So are trams really better than buses?

A tram in Milan. Image: Getty.

Look! A tram! Here’s another:

Melbourne. Image: Getty.

My god, they’re everywhere!

Manchester. Pleasing that all these cities start with M, isn't it? Image: Getty.

In all, according to this helpful and informative guide by the Prague transport authorities (in Czech) there are 265 active tram systems in Europe. Which is quite a lot of trams.

In some countries, though, there are a lot less than there once were. As anyone who’d seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit will know, in the 1950s, the “streetcar” networks that had fuelled the growth of American suburbia were ripped up to create more space for the motor car. British tram systems generally died at the same time.

And, the thing is... it’s not immediately obvious that this was the wrong decision. Trams, after all, are basically less flexible buses: they take up space on roads, they’re relatively low capacity, and you can’t make them go where you want.

Except – people love trams, don’t they? If they were talking about building a new tram line near your home, then you’d probably be quite excited about that. If they were talking about a new bus route? Well, probably not so much.

So what gives? Are trams really just, as the Economist Explains once explained, “a waste of money“? Or is there some rational reason for our attachment to them?

Two rails good, no rails bad

First, let’s run through the case for trams.


They’re visible

You can tell if a tram line runs down the street you’re standing on: there will be subtle hints, like the massive steel rails in the road. Permanent lines are more likely to encourage permanent stops and network maps. And, as the entire existence of Citymetric has served to prove, it’s the maps people get excited by.

So, if you want legibility in your transport system, trams, not buses, are the way to go.

They can’t be removed on a whim

Okay, they’re harder to build – but that’s actually a plus, in its way. Rails have an air of permanence that bus routes lack. That makes it easier for residents to plan journeys, employers to decide where to base themselves, and so forth, without worrying that the transport links they rely on are suddenly going to vanish.

They’re cleaner

No spewing out exhaust fumes, at least in the city itself. (If they take their electricity from fossil fuel power stations, they may be doing it elsewhere, of course, but still.)

They’re easier to segregate

Which is good as it means they’re less prone to disruption by things like traffic jams.

Okay, technically you can achieve this by segregating bus lanes, too... but those are pretty easy to undo, and the authorities are likely to come under pressure to undo just that. (After all, why should one category of vehicle get special treatment, just because it’s way more efficient?) A segregated tram route is likely to stay segregated.

Oh, and you can give them priority at signals, too. All of which means...

They’re faster and more predictable

None of this “getting stuck in traffic for ages and then turning up in groups of three”. Passengers can be reasonably certain that, when the information board says there’ll be a tram in five minutes, there’ll be a tram in five minutes.

They’re more comfortable

Stand on a bus, and you risk getting thrown all over the place as every time it brakes sharply. But trams tend to brake and accelerate more gently, so you’re relatively comfortable, even if you’re standing the whole way.

Oh, and you can extend trams by adding extra cars during rush hour, without clogging the road or hiring more drivers. Try doing that with buses.

So, they’re higher capacity, too.

Look, they’re just better, alright?

Trams are seen as good for regeneration and place-making – partly because they encourage development, partly because building them is so expensive and complicated that it often ends up used as an excuse to achieve those things.

But also because they are just cooler. The bells! The whirring sounds! The screeching noise they make when they go round corners! How many times have you gone to a strange city and founds yourself thinking, “Oooh look,  a bus”? Unless you’re a tourists visiting London for the first time, I’m going to guess the answer was: never.

Trams, though. Trams are brilliant.

Two rails good, no rails better

Except, are they? Because they also come with some downsides.

They can’t be removed on a whim

Once you’ve put in a tram, you’re stuck with it. If you mucked up the planning and it goes to slightly the wrong place? Well, tough. Too expensive to change it.

They don’t mix well with bikes

Don’t get stuck between rail and pavement if you value your continuing existence.

They take up too much space  

To get most of the advantages listed above you need to give trams segregated road space – and space is at a premium in most cities.

So: trams come with a huge opportunity cost. A tram lane is something you can’t use for something else.

They can’t move around obstacles

Trams are great if you can segregate them properly. But sometimes you can’t – see above – and when that happens you’re stuffed. They’re on rails, so can’t move around blocks in the road. A bus, with difficulty, can.

The big downside, though, is:

They cost a fortune

You have to lay new track. You have to redesign roads. Then you have to buy the vehicles, which generally cost more than buses. Oh, and they may be more expensive to run (research on this seems to vary).

Why bother, when you can achieve most of the same transport goals with a fleet of buses?

Well – I explained why you’d bother above. There are good reasons for it. But whether there are enough good reasons is going to depend not just on the circumstances in every individual city, but on the political and economic cycle too.

