Could a modern tram system be the answer to York’s congestion problems? Former Liberal Democrat councillor Christian Vassie thinks so - and, following a visit to two French cities with tram systems of their own, he’s made a film explaining why. STEPHEN LEWIS and MARY O’CONNOR report.
A second line could run from Skelton, down past Rawcliffe, weave through a developed York Central site to the station, then down through Fulford to Germany Beck and on to the university, Grimston Bar and Dunnington.
A pipe dream? Perhaps. But if the will and the funding could only be found to make it happen, such a tram network could revolutionise York, says former Liberal Democrat councillor Christian Vassie.
Trams would be greener and cleaner than buses. They would reduce pollution and congestion in York – and might even persuade people to leave their cars at home.
"Our city would be transformed," he says.
"Modern trams run on electricity. They mark a city's commitment to that in a way that bus services cannot. The installation of a tram network transforms the streetscape."
The statistics clearly show that a modern tram network would attract passengers who long ago abandoned public transport in favour of the car, he adds.
"York's experience with pedestrianisation has already shown us the value of removing cars from the streets. Our city was not designed for cars. The tram gives the city back to the people. We would avoid the gridlock that every knows will come when Germany Beck is built."
On top of that, a modern York with a clean electric transport system would be more attractive to inward investors, he says.
"We would ensure that the York Central site was attractive to developers as part of a low carbon development where residents had a viable and attractive alternative to the car."
Trams are nothing new in York, of course. Horse-drawn trams plied the city's streets from 1880 to 1909. The York Corporation (forerunner of today's council) then took over the operation, electrified it, and ran electric trams until November 1935, when they stopped running.
"The service had started to lose money after the First World War, and there was increased competition from buses," says the York History website.
There has been talk of reintroducing some kind of moderm tram or light rail system in York for years. It has never come to anything.
That's partly because of cost – Edinburgh's new tram network, estimated at £375 million in 2003, is expected to have cost more than £1 billion after rising expenses and extra interest payments have been factored in.
Nevertheless, in 2008, transport consultants produced a feasibility study looking at the potential of five tram routes in the Leeds City Region – one of which would have operated between Leeds, Harrogate and York, including a potential York city centre loop.
Costings suggested that:
A tram-train route into York Central would cost £4.9 million - £7.4 million
A York City Centre Loop: £4.7 million to £7.2 million
A link to a Park&Ride site at Copmanthorpe: £3.5 million to £5.3 million.
That is big money, but some British cities have managed it, with real success. The Manchester Metrolink has been part of the Manchester miracle – and Sheffield's own tram system has transformed public transport there.
Mr Vassie, who earlier this year was a Liberal Democrat candidate for the North East in the European elections, prefers to look to France for models that York could follow, however.
Eighteen months or so ago, he visited York's twin city of Dijon, and also the French port city of Brest, to see their new tram networks. He made a short film about how he believes York could learn from them.
Dijon, one of York's twin towns, has a population of about 150,000, which rises to 250,000 if you include surrounding villages. Like York, it is a historic city with narrow streets and period buildings. It's €400 million tramway - built, says Mr Vassie, with the help of €100 million funding from the French Government and a €200 million European Investment Bank loan – was completed in December 2012. It has two lines serving 37 stations.
Brest is a port city of 142,000 people in Brittany. "It was a port becoming down on its uppers and has embraced the tram as a way of reinventing and reinvigorating itself," says Mr Vassie. It has a two-branch tramline which was also completed in 2012 at a cost of €383 million.
There was initial opposition in both towns to the tram system, Mr Vassie says.
"Shopkeepers and business in both cities campaigned vigorously against the trams, protesting that banishing cars would destroy their passing trade. Half the population were opposed to the creation of a tram network."
When the tramlines opened, however, everything changed, he says.
Dijon's first tramline carryied an average of 36,000 passengers a day in its first two months – 6,000 more than the highest forecasts. By March this year, meanwhile, there were 33,000 trips per day on the Brest tramline.
