Ken Houston: Take the bus into the future

EDINBURGH has been counting the cost to the public purse and to its reputation of its tram line, writes Ken Houston. Perhaps the city should have waited for a better bus to come along

EDINBURGH has been counting the cost to the public purse and to its reputation of its tram line, writes Ken Houston. Perhaps the city should have waited for a better bus to come along

That the Edinburgh tram project was unlikely to be a paragon of financial probity became clear from the outset when, having secured £500 million of taxpayer funding, a fact-finding party from the City of Edinburgh Council packed their sunglasses and flew half way round the world to Melbourne, Australia.

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A benign climate apart, their destination of choice was a strange one, given this city boasted a population of four million and its tram system was the largest in the southern hemisphere, making comparisons with Edinburgh, and its limited scheme, almost meaningless. They could, for example, have taken a budget flight direct from Scotland to any one of scores of destinations on the continent of Europe where, from the Urals to the Lisbon coast, tram systems of various sizes are up for examination.

The most appropriate destination of all, however, was Sheffield, a city similar to Edinburgh in size and population and where the tram system covers just 18 route miles – not much bigger than the 11-mile airport to Newhaven line, plus the two-mile Roseburn to Granton spur, planned at the time. Moreover, the Sheffield system was built from scratch in the 1990s, unlike the infinitely larger Melbourne network, which had been developed over more than a century.

But perhaps the problem with Sheffield was that, like the three wise monkeys, Edinburgh’s city fathers wanted to hear, speak and see no evil. A little digging would have revealed that patronage of the Sheffield system was substantially less than its promoters had anticipated (a portent of what’s in store for Edinburgh?) and that in 1997 the trams were only kept running after the local authority-owned South Yorkshire Supertram Ltd handed operational rights to private bus operator Stagecoach for just £1.15 million.

Since then, the operator has not paid any rent for using the track and facilities (due to insufficient profits), and finding money to replace the current vehicles once they become life-expired will be the responsibility of the publicly financed local transport authority, which has admitted that not a penny has been set aside for this purpose.

These economics did not, however, prevent Sheffield’s great Yorkshire rival, Leeds, arguing for a tram system of its own (does “me too-ism” among cities play a part in instigating these projects?). However, this foundered when Alistair Darling, as transport minister, refused to release government funding on the basis it provided poor value for money. As an aside, it seems ironic that Darling potentially saved Leeds from the type of physical upheaval suffered by Edinburgh when, because of devolution, he could not do the same for the city he represents as an MP.

In 2007, the transport authority for West Yorkshire proposed staying with the basic Leeds plan, but using trolleybuses instead of trams. Although a reluctant convert to trolleybuses, Leeds was celebrating last week when the current transport minister for England, Justine Greening, at long last approved a £173m government grant for the scheme, on which construction is due to start in 2016 with operation to commence two years later.

When the tram plan was scrapped in 2005, £40m had already been spent, while an initial estimate of half a billion pounds for the entire project had doubled. The trolleybus alternative was initially estimated at £300m, which was later scaled down to £250m through reducing the proposed lines from two to three and cutting back on a city centre loop. However, key to the cost saving is that trolleybuses will not require removal of underground gas, water and electricity piping and cabling
– a major (though not exclusive) contributor to the Edinburgh tram debacle.

Meanwhile, a £200m scheme for a three-line, bus-based scheme has been approved for Bristol, although this will be operated by diesel-electric hybrids, rather than trolleybuses.

Both English projects are based on a relatively recent concept, BRT, or “bus rapid transit”. To techies, purists and romantics, BRT is a poor man’s LRT (ie, light rapid transit or modern tramway), but to those responsible for balancing the books, BRT is proving attractive for delivering much (or most) of the benefit of trams for a fraction of the cost.

With BRT, a typical bus is a high-capacity articulated vehicle (like a modern tram). Also like a tram, it has electric doors nearside and offside, for boarding or alighting at both single and “island” platforms and, where possible, uses runs on its own space (eg, purpose-built roadway or the median strip of a dual carriageway).

Although BRT construction does not require the repositioning of mains services, vehicles can still be diverted when obstructions occur; even trolleybuses now have back-up batteries enabling independent movement “off-wire”. Of course, hybrid diesel-electric buses are the most flexible of all.

BRT has made great strides forward in recent years in North and South America, although less so in Europe. Even car-dominated Los Angeles has produced the highly successful Orange Line, a 14-mile BRT route over reserved “track”, on which stations – rather than stops – are placed approximately a mile apart; there are few bends, resulting in average speeds similar to the rail-based Gold Line. Orange Line cost £213m to build against Gold Line’s £553m and annual running costs are exactly half.

But Europe is not without its successes either. France underwent a plethora of hugely expensive tramway construction during the last decade of the 20th century before the then president, Jacques Chirac, called a halt to government funding in 2001.

Nantes turned to the less expensive BRT option as a substitute for a fourth tram line. Daily passenger numbers on the line, 17,000 on opening in November 2006, rose to more than 24,000 two years later. Of these, an estimated 30 per cent were former motorists – nailing the theory that a tram is necessary to prise drivers from their cars, because a bus will not.

Another impressive BRT scheme encompasses a 26-mile line straddling two continents – ie, it runs from the Istanbul University Campus (in Europe) and crosses the Bosphorus into the Asian part of the city, although the doyen seems to be the Brazilian city of Curitiba (population 1.75 million), where the entire public transport network is based on BRT.

Ironically, Edinburgh council was once a pioneer of BRT among UK local authorities, with its plan for a quality bus right-of-way between the city centre and the airport. What the public got instead was a cheaper five-mile combination of bus lanes and one mile of reserved “track” which at the time (2004) was the longest of its type in operation in the UK. While this scheme did have limitations, the £10m bill (including 30 new single-deck buses), should be set against a projected £776m (and counting) for eight miles of tram infrastructure.

One cannot help speculate what the £500m granted by the Scottish Government might have achieved for Edinburgh had its elected representatives stayed on board the bus, instead of taking a hugely costly diversion by tram.

• Ken Houston operates a press and PR consultancy and is a transport author.