Trams are brilliant. But you don’t have to look far for reasons why they declined in some countries – or why they’ve been so slow to return.

Still, trams, eh? Phwoar.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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Southern Rail is resuming full service – but how did the company's industrial relations get so bad?

A happy day last August. Image: Getty.

“I cannot simply operate outside the law, however much I might be tempted to, however much people might want me to,” a pained Chris Grayling said on TV on 13 December. As the first all-out drivers’ strike shut down the entirety of Southern’s network, the transport secretary insisted to interviewers he was powerless in this struggle between unions and a private rail operator.

But rewind to February and Grayling’s Department for Transport was putting out a very different message. “Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch-ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support,” Peter Wilkinson, the Department’s passenger services director, told a public meeting:

“We have got to break them. [Train drivers] have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place. They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”

Wilkinson was forced to apologise for his comments. But when Southern began to implement driver-only operation, replacing conductors with non-safety-critical “on-board supervisors”, unions weren’t convinced by claims it was all about improved customer service. “This is a national fight – we’re not going to let them pick off one group of workers at a time,” a spokesman for the rail union RMT said in April.

The strikes have been repeatedly characterised as being about who opens and closes train doors. Journalists might consider this the best way to capture the distinction between different modes of train operation – but it’s also the easiest way to dismiss and ridicule the dispute.

The reality is that with driver-only operation, all operational functions are removed from conductors. It’s then left to drivers to assess – at each station – whether it’s safe to leave the platform. Aslef, the train drivers’ union, says this requires its members to look at dozens of CCTV images in a matter of seconds. And ultimately, trains can run with just the driver.

While Southern has promised not to dismiss its current workforce, unions fear that removing the guarantee of a second member of staff will eventually lead to them being ditched altogether. Who would look after passengers if the driver became incapacitated?

In an article, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg suggested the dispute was also fuelled by rivalry between the RMT, which represents the conductors, and Aslef. Though the relationship between the two unions hasn’t always been easy, she misses the point entirely.

At a TUC fringe meeting in 2014, I watched RMT delegates accuse drivers of being happy to accept pay-rises in exchange for implementing driver-only operation. Aslef insisted this was not its approach, and the following year the union’s conference endorsed a motion calling for no extension of the method, and for guards to be restored where they had already been axed.

Surely the real theme of the Southern dispute is the unity of the workforce. Conductors are striking against de-skilling, drivers are striking against taking on additional duties, and the mandate for action among both groups is overwhelming.

It’s true, however, that a walk-out of drivers can have a much bigger impact than a conductors’ strike – given that 60 per cent of Southern services are already driver-only. And this is why Southern’s owner Govia Thameslink Railway, Britain’s worst-performing railway, has been so keen to prevent Aslef from going on strike. When Gatwick Express (also part of GTR) drivers refused to drive new 12-carriage trains without guards in April, the company secured a court injunction preventing striking over driver-only trains. It did so again in June after drivers voted to strike, with the High Court agreeing the ballot had included drivers on irrelevant routes.


When drivers balloted again in August, lawyers went over the ballot with a fine tooth-comb and forced the union to re-ballot over a technicality, fittingly, about doors. This week’s strike was only allowed because first the High Court, and then the Court of Appeal, ruled it was not an infringement of EU freedom of movement laws. When GTR launched this bid in the courts, a senior trade unionist told me it was in “wanky wonderland” if it thought it would win.

You’d think such expensive litigation would be risky for a company facing the ire of frustrated passengers. Things have got so bad some have moved house or switched to driving to work instead. But GTR, unlike most of Britain’s private railways, doesn’t operate on the normal franchise model. Rather than collecting fare revenue, the company is paid a set fee by the government – and so it has far lesser risks.

Critics say this has made Southern ideal as a test-ground for taking on the unions over driver-only operation, claiming the government wants to make it national as part of a cost-cutting drive.

But even with such a good deal on a plate, chaos has followed Southern bosses everywhere. At the Transport Select Committee in July, the firm faced heavy criticism for failing to recruit enough staff at the start of the contract. Southern has accused unions of unofficial action through high levels of staff sickness. But are these really a surprise when industrial relations are so bad and workers are threatened with the sack?

The Committee issued a withering report – but that was where its powers stopped. Transport secretary Grayling is also refusing to act, and the company is, after all, owned by a FTSE 250 firm and a French transport group. The only people with the power to do anything, it seems, are the workers. As hell-raising as their strike may be, perhaps it’s time we celebrated it.

Conrad Landin is the Morning Star's industrial correspondent. This article previously appeared on our sister site, the Staggers.

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