July 17, 2003

Wires in the sky

Brian Micklethwait | Buses and Jitneys | New Trains

James Lileks bleats today about public "transportation":

I was walking around downtown this afternoon, noting the progress of the light rail line. A story in the paper noted that theyd be stringing the wires soon, and that gave me a certain amount of grim satisfaction. When people around here think of the light rail system in its future or past incarnation, they see quaint trains clattering past under a bright blue sky. They dont think of overhead powerlines. I understand completely why no one really minded the end of the trolley system in the 50s; besides the fact that the cars were a bit old and drafty, they required a network of lines that made put a tic-tac-toe grid over every major intersection. When the lines came down, and the sky above the streets was clear for the first time in 50 years, it looked the way the promised atom-powered future ought to look. Air-conditioned, chrome-plated, wire-free.

Now the lines are going back up. If Im wrong, Im wrong; I hope the streetcars are filled to capacity, with people hanging off the sides and top like the Bangalore Express. I dont want to see empty cars rattling by the Strib building.

Lileks then says why he objected to the light railway to begin with. It was too expensive and the money could have been used giving poor people better buses. It should have been a different railway in a different place. The wires (see above). The destruction and disruption of the city. The ridiculous size of the "stations", which should just have been stops (pictures of vast erections supplied).

All this is taking place somewhere called "downtown", but I don't know which town it is down.

The "Strib" is a newspaper.

I used to like the old trolley buses in Reading though. No rails, but lots of wires in the sky. But the buses were double deckers, which meant that the wires were much higher off the ground, which made them less visually disruptive. THey were also a very nice colour a sort of dark purpley-crimson, quite different from the orangey-scarlet-red of London's (wireless) buses.

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Comments

Someone else remembers the old Reading trollybuses. We're showing our age!

Actually I only remember them from passing through Reading by car on the way to family holidays in Devon or to visit relatives in Wiltshire.

Does anyone else think the presence of trams on the streets of a British city makes it feel more European?

Posted by Tim Hall on July 17, 2003

a bit off topic but - the enthusiasm for trams in the UK may soon cool down.

The tenders from the private sector for expansion of the Metrolink in Manchester came in 300M over budget (500M) and had to be bailed out by central govt with extra contridutions from local authorities.

The South Hampshire Rapid Transit project has come in 100M more than expected and similar schemes in Leeds and Sheffield are facing difficulties in getting the private sector to invest in the schemes. (in fact the Sheffield extension might only go ahead if the govt breaks its rules on only funding a maximum of 75% of such a project)

Now that the market is beginning to mature investors are realising that there isn't as much money to be made in these schemes

The Metrolink in Manchester was successful because it replaced to already busy lines and gave added value by linking Manchesters main heavy rail stations. This perhaps now looks like a one off and trams are looking like a rather expensive way of providing transport solutions.

It's interesting that newer tram systems seem to be developed as tools of economic regeneration rather than meeting identified transport demands. Why on earth would the private sector gamble on an area becoming regenerated by better public transport? It's an act of faith and a misplaced one - and I say that as someone who works in the fields of transport and regeneration!

Posted by johnh on July 18, 2003

James Liliks writes from Minneapolis.

Posted by Allan Janus on July 18, 2003

Allan beat me to providing Lileks' location, but Minneapolis' official light rail site is: http://www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/citywork/light-rail/

Posted by Murph on July 20, 2003

I don't know whether trams are going to be useful in Minneapolis, but given the density of American cities I suspect the answer is no. As an aside, though, people who say "We should not spend money on trams/buses/funiculars/escalators/Trottoirs, but should instead provide improved bus services" isn't someone who generally rides public transport, because as a means of transportation, buses are simply far less pleasant than are the others. (This feeling may be exascerbated in my case because I am quite susceptible to motion sickness and it is worse in a bus than any other means of transportation). When you make this observation to Americans, you sometimes get a "beggars can't be choosers" sought of response, implying that public transport is something for poor people. While this may be true in large amounts of America, it is certainly not true in much of Europe and Asia - and it isn't true in New York or Washington, either.

Posted by Michael Jennings on July 20, 2003

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