Untrammelled: Trams and light railways still work best

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The Independent Online
You can wait a long time for a London bus but it's nothing like the wait for a tram. Last time I got off a tram I was just a toddler but I'll be lucky if the next one comes along by the time I'm 50. London's last tram rattled to the scrapyard in 1952. Once, up to 400 trams an hour left the Embankment for south London. But the 300-mile system fell victim to under-investment, obsolete equipment, restrictive and costly legislation and, above all perhaps, changing public transport fashions.

London Transport was set up in 1933. Its tramway staff brought a public service ethos from the London County Council and some outer London boroughs, contrasting starkly with the 'us-and-them' attitude of the private sector busmen. Yet LT quickly became dominated by bus and tube interests.

While many foreign cities spent the next six decades turning their tramways into modern light rail systems, British cities had scrapped theirs by 1962. The replacement trolley buses followed into fashion's scrapyard a few years later.

Prejudice against the old trams was all too easy. Double-deckers were a peculiarly British folly. It could be difficult to stay on the seat on a swaying top floor, although my grandfather once managed to carry a grandfather clock home on one. But he was a sailor, so I suppose he was used to a moving deck.

After the Great War London's tramway investment was minimal. The 'Standard' cars, mostly built between 1907 and 1922, provided the mainstay of services right up until closure. Londoners loved them, but the best you could say for them was they were an improvement on the four-wheeled 'Bumpers' they replaced. Camberwell folk blamed these for a prevalence of female births, claiming that when pregnant women rode on them 'the babies would have their balls shaken off'.

Those trams are as far removed from the present day as a Model T Ford is from a modern car. Prejudices linger, yet the modern light

rail vehicle running in hundreds of overseas cities is quiet and smooth-riding, carries many times more people than a bus, loads them quicker and does not blow diesel smoke around the street.

Croydon Corporation was once a major tram operator and, thanks to its modern successor's tenacity, it may just be possible to catch a tram there again by the year 2000. It plans to be the hub of a light rail network promoted jointly with London Transport, finally supporting tramways after two decades spent closing them and three more opposing their return.

Most modern systems try to minimise trams running in traffic. So on-street running will mainly be restricted to the quieter roads in central Croydon. Routes to Wimbledon and Beckenham will mostly take over, or run beside existing British Rail lines. A cross-country route to New Addington will run mainly beside the road.

Getting parliamentary powers for the scheme necessitated one of the most protracted private bills of modern times. Bizarrely, it almost became a victim of the house price crash. The most problematical objections came not against the scheme itself, but from householders facing compulsory purchase where traditional compensation arrangements were unable to cover their negative equity.

Although Edwardian councils found little difficulty in raising tramway funds, modern promoters must feel seeking such money is the route of all evil. Croydon's estimated bill, pounds 154m, seems huge but is a fraction of projects like Crossrail and insignificant beside the country's pounds 20bn trunk road programme. It would buy a few miles of dual carriageway but a 29km light railway taking thousands of people a day off south London's roads looks better value to me.

What I find intolerable is an unwritten government rule which serves only to promote road building at the expense of public transport.

While the Government is quite happy to fund several dozen trunk road schemes with eight-or nine-figure price tags at any one time, it has an absolute policy that (London Docklands apart) only one publicly funded tramway may be built in England at any one time. So South Yorkshire's system had to await completion of Greater Manchester's and, once the system in Sheffield is completed, Croydon will have to slug it out with other much-needed schemes in a grotesque first-past-the-post race.

The West Midlands has long had the first route of a massive new countywide system ready to go in the Black Country once it gets the money. Greater Manchester also has a much-needed extension to Salford Quays ready. Close behind are schemes in Nottingham and Leeds and further extensions in Greater Manchester and Tyne and Wear, with more and more behind them. Each meets a desperate need, but with the constraints, they won't be built for decades.

If London is ever to tackle its awful congestion it needs its trams back. New tubes are too expensive, buses lack capacity and road building is politically impossible. Where modern light railways are impractical, some are beginning to suggest that on-street tramways could run along the new bus priority corridors being created.

Trams are what makes cities like Vienna, Prague and Amsterdam quiet, convenient, mobile and - above all - civilised. Personally I can't wait to see them back.

(Photograph omitted)