Has the Edinburgh trams debacle killed off prospects for future electrically-powered street transport in Scotland?
If we are talking flanged wheels on rails then the answer might be ‘yes’ but somewhat below the radar, exciting developments are taking place in realising the dream of sustainable electric bus-propulsion.
Next year Edinburgh will see the introduction of part-electric buses with an extended reach on battery power but more of that later because another capital city – Inverness, seat of government in the Highlands – has already stolen a march on the rest of the country.
There Stagecoach has invested more than £600,000 in five state-of-the-art electric vehicles (pictured) for its local bus network, with the remaining £500,000 of funding coming from the Scottish Government’s Green Bus Fund.
The vehicles have replaced conventional diesel buses on two local services starting out from the city centre, to Raigmore and South Kessock. These are estimated to account for 24,000 passenger journeys per month.
The vehicles are charged overnight at Stagecoach’s Inverness depot while the Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership, HITRANS, has partly funded a further charging point at the main bus station to allow top-up charging during the day.
Steve Walker, managing director, Stagecoach North Scotland, said: ““Our buses play a vital role in keeping communities connected across the north of Scotland and we are committed to investing in cleaner, greener vehicles. Sustainability is at the heart of our business – we are reducing our own carbon footprint as a company and will continue to encourage more people to try our greener, smarter bus services.”
Bus-battery technology, though advancing at a fast rate, has still some way to go before being perfected, which is why wireless electric buses are confined to relatively short routes.
In comparison to Inverness, the Edinburgh hybrid vehicles will be operated on Lothian Buses’ 10-mile, cross-city service, No. 30, between Musselburgh and Clovenstone.
Lothian Buses will introduce 25 vehicles costing around £12 million to man the route, the scheme also being partly funded by the Scottish Government’s Green Bus Fund.
Elsewhere in Scotland, several other local bus networks – notably in Aberdeen, Dundee and Stirling – are benefiting from the various operators’ commitment to ‘clean’ technology (again boosted by contributions from the Green Bus Fund). While not involving electric traction, these developments boost power-and emission-saving.
Despite the recent improvements in battery-electric technology, the trolleybus could soon make a British comeback, in Leeds.
The city council’s first preference was for a three-line tram system but this (and several other schemes in England) was killed by the then Minister for Transport, Alastair Darling, on the grounds that trams represented “poor value for money”.
In one of the ironies of the devolution settlement, Mr Darling, at the time MP for Edinburgh South-west, saved Leeds and other English cities from tram-building mayhem but could not do the same for the city he represented in parliament.
Even so, cancellation did not stop the scheme’s backers spending £40 million of public money on ‘preparations’ – largely buying up property – for the proposed system even before any physical works had begun.
In response, the local authority came up with an alternative proposal using trolleybuses, which are significantly cheaper because they do not require expensive track, which also negates the even more costly process of relocating underground pipes and other utilities (a task which did so much to blow the trams construction budget in Edinburgh).
The revised scheme was – after much deliberation – approved by the Coalition Transport Minister, Justine Greening, albeit paired down to two routes.
However a public inquiry followed, with the present Minister, Patrick McLoughlin, still not having given final approval – and sanctioning a £173m government contribution to the overall £250m cost.
Perhaps he has one eye on battery-electric progress in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK as providing a face-saving get-out.
Those who remember trolleybuses in Scotland usually associate them with Glasgow but the pioneer north of the Border was in fact Dundee, where an experimental line operated from 1912 to 1914.
It was not until 1949 that Glasgow introduced trolleybuses, strongly supported by the Lord Provost, Sir Victor Warren, who owned an explosives factory and sat on the corporation for the Progressives.
With Sir Victor’s untimely death at only 49 in 1953 much of the impetus for trolleybus development in the city was lost but even so, by its peak the system had become the third largest in the UK.
I have fond personal memories of trolleybuses in Glasgow, using them to visit an aunt whose kitchen window looked onto the Hampden trolleybus garage, located below the east terracing of the national football stadium.
I loved the gentle hum of the electric motors along with the lack of vibration and the absence of diesel fumes. A particular delight was the soft ‘clicking’ sound made by the ‘booms’ (i.e. trolley poles) as they negotiated ‘frogs’ (sets of points) on the overhead wires at junctions.
Sadly, these sentiments were not so widely shared. While in several English cities trolleybuses were proudly referred to as the ‘silent service’, Glaswegians called them the ‘silent death’.
In reality the fleet had an excellent safety record so it was ironic that one of the few accidents created banner headlines, due to the involvement of an international diva, the American songstress, Dionne Warwick.
While on a UK tour Ms Warwick emerged from a performance at the Odeon cinema via the stage door and was promptly knocked down by a trolleybus while crossing the road in thick fog.
Although sustaining an injury to a leg and suing Glasgow Corporation, the singer turned out to be far more robust than the trolleybus fleet, which dwindled and died while her career went from strength to strength.
The end came on the last Saturday in May, 1967 when an eclectic crowd of transport officials, bus enthusiasts and cheery locals, the latter fortified by their carry-outs (the pubs closed at 10.pm back then), gathered at Queens Cross terminus, near the Partick Thistle FC ground, to see off the final run of the final service, the No. 105 to Clarkston.
And so Glasgow said goodbye to those swift, silent, fume-free, fuel-efficient vehicles.
In the words of a Dionne Warwick hit song – Anyone Who Had a Heart would surely weep.