-plating" competitors. Whether it will grasp such an opportunity is, on past form, uncertain.