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Last Updated: Friday, 23 April, 2004, 12:34 GMT 13:34 UK
Trams: Chic but not cheap
Manchester tram
Empty platforms, but the tram in Manchester suffers overcrowding
Cities love to install a new tram system and several major centres have taken the plunge.

So why do their citizens resist the charm of their cappuccino chic? BBC transport correspondent Tom Symonds reports.

Urban planners love the idea of building a new tram system.

Trams give a city a touch of continental chic, conjuring up an image of wide European boulevards with gleaming trolley-cars gliding past as happy citizens sip their cappuccinos.

Seven British cities have taken the plunge and brought trams back to their streets.

Selling points

In 1980 the Tyne and Wear Metro launched its tram/train cross-breed.

Next came the Docklands Light Railway, also more train than tram, in the late 80s.

But it's the city tram systems built since - in Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, Croydon and Nottingham - that have really promoted the growth of what transport buffs refer to as "light rail".

They often run on tracks embedded in city streets, with power from overhead lines. Potential passengers can easily see the benefits of climbing on board.

The key selling points - a frequent, reliable service, that won't get caught in traffic.

Croydon tram
Croydon Tramlink is increasingly popular but still makes a loss
It is the image that transport planners find alluring. In Britain, unlike abroad, white collar workers seem averse to travelling by bus, but they will happily catch a tram.

For a city with a congestion problem, getting people out of their cars is a major priority.

But the report by the National Audit Office suggests trams have stopped short of being the panacea for harmonious city travel that their promoters might have hoped.

Birmingham's Midland Metro, the Manchester Metrolink and the Croydon Tramlink still make a loss.

The Birmingham and Croydon systems along with Sheffield's Supertram currently aren't attracting the number of passengers predicted when they opened.

The NAO's explanation of why this should be the case is complicated but there are some key reasons. It appears that new tram systems have been held back by the way they were designed.

It makes sense to put lines and tram stops where people want to go. Yet the Sheffield system included stops at several housing estates that were later demolished or redeveloped.

Few passengers grumble, which is a minor miracle for a British public transport service
Tom Symonds
Good transport systems should also link in with transport that is already there, so passengers can hop off a bus or train and onto a tram with ease.

Why then does the Birmingham system stop a kilometre short of the city's main station New Street?

And trams have to be able to punch through the crowded city streets. Yet when it opened the Sheffield Supertram didn't get priority at some key junctions.

Passengers got stuck at red lights just like the cars they were supposedly being wooed out of. Unlike European cities, British towns often have narrow streets with heavy traffic.

Overcrowding problem

Speaking of traffic - the new trams have done little to encourage motorists to "Park and Ride". Only the brand new Nottingham Express Transit, opened this year, is fully linked with park and ride car parks.

The NAO also argues that four out of the five new tram networks had to compete with identical bus routes. Councils found it hard to rearrange bus services because buses are privatised and deregulated.

Many of these problems have been ironed out.

The system in Croydon, which is newer than most of the others is increasingly successful - and extremely busy during the rush-hour.

Few passengers grumble about it, which is a minor miracle for a British public transport service.

Manchester's trams are now almost too successful, and overcrowding is becoming a problem.

Designer restraints

But mistakes made in the past have meant a slow rebirth for tram travel in Britain.

The public spending watchdog says these problems will only be sidestepped if the government takes a lead when future tram schemes are being devised.

The NAO wants the government to help councils come up with standardised designs that can be applied in urban areas across the country.

It also wants safety officials to give tram-designers a bit of slack.

At the moment they often have to stick to rules introduced on the "heavy" railways. And, of course, today's report calls for the government to give more help with funding new trams.

The problem with all this is that many cities see trams as their DIY project.

Unlike building a new railway or road, building tram lines is something a city can do on its own.

They want a unique service but they often want someone else to pay for it, namely the taxpayer.

And trams are, above all, not cheap.

Inquiry into Mersey tram scheme
20 Apr 04  |  Merseyside

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