More passengers also started taking the bus.
"Once people have made the decision to leave their car behind when they go into town they are more open to using buses," Mr Vassie says.
Ironically, he says, it is now the shopkeepers and businesses not on streets served by the tram who complain they are losing trade. "In Brest a second line is planned and everyone is demanding that the line pass close to them."
The benefits to the two cities have gone beyond simply reductions in pollution and congestions, he says.
In Brest, special effort was made to ensure the trams were accessible to people in wheelchairs and those with pushchairs. The new trams have "opened up the city" to such people, Mr Vassie says.
In Dijon, meanwhile, grass and flowerbeds were laid along tram routes - creating 'green streets' and flowerbeds watered with recycled rainwater.
"So the cities are quiet, literally greener with vegetation and flowers, less polluted, less congested."
Tram systems are expensive, though. As we come out of a recession, where could York possibly gets the sums of money required?
Something like 30 French cities have managed it, says Mr Vassie: so why not us?
The money for Dijon's tram network came from a variety of sources: French Government funding, regional funding, EU Regional Development Funding, and a European Investment Bank loan.
"Both cities have created public/ private partnerships with an operator and both cities have created a long term revenue stream for themselves," he says. "The tram lines are expected to last 50 years. They are an investment in the future."
It all comes down to whether the political will can be found, he says.
"The cities across Europe who are leading the way contain the following: politicians and administrators with courage, vision and a willingness to learn from best practice.
"They talk to other leaders in other cities and learn from them. They bring in world class expertise. They are prepared to borrow and invest in their city's future. They stand up to those who tell them nothing must change.
"They produce coherent strategic plans rather than making tokenistic 'improvements'. They don't start by saying 'we don't have much money so do what can we with what we have'; they think 'how would this really work if we had all the money in the world' - and then go out to find the money."
* Christian Vassie's film about the trams in Dijon and Brest:
What the politicians say
Cllr David Levene, Labour cabinet member for transport
"Tram and similar systems offer significant benefits and is something that can be considered through the upcoming Congestion Commission.
"Such systems wherever they exist have required significant levels of public funding beyond the local level, in Dijon's case from both regional and federal governments as well as from the council and private business.
"York requires bold solutions to tackle its congestion problems and a tram system certainly falls into that category. I hope Mr Vassie will offer his views to the Commission."
Cllr Chris Steward, leader of the Conservative group:
"The idea of trams is interesting but something I fear would be too costly for York and would be limited by lack of space for tramlines and also the lack of sufficient customers. The most viable way could be some sort of ‘Park and Tram’ or free hop on, hop off around the city centre; however that would obviously then magnify the cost. What is impressive about the research of Christian Vassie is the positive approach he advocates of improving public transport, rather than the approach of the current administration which merely focuses it’s efforts on making life hard for car users."
Cllr Ann Reid, deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat group:
"As part of our vision for York 2015, we are asking residents to contribute ideas through our website for making our city even better (yorklibdems.org.uk/York2015).
The idea of trams in York is not new but it is interesting. York is a very different city to Dijon or Brest, our narrow picturesque streets may not support the city centre tramlines needed for a functioning network. We would also be wary of costs, cities much larger than York have had issues funding similar systems.
We welcome the chance to discuss big ideas to get York moving. Issues like introducing more electric buses, reducing bus fares, developing our cycling infrastructure and investing to improve the road network should all be high on the agenda.”
Cllr Dave Taylor, York Green Party
"The UK lags behind Western Europe in terms of modernising transport infrastructure, and I appreciate Christian Vassie's attempt to raise the debate. Traffic congestion and its associated pollution is the most serious issue we face in York.
However, the cost of delivering a tram system in a historic city like York with our many narrow streets is astronomical compared to what you could achieve by investing in less polluting electric buses and hybrid taxis.
I would support a tram link from the British Sugar site through York Central to the city centre rather than more road-building which would only attract more vehicles."