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Capital transport system was on the right track a century ago

AFTER YEARS of what can fairly be described as an absolute shambles – chronic delays, incompetent construction, and costs running way out of control – the first line of the new tram system, after running trials empty for months, has finally started operating passenger services. 

 

Never mind, I note that millions of people are eagerly looked forward to this development which replaces hopelessly crowded buses on horribly congested roads. I’m talking of course about my recent trip to Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, and a bustling city of 22 million people.

 

Meanwhile back in Edinburgh, most will probably not even use our new tram unless they happen to want to go to the airport, or work at RBS at Gogarburn.

 

While I’m on the subject, here’s a great ‘QI question’ – what was the principal form of public transport in Edinburgh exactly 100 years ago, in 1914?  Think about it and I’ll tell you later – no peeking!

 

The story of Edinburgh’s new trams is not an edifying one. Back in 2003 the cost was originally estimated at £243m for line one from the Airport to Leith, and £230m for line two through Granton to Haymarket. 

 

In the end, after Princes Street was disgracefully closed for 10 months for track construction not once but twice, and much of Shandwick Place had to be done three times, line one, now cut to two-thirds of its original planned length, has cost a whopping £776m, and line two has been abandoned altogether. The main centre of population around the original route remains unserved and half the 27 trams that have been bought are no longer needed.

 

Scots who risk their lives driving regularly on the un-dualled A9, or parents with children at one of Edinburgh’s 12 schools which are reported to be in poor structural condition, might think there could be better ways of spending three quarters of a billion pounds. 

 

Anyway, here’s the surprising answer to the ‘QI question’. In the late nineteenth century Edinburgh operated horse-drawn streetcars, but after a period when many horses dropped dead from exhaustion – 70 in one year – it installed a system which had been successfully installed in San Francisco – Cable Cars – exactly the same system that is still in use there today.

 

By 1914, Edinburgh had the largest network of Cable Cars in Europe – a network of 26 miles of track over 14 routes, enabled by four winding halls which pulled the cables on pulleys installed under the roads. The cars were equipped with ‘grippers’ which grabbed on the cables to drag the vehicles along the tracks and through the streets.

 

Lines ran from Princes Street to Stockbridge, to Joppa, to Church Hill, to Granton, to Trinity and so on – 14 lines which met the needs of the vast majority of Edinburgh’s population. Remnants of ‘winding wheels’ can still be seen poking out of a building in Henderson Row, and a fragment of original track remains on Waterloo Place.

 

The construction of this system puts our new tram to shame – over 20 miles of cable track was laid in one year, 220 yards on a good day. The whole 14-route system cost £192,210, under £25m in today’s money. The city borrowed the funds for the development at 2.5 per cent interest and charged the operators seven per cent to run the system – the whole cost of the tramway was written off during the lease.

 

The Cable Cars were replaced in the early 1920s by the electric powered trams that operated until 1956 following which Edinburgh went tram-free. Until now, that is.

 

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