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John McGurk

Ding! Ding! Here comes the Edinburgh tram again. Just another few weeks and it'll be starting up for real. The citizens can't wait and everything is wonderful, say the comrades at the city council. Well, they would say that wouldn't they? Despite the seven years and £776 million it's taken to complete the line which won't be used by most folk because it's not going their way…

It's little wonder the launch of the trams is to be a “no frills affair to avoid being triumphant,” according to 27 year-old Tom Norris, the general manager who was in charge of the trains which served the London Olympic Park.

It's likely that we will be hearing a lot from Mr Norris, particularly since his name is associated with the critically acclaimed 1935 novel “Mr Norris Changes Trains” by Christopher Isherwood  in which the mysterious Mr Norris, travelling by rail from Holland to Germany, is later exposed as a spy and has to flee post-war Berlin.

The last words of the story, spoken by Norris, are “What have I done to deserve all this?”

Our own Mr Norris may well pose the same question when he realises that the elected officials responsible for this whole sorry saga are delighted to have recruited him to carry the can when the inevitable happens and things start to go wrong.

There doesn't appear to be a tram system anywhere in the world that doesn't have difficulties.

Research conducted a year ago on the tram system in Melbourne, Australia, concluded that on average, there were more than two collisions a day between trams and other vehicles. In one street, there were 253 collisions over four years.

During one 12 month period, the emergency braking system caused 880 tram passengers to fall and injure themselves.

The researchers said one of the biggest causes of emergency braking were taxis doing sudden U-turns. Now there's a surprise.

In the Netherlands, they reckon that for every kilometre travelled, accidents are 12 times more likely in a tram than in a car.The culprits are mobile phone users who are staring at their screens and not paying attention; young people wearing headphones who are unaware of what's around them and folk simply trying to cross the street to get to the tram platforms.

When they looked into the causes of tram accidents in Gothenburg, Sweden, they discovered that 60% of victims were drunk. Perhaps just as well our trams are not travelling up and down Lothian Road on Saturday nights.

A few weeks ago, 33 people were injured when three trams collided in Rotterdam. The following day, 22 people were injured when two trams collided in Belgrade.

Sadly, nearer to home, a 13 year-old girl was killed instantly at a tram level crossing near Nottingham two years ago and a man died in January when he fell under the wheels of a tram in Manchester city centre.

These things can be dangerous and no wonder. Each tram weighs 55 tonnes, is 155 feet long and can travel at up to 45 miles an hour.A major drawback is that they can't swerve to avoid obstacles.

As for cyclists, don't get your wheels caught in the tracks and fall over in front of one. And be best advised to cross the track at right angles.

Workmen have been told to stay clear of those overhead wires in case they accidentally come into contact with 750 volts because survival is severely limited.

In Frankfurt, they're trying to reduce accidents by fitting optical sensors to the front of trams. These cameras will scan the road 60 metres ahead and automatically evaluate risks. An acoustic warning will alert the driver before an automatic braking system is triggered.

In Australia, they've introduced a “30 Rhino” campaign which is attempting to reinforce the dangers. Each tram weighs as much as 30 Rhinos so if you step in front of it, it's liable to flatten you.

The harsh reality is that no amount of “dings” is going to prevent Edinburgh from having its fair share of accidents and incidents.

There are some very narrow roadways between Haymarket and the West End in particular. They've all been deliberately created, of course, with one aim: to make life even more frustrating for drivers. Our friends in the council clearly hope that drivers will be persuaded to give up their cars so these obstacles are just another little reminder.

The comrade-in-chief, Lesley Hinds, who is forever telling us how lucky we are to have such a far-sighted, prudent local council which has worked really hard to introduce our trams, is comfortingly upbeat as usual.

Following a recent trip to see the Dublin trams in action, she announced: “What struck me was how quickly the tram was able to leave the stop as there was no need to wait for traffic.”

In other words, just like a bus in a bus lane.

But don't we have these already?


John McGurk is a former editor of The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday and was managing editor of the Daily Telegraph.

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