Light Rail Transit Association - UK Development Group 





Light rail planning in Scotland has been somewhat turbulent since the last traditional tramway closed in Glasgow in 1962. Popular or not then, they certainly were 26 years later when restored trams, rescued from the "funeral pyre" that followed tramway abandonment, ran once again at the 1988 Glasgow Garden Festival. At the tramways’ maximum extent, in both Edinburgh and Glasgow, it was certainly very easy for a prospective passenger to locate a tram stop and with only a short wait travel to any part of that city. A comparison with today's services shows a very different picture which may well hold the key to understanding why those at the Garden Festival savoured for just a few minutes "what could well have been".


Following a two year study, priority was to be given to a 17.5km North-South Metro route and also the reopening of the former suburban South Circle. Because the study had concluded that it would not be possible to protect bus services from the growing problems of traffic congestion, rail-based systems were recommended as the best option for providing reliable and cost-effective public transport services. A proposal for penetration of the city on tram style surface alignments was rejected after detailed evaluation of the effect of it on existing highways (1). A factor that had crept in though, following the Kings Cross fire, was a strong negative public response to underground travel and stations. This dictated that great care be taken to ensure that the system, only underground where thought necessary, was not taken beyond basic safety, a vital step when reassuring the public (2).

A shock came in 1991 when, partly because of additional underground planning, the overall cost had risen to GBP300m which was 50% more than the original estimate. To give time to study these financial implications it was thought prudent to put Metro on temporary hold (3).


A topical question at that time was whether the 68% of peak hour journeys by public transport into the city centre could justify building a motorway into the heart of a city. It could be argued that such a major and highly visible motorway system might contrast somewhat with Glasgow's low car ownership. It was considered though that it could balance reasonably well the proposals for building UK's largest light rail system (4). Low car ownership in the booming eighties could be something of a two-edged sword in transport planning terms because areas of economic prosperity were starting to return. Road planners have pointed out that the natural consequence of increased car use will have an even greater effect in Glasgow than in other cities because of the low starting point. Car ownership in Strathclyde was at that time increasing faster than anywhere else in the UK. As for transit there is almost universal support for a two tier strategy for improvements. In the shorter term extra priority should be afforded to buses and the programme of rail development continued. In the longer term a light rail system based largely on inner area rail lines with a flexibility to cope with on-street running was thought desirable. As for other options, trolley buses and guided busways were proved as not worthy of further exploration. Peoplemovers were also dismissed on cost and environmental grounds and the traffic implications of conventional street tramways effectively ruled them out.


Although Glasgow had ruled out the guided bus as a transport option, consultants for Edinburgh recommended a GBP20m dedicated busway between the airport and the city centre. With 36 vehicles and 10km long, it was expected to attract between 20 000 and 30 000 passengers each weekday. Being partly over sections of the original Metro light rail plan, the consultants added a suggestion that it should be designed for easy conversion to light rail at a later date (5). Known as CERT (City of Edinburgh Rapid Transit), the busway plans drew some objections including one from ScotRail because of concern that bridge building over its line could disrupt services. The contract to build and operate CERT was sought by four of the largest bus companies in UK and the preferred consortium chosen was ConCERT, made up of First Group, Balfour Beatty and Central Parking. The busway was due to open in 2002.


This standard gauge tram line, 20km from Easterhouse to Maryhill via the city centre, was killed-off by 1930s legislation which was not updated when a new legal process was adopted in England and Wales in 1992. Because this new tram order was opposed by a number of petitioners, including Strathclyde Bus Holdings, concerned that it would harm its business, a Public Inquiry (which lasted 10 weeks) had to be held. The Parliamentary Commissioners reached their conclusion within a matter of hours of the last evidence being heard. The reasons for rejection remain unknown because the Commissioners were not obligated to reveal them (6).


A 7km privately-built tram system for Edinburgh, to be built between Haymarket and Newhaven, appears to have met a fate similar to the Strathclyde tram project, but for different reasons. The NETCO (New Edinburgh Tramways Company) system was rejected by the Council following a consultants’ report that both capital and operational costs would be higher than those estimated by NETCO. Although the consultants have warned that the proposed technology was new and untried, NETCO's chairman plans to carry on with a Private Bill to the Scottish Parliament during March 2001 (7).


Edinburgh City Council's original decision to put on "hold" its Metro light rail plans, mainly because of excessive costs, has now been changed and is back on the "table" for a rethink. Being proposed now is a GBP250m tram network, revealed in the Council's Local Transport Strategy which has been submitted to the Scottish Executive. It is said to be not a "U" turn but more of a reaction to a changed climate such as congestion charging and increased Government funding. Although no timescale can be given it is anticipated that the complete tram network will be up and running within 15 years. It is also suggested that the CERT guided busway could be converted to tram operation, made easy because it was actually designed for that probability (8).

With Glasgow the situation is somewhat different. The possibility of trams returning to the streets of this city has been debated in the Scottish Parliament and because such an event would provide enormous benefits, attitudes have in general changed. The Scottish Transport Minister said that the 1996 failure should not deter Strathclyde Passenger Transport from reconsidering the project (9).


South of the border, both Bristol and Leeds have provided good examples of determination despite many years of frustration and for them, seeing that "light at the end of the tunnel" getting ever brighter is a more than just reward.

Scottish determination is now being put to the test with calls from the Scottish Transport Minister to try, try again. Shades of Robert the Bruce.


  1. Local Transport Today - 28th June 1989.
  2. Surveyor - 24th November 1988.
  3. Ken Smart - Local Government Editor in Evening News - 11th June 1991.
  4. PTE Director General Steve Lockley speaking to Peter Huntley - Local Transport Today - 16th May 1990.
  5. Local Transport Today - 8th July 1993.
  6. Local Transport Today - 20th June 1996.
  7. Local Transport Today - 2nd December 1999.
  8. Tramways and Urban Transit - December 2000.
  9. Local Transport Today - 21st December 2000.
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