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 found 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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The tube that’s not a tube: What exactly is the Northern City line?

State of the art: a train on the Northern City Line platforms at Moorgate. Image: Haydon Etherington

You may never have used it. You may not even know that it’s there. But in zones one and two of the London Underground network, you’ll find an oft-forgotten piece of London’s transport history.

The Northern City line is a six-stop underground route from Moorgate to Finsbury Park. (It’s officially, if confusingly, known as the Moorgate line.) But, unlike other underground lines, it not part of Transport for London’s empire, and is not displayed on a normal tube map. Two of the stations, Essex Road and Drayton Park, aren’t even on the underground network at all.

The line has changed hands countless times since its creation a century ago. It now finds itself hiding in plain sight – an underground line, not part of the Underground. So why exactly is the Northern City line not part of the tube?

The Northern City line, pictured in dotted beige. Source: TfL.

As with many so many such idiosyncrasies, the explanation lies in over a century’s worth of cancellations and schemes gone awry. The story starts in 1904, when the private Great Northern Railways, which built much of what is now the East Coast Main Line, built the line to provide trains coming from the north of London with a terminus in the City. This is why the Northern City line, unlike a normal tube line, has tunnels wide enough to be used by allow mainline trains.

Eventually, though, Great Northern decided that this wasn’t such a bright idea after all. It mothballed plans to connect the Northern City up to the mainline, leaving it to terminate below Finsbury Park, scrapped electrification and sold the line off to Metropolitan Railways – owners of, you guessed it, the Metropolitan line.

Metropolitan Railways had big plans for the Northern City line too: the company wanted to connect it to both Waterloo & City and Circle lines. None of the variants on this plan ever happened. See a theme?

The next proposed extensions, planned in the 1930s once London Underground had become part of the domain of the (public sector) London Passenger Transport Board, was the Northern Heights programme. This would have seen the line would connected up with branch lines across north London, with service extended to High Barnet, Edgware and Alexandra Palace: essentially, as part of the Northern line. The plans, for the main part, were cancelled in the advent of the Second World War.

The Northern Heights plan. The solid green lines happened, the dotted ones did not. Image: Rob Brewer/Wikimedia Commons.

What the war started, the Victoria line soon finished. The London Plan Working Party Report of 1949 proposed a number of new lines and extensions: these included extension of the Northern City Line to Woolwich (Route J) and Crystal Palace (Route K). The only one of the various schemes to happen was Route C, better known today as the Victoria line, agreed in the 1950s and opening in the 1960s. The new construction project cannibalised the Northern City Line’s platforms at Finsbury Park, and from 1964 services from Moorgate terminated one stop south at Drayton Park.

In 1970, the line was briefly renamed the Northern Line (Highbury Branch), but barely a year later plans were made to transfer it to British Rail, allowing it to finally fulfil its original purpose.


Before that could happen, though, the line became the site of a rather more harrowing event. In 1975, the deadliest accident in London Underground history took place at Moorgate: a southbound train failed to stop, instead ploughing into the end of the tunnel. The crash killed 43 people. The authorities responded with a major rehaul of safety procedure; Moorgate station itself now has unique timed stopping mechanisms.

The last tube services served the Northern City Line in October 1975. The following year, it reopened as part of British Rail, receiving trains from a variety of points north of London. Following privatisation, it’s today run by Govia Thameslink as the Great Northern route, served mainly by suburban trains from Hertford and Welwyn Garden City.

Nowadays, despite a central location and a tube-like stopping pattern, the line is only really used for longer-scale commutes: very few people use it like a tube.

Only 811,000 and 792,000 people each year enter and exit Essex Road and Drayton Park stations respectively. These stations would be considered the fifth and sixth least used in the tube network – only just beating Chorleywood in Hertfordshire. In other words, these usage stats look like those for a station in zone seven, not one in Islington.

One reason for this might be a lack of awareness that the line exists at all. The absence from the tube map means very few people in London will have heard of it, let alone ever used it.

Another explanation is rather simple: the quality of service. Despite being part and parcel of the Oyster system, it couldn’t be more different from a regular tube. The last (and only) time I used the line, it ran incredibly slowly, whilst the interior looked much more like a far-flung cross-country train than it does a modern underground carriage.

Waiting for Govia. Image: Haydon Etherington.

But by far the biggest difference from TfL is frequency. The operators agreed that trains would run between four and six times an hour, which in itself is fine. However, this is Govia Thameslink, and in my experience, the line was plagued by cancellations and delays, running only once in the hour I was there.

To resolve this, TfL has mooted taking the line over itself. In 2016, draft proposals were put forward by Patrick McLoughlin, then the transport secretary, and then mayor Boris Johnson, to bring "northern services... currently operating as part of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise" into TfL's control by 2021.

But, in a story that should by now be familiar, Chris Grayling scrapped them. At least it’s in keeping with history.