Comment: All-change strategy heading for dead end

Trams at Haymarket junction. Pic: Ian Georgeson
Trams at Haymarket junction. Pic: Ian Georgeson
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For most of the 1950s the first view many people had of Aberdeen was that of a green-and-white corporation bus and tram standing side by side at the Bridge of Dee terminus.

The role of the bus was as a feeder for residents living in nearby post-war housing estates, transporting them to and from Bridge of Dee, where they boarded or alighted a tram which connected to the city centre and beyond.

While many passengers disliked the inconvenience of the change, it highlighted a dilemma facing Aberdeen transport bosses. The cost of extending tram infrastructure to the new housing areas would have been prohibitive compared with the simpler, and cheaper, option of allowing residents to make the whole journey, uninterrupted, by bus. However the latter option presented a problem too, as some of the tramcars were built as recently as 1951 and the corporation wanted to make as much economic use of them as possible before the eventual changeover to an all-bus network.

There was, however, one exception to the rule – a bus service which operated directly to Aberdeen harbour in the early hours of the morning, specifically for fish market employees. So the question came to be increasingly asked: if these residents could have the benefit of a direct service to the city centre, why not those employed during more conventional hours of the day?

Attitudes such as this led to the Aberdeen tram system closing in May 1958, even though the most modern vehicles had several years of serviceable life in front of them.

Four years later, Glasgow Corporation and railway bosses finally set aside decades of mutual hostility by agreeing to set up a transport interchange scheme on the south side of the city.

While it looked good on paper, the reality of the scheme could be somewhat different. The trains did not always run to schedule, making the overall journey time no quicker. But many passengers were dissatisfied even when the scheme worked as envisaged: having settled down inside the bus with their newspapers and fags (smoking was permitted on the top deck in those days), they objected to being decanted on to a draughty railway platform perhaps less than mile into the journey. The experiment was dropped, quietly, after six months.

In the present day it is not uncommon for the daily commute to involve more than one change of transport mode, but generally this only applies to those who live on the periphery of a large city, such as London.

However, as the experiences in Aberdeen and Glasgow showed, commuters living in more compact cities are resistant to a change of travel mode for what are relatively short journeys.

Despite this, the Evening News reports, “actions ... likely to come to fruition include rolling out tram-feeder bus services, from areas in the west of the city”.

Perhaps Transport for Edinburgh (TfE), the umbrella body responsible for bus and tram services in the capital, might like to dip into the archives of 1962.

This could give a clue to the likely reaction, given that, this being Scotland, a good proportion of the changes of mode will take place when the weather is not exactly clement.

Also, it might do well to remember that in 1962, local bus services were strictly regulated (with few exceptions, municipal buses enjoyed a monopoly within the city boundary) therefore those commuters in Glasgow had no alternative but to go along with the interchange scheme.

Today, any bus company with an appropriate licence will be free to launch a service in competition with one involving a change of mode between bus and tram. Therefore if the intention is to “persuade” some commuters in the west of Edinburgh to switch from using a Lothian bus taking them directly into town to one involving a change to a tram, a rival private operator could easily nip in and sweep up the patronage. Transport officials may be surprised by the number of commuters who prefer the direct bus option for relatively short journeys – which most within Edinburgh are – even if getting from A to B takes slightly longer overall.

From day one the tram project has been based less on logic than on dodgy calculations (both financial and technical) plus an unhealthy dose of wishful thinking. Sadly, the interchange idea may come into the latter category as well.

Ken Houston is an Edinburgh-based media and PR consultant, journalist and part-time author. This article first appeared on the Scottish business news and analysis website