Trams return and cars of the 21st century don't know what's hit them

Trams returned to London for the first time in 50 years yesterday, although the capital's famously undisciplined drivers seemingly still have to become used to the idea.

The first stage of the £200m Croydon Tramlink project through south London promises to take two million car journeys off the streets once it is fully operational. But the trials of the trams before yesterday's opening have caused a spate of accidents, which at one point overshadowed a visit by the Deputy Prime Minister. In the days before John Prescott's visit in March, a car was in collision with a tram, leaving five people in hospital and another vehicle damaged.

Earlier in the month another collision prompted an investigation, using the aircraft-style black box that is placed inside the vehicles.

There were a series of similar accidents throughout the system's trials this year, the most serious of which left a man in a coma for several weeks. He has now recovered.

Roger Harding, the general manager of Tramtrack Croydon Ltd, the project's operators, said there had been a problem with car drivers getting used to trams but said it was no worse than when similar systems were introduced in Manchester and Sheffield.

"Our real experience of the trial running phase was an issue about tram awareness. People from outside London often comment on the traffic- light and traffic-discipline problem in London," he said.

"That particularly occurred with the tram system and it pushed us into a tram awareness campaign. We have now found that the incidents of such problems, particularly jumping traffic lights and going into yellow boxes, have reduced."

The launch was the culmination of 14 years of planning the system, which will be expanded in the next two months into a 17-mile route from Wimbledon through Croydon to Beckenham.

Fred Roberts, 83, who drove one of the last trams to run in Croydon in 1951, was on board the first tram to travel from New Addington in Surrey to Croydon, which was the section opened yesterday.

The idea of reviving the vehicles was dreamt up by the London borough of Croydon and London Transport in 1986 and permission for the scheme was included in the Transport Bill of 1991. It took three years to get through Parliament. Tramtrack was confirmed as the operator and building work started at the end of 1996.

Since then the project has had a chequered history. Mr Harding said the main problem, which delayed the launch from November to yesterday, was electricity that had leaked from the system to nearby water and gas pipes.

It posed no safety hazard as the current was less than 20 volts, but the threat of corrosion to the pipes meant the leak had to be plugged.

Another below ground problem was that Croydon's sewers had to be diverted whenever they ran under the planned path of Tramlink. The job was so complex contractors had to resort to a method of working more akin to 18th-century mining rather than a 21st-century transport system.

Redundant miners from the north of England and Ireland were drafted in to excavate about a mile of tunnels under central Croydon and had to remove soil using pick-axes and hand-pushed carts because conventional tunnelling would have caused too much disruption in the town centre.

But Mr Harding was upbeat that the problems were over and confident the system would meet its target of 20 million passengers a year.

The tram systems in Manchester and Sheffield have overcome their teething problems, although Sheffield has had difficulties attracting the number of people it had originally forecast.

Trams are likely to become more common in the capital. Planners at London Transport are understood to be considering the idea of a tram line from Highgate through central London to Elephant and Castle.