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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Britain's lost tramways

Coming to a tram stop near you - in Jerusalem. Courtesy : Jessica Meyer-Rassow

As reports reach these shores of new tramways / light rail operations opening at an almost indecent rate in France, north Africa, the United States, the Arab world (and Jerusalem) and of course China, not to mention Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Turkey and various other places around the world - we in Britain must make do with incremental extensions in Nottingham and West Midlands, a tramtrain trial to Rotherham from Meadowhall, Sheffield; and a truncated opening in Edinburgh. Blackpool might get lucky with a quarter mile link up Talbot Road.

What went wrong after the brave new world of light rail was launched by no less than John Prescott as Deputy PM at the launch of the New Labour government? A veritable basket of schemes drew countless consulting firms with studies up and down the country - well at least they all got paid and satisfaction.

South Hampshire's scheme, Bristol, of course Merseyside, Leeds naturally, Manchester - well that one made it; so did the West Midlands; at least three new tramways in London if you count the Croydon extensions: West London Tram much like the pioneering London United Tramways from Shepherds Bush, and the Cross River tram from Waterloo to Kings Cross - a project which morphed into CrossRail ! Nottingham made it across the finishing line and Blackpool having had its much vaunted SuperCasino strategy given away to Didsbury of all places - (whatever happened to public money squadered on that wasted exercise?) received its consolation prize in the shape of a £100 Million from the Treasury to upgrade its operation. BIG losers; obviously Merseyside and Leeds where centre and side reservations of those former great systems lay temptingly dormant for a Fairy Godmother to wave her magic wand and awaken sleeping planners (and funders). London opted for heavy underground rail on an east west axis to relieve the stretched and stressed Underground - something that Paris (and Berlin) did ages ago. Elsewhere in the capital DLR has gone from strength to strength with its driverless train sets - but these are hardly trams.

The consequence ? Well the UK is bereft of tram design and development know-how. Having thrown our public transport lot in with the bus and road lobby we stopped showing interest in trams over sixty years ago - imagine that. The UK is now a dependency of foreign imports who circle around conferences on light rail like sharks. No home grown startup stands a chance against a cabal of familiar names in this business - ever concocting new models to entice the markets; and ever expensive price tags that now involve life cycle servicing and the added infrastructure necessary to sustain high - tech products. Low platforms anyone? At the end of the day though its still the same short journey on a predictable route where customers (sorry passengers) are unimpressed with more bells and whistles and just want to get to work and home efficiently and safely.

Dr Lewis Lesley was a brave pioneer who might have made a difference given more than half a chance against the corporates and their financing partners. Britain abdicated its manufacturing role in the 1960s for the blandishments of the City of London and 'service sectors' - whatever that means beyond stacking supermarket shelves and driving lots of vans and lorries up and down overcrowded roads (haulage became logistics in much the same way that trams became 'light rail' - same product same task, but vastly more costly). Costa Coffee, Starbucks, Subway - funny how they all seem to be foreign owned - and over here. Services anyone?

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