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Not so daft - Norwich Society responds to critics of trams idea

PUBLISHED: 13:39 06 February 2019 | UPDATED: 13:47 06 February 2019

The Norwich Society's Paul Burrall has responded to critics of its suggestion of introducing trams to the city. Photo: Getty Images/iStockPhoto

The Norwich Society's Paul Burrall has responded to critics of its suggestion of introducing trams to the city. Photo: Getty Images/iStockPhoto

Max Blinkhorn

Daft, hilarious, risking anthrax, 1950s retro, little grasp of reality, crushing cost: these were just some of the more polite comments about the suggestion from the Norwich Society – and subsequently taken up by the city council – that trams could be part of the answer to the city’s transport problems.

Some of the critics seem to think that the Norwich Society was proposing going back to the clunky trams of the long-distant past.

Conor Matchett’s opinion piece (February 5) was slightly more up-to-date, referring to the expensive fiasco of Edinburgh’s tram system, still incomplete after 15 years.

If these critics had bothered to properly research the subject – or even read the Norwich Society report that raised the idea (see it here) – before picking up their quill pens or putting fingers to keyboard, they would have discovered that it is they who are out of date, not the Norwich Society or the council.

The society is not suggesting that traditional trams should be reintroduced throughout Norwich.

What it is suggesting is trams using the latest technology on one high demand route, that from the hospital and UEA through the city centre to the rail station.

These trams would be powered from batteries, eliminating the need for expensive and intrusive overhead wires and their supporting poles. They would also have only a single guidance rail and run on rubber tyres, making them extremely quiet and comfortable, as well as clean.

The report pointed out that the Chinese city of Nanjing already has a 40-kilometre route operated by battery-powered trams and that the new Venice to Mestre trams use a single guidance rail and run on rubber tyres. These are proven technologies.

Incidentally, the Mestre trams run successfully through some very narrow and busy streets without problems and, because it is a guided system, have completely flat access with virtually no gap between the tram and the low platforms.

Trams have the ability to carry large numbers of people comfortably, quickly and reliably and are very popular with passengers. Even the much-criticised Edinburgh system is well used, with the number of passengers increasing from 4.9m in 2015 to 7.3m last year - what is more, it made a profit of £1.3m for Edinburgh City Council in its most recent financial year, four times more than had been forecast.

In the past, construction costs and the associated disruption that caused such havoc in Edinburgh have been the key objections to new tram routes. However, with battery-powered trams using a single rail, the infrastructure costs of building new tram routes have been slashed and disruption minimised.

Combined with the high capacity, popularity and extremely low running costs, new tram routes are now increasingly feasible for cities such as Norwich and should not be dismissed because of outdated preconceptions.

Transport is the lifeblood of any city and trams can, under the right circumstances, play a significant role in supporting the local economy.

One example of a city that has recognised this is Kansas which opened a new tram route in 2016 that is free to use and was funded entirely by local businesses who recognised that the increased custom that it would bring would make the investment worthwhile. The Kansas model is not one that is likely to be followed in Europe but it does demonstrate that the economics of transport should be judged on a wider basis than just the costs of the transport systems themselves.

Trams are only effective on high-density routes and the Norwich Society made clear in its report that the first priority should be improving bus services. The society proposed setting a deadline for banning diesel buses from the city centre and replacing them with electric buses, partly to remove the health-damaging levels of pollution in the bus-dense streets in the city centre and partly to improve the attractiveness of public transport with modern, quiet buses.

The report cited Nottingham as an example of a city that has been electrifying its bus fleet for several year and pointed out that, while the capital cost of electric buses is higher than diesel, the lower operating and maintenance costs make them more cost-effective over their lifetime.

Other improvements to bus services are needed. The society pointed to systems that have been introduced elsewhere in Europe and are beginning to be introduced in the UK that provide off-peak services with more flexible routing, for example using a phone app that enables passengers to call a bus serving a particular area to a specific stop.

The report also pointed for the need to improve the park and ride services to make them more attractive to people coming into Norwich from around Norfolk.

Norwich needs better public transport: This is an issue worth proper discussion based on real facts.

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