Frequently asked questions

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Why not trolleybuses instead of inflexible trams?

Oh dear - I am old enough to have travelled on a London tram - and a not very pleasant experience it was, too! Inordinately noisy (steel wheels), sluggish due to weight and apparently unstable.

And I remember a cyclist, front wheel buckled in the tramlines and sprawled over his handlebars in the middle of the road.

Disadvantages - high noise pollution; 100% fixed route; damage to local economy whilst rail lines installed (ask Croydon!); cost above 10m per mile to install.

Alternative - trolleybuses. I remember these, too. Cross-ply tyres replaced by less rolling resistant radial ply; quiet; on-board batteries give limited range off-line; can reverse; less prone to becoming disengaged from power lines; cost under 1m per mile to install.

Why can't these academics do their homework before going high profile?

Dear Mr ......,
Your email has been passed to me for answering. As a schoolboy in London I used regularly the 662 trolleybuses along Harrow Road. With my school pals we knew that it was possible to run and jump on a LT or LTW bus starting from a bus stop. It was never possible to run and jump on a trolleybus, as its acceleration was so fast. In the 1920's Henry Ford sold his model 'T' car with the slogan, "you can have any colour you like, so long as it is black". Ford nearly went bankrupt in 1925, as in 1924 Oldsmobile started selling cars painted in different colours, and took away Ford's trade. Ford of course responded by painting cars in the colours of the rainbow. The point of this is that in a free society it is not possible to force people to use products or services. In London about 60% of all personal trips are by car. Only in central London does public transport carry more trips than cars (20% v 5%), in inner London it is 20% v 30% and in outer London 15% v 55%, according to data collected by TfL. The congestion charge has reduced car traffic in that zone by 24% but increased it by 3% in the rest of London from displaced trips. The "Ring of Steel" around the City after the IRA bombs had a similar effect but at much less cost.

For environmental pollution, health protection (about 5000 die in London pa from traffic fume illnesses), traffic congestion, fossil fuel reduction etc. reasons, we should be converting from internal combustion engined road vehicles to non polluting power. There is a large body of evidence that car users will transfer to rail based services but not to buses (trolley or otherwise). A major US Study (Transportation Research Board Report No. 1221) showed that buses carried virtually no trips transferred from cars but rail systems had up to 43% of riders from cars. In the UK the figure is about 30%. You are right that tram tracks are fixed and inflexible, so are tube lines but no one would abandon the Underground. You could argue that trolleybuses have the worst of both worlds, a fixed track and the image of a bus ? In the 1960's a campaign in San Fransisco was mounted to abandon the trams and trolleybuses because of the ugly overhead wires. A referendum on "ugly wires v air pollution" was voted overwhelmingly in favour of clean air, by retaining the trams and trolleybuses, and subsequently built the BART underground railway.

When London trams were converted to trolleybuses before WWII, substations had to be strengthened, as the lighter trolleybuses used nearly twice the power as trams because of the higher rolling resistance of rubber tyres. Thankfully modern trams avoid all the problems you remember from the trams that were abandoned in 1952, many 50 years old, most poorly maintained and running on worn tracks thanks to WWII neglect. The Dutch who make nearly 20% of all their trips by bike, and have extensive tramways in Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht are able to avoid getting their bike tyres stuck in tram rails. Only about 2% of all trips in London are by bike, even though there are many bikes. Bike trips are certainly not deterred by tram tracks in London? The Dutch (and other continental cities) show that the more trips attracted from cars to trams, the more people will ride their bikes and feel safe.

At the moment the Government is not making funds available before 2018 for any new tramways in the UK. In the absence of any other development, London will depend on diesel buses for 6 out of 10 of all public transport trips, unless the EU Environment Commissioner's enforcement action bans buses in (parts of) London, to get the air quality back to a healthy level.

Finally as an academic I spent 20 years researching bus operations and ways to make buses acceptable to car users, before switching to researching ways to make light rail and tramways affordable, so that bus companies could convert to trams, and win back custom lost to cars, at an average rate of about 2% pa since 1955. In 1955 buses carried about 5500 million trips pa in London, without subsidy. Presently there are about 1500 million trips pa, at an annual subsidy of 1500million, three times of the rest of the UK. Please feel free to challenge.

Prof. Lewis Lesley

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