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Glasgow’s ‘lost metro’ and a potential lesson for new Edinburgh trams


A PR client, the property investment company, Cosmopolitan Investments, recently announced a second letting within two months at its office building, Birch House, in West Edinburgh.One of the many advantages of Birch House is location, the building being within five minutes’ walk of a tram stop, offering the prospect of swift, uninterrupted journeys to both the city centre and the airport when the long-awaited line opens next year…

Nevertheless, critics are concerned that a proposed service headway of seven and a half minutes – i.e. the interval between the departure of one tram and the arrival of another – will prove a disincentive to passengers, particularly ones intent on doing business and with fixed appointments to keep.

Certainly, it seems somewhat obvious that just missing a tram and having to wait one-eighth of an hour for the next one, does rather defeat (or at least diminish) the object of the project.

However, if Edinburgh tram managers care to look, they might find inspiration from a plan for a Glasgow-wide metro which has been gathering dust for the past 65 years.

The document, prepared in 1948, maps out in great detail proposals for a light-rail system covering Glasgow and its environs, with services provided by North American-style, two-car, trams. The intention was to utilise Glasgow’s surplus of abandoned or underused railway tunnels and cuttings as well as the central reservations of dual carriageways on major arterial highways, such as Great Western Road and Edinburgh Road.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the plan – and of particular relevance to the present Edinburgh project – was that devoted to service levels. Showing remarkable prescience (in an age before  mass car-ownership), the author, Eric Fitzpayne, wrote: “The idea of having to travel by timetable is repugnant to the average man in the street who prefers to know that within a short time of his arrival at the station, or stop, his transport will arrive.”

Fitzpayne, who was Glasgow Corporation’s energetic transport manager, believed the answer was to operate trams in groups of three. Within each group, only one would provide a ‘full stopping’ service, with the two others calling only at designated intermediate stations (e.g.16 of 24 stops on a route). This meant that any passengers who had just missed a tram – either ‘full’ or ‘intermediate’ - could rely on either the first or second unit following to take them directly to the required destination. Fitzpayne believed it possible to operate a headway of 44 seconds, resulting in any passenger having a wait of no more than 2 minutes and 11 seconds for the tram which would take them directly to where they wanted to go.

So let’s fast-forward 65 years and 45 miles from west to east.

With the projected part of the Edinburgh line from the city centre to Leith having been abandoned, the capital has taken delivery of more trams than it actually needs. Therefore, given sufficient will on the part of management, could not an intensive service of the type envisaged for Glasgow not be operated over what, after all, is only an eight-mile stretch of track?

If not, what is Transport for Edinburgh (the council-owned company charged with operating the line) going to do with the spare trams lodged at the Gogar depot – use them as chicken coops, perhaps?

Returning briefly to 1948, the Fitzpayne plan was a revolutionary document that called for a complete realignment of public transport in Glasgow, its aim being to replace the ageing street tramways with the proposed light rail/metro lines, with buses acting as feeders to the tram stops or ‘stations’.

A particular advantage of the scheme was that utilising much existing but underused railway infrastructure meant relatively little new (and costly) underground tunnelling work would have been required.

Sadly, the proposals were sidelined by politicians in favour of a wider project of electrification of suburban railways across the Clyde Valley. This scheme, which began in the late 1950’s and to some extent is still ongoing, has led to vast improvements for commuters and leisure travellers in the West of Scotland, especially those making journeys to and from Glasgow city centre.

However, heavy rail infrastructure is not geared to providing ultra-frequent headways that are possible on light rail/tramway systems. Consequently, the contemporary passenger arriving at a suburban railway station at off-peak times, and just having missed a train, might have to wait not two minutes, but almost 30, for the next one. In such circumstances he or she may feel the best option is to return to the station car park and drive into town.

Although his metro plan has been lost in the mists of time, the name “E.R.L. Fitzpayne” is still familiar to older Glaswegians given that for more than a quarter of a century it was displayed on every vehicle that made up Glasgow Corporation’s massive fleet of 1,200-plus buses.

Fitzpayne actually hailed from a prominent Edinburgh family (he was educated at George Watson’s College then Edinburgh University) which could, perhaps, help relieve any apprehension the capital’s transport officials may have about taking advice – historical or otherwise - from its great rival in the west.

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