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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 86 - Gallic transports of delight for capital tramcars

WHEN to the sessions of sweet, silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past, images of a nearly-forgotten Edinburgh flicker and fade like scenes from ancient cine-camera projectors.

I see bemedalled commissionaires ruling, with iron voices, serpentinal cinema queues, long, bell-tolling, autumnal Sundays, enlivened by peppermint-pure prayers and Fisherman’s Friend lozenge, blow-torch sermons, girls with hairstyles described as "beehive" but which resembled wombats’ sporrans, young men with heavily-creamed hair that acted as skating-rinks for insects and - the height of late 1950s chic - young women wearing starched underskirts that crackled like distant forest fires.

The sounds? Cloth-capped comrades of the Bolshevik banner, time-frayed academics and Bible-waving evangelists at The Mound speakers’ corner, all pointing to true political, philosophical and religious paths with, generally, yawning gulfs between them and the lumpen, languid proletariat, sporadic and spasmodic one-man bands, sometimes thumping their war-song to Edinburgh gales, the heavy classics that were on everyone’s lips, like I Want To Be Bobby’s Girl and Livin’ Doll and, most important, the steely wake-up call for a city sunk in self-righteous slumber made by dawn-cracking tramcars.

In my dreams, trams move on shadowy, cerebral streets, stately galleons, dipping nor-nor-eastwards to the salty, steamship-funnel-flecked docks of Leith, sailing sedately along Princes Street among barging buses, vulgar freight carriers, the common run of cars and the pedestrian surge, or cruising sedately on the superior-upholstered No 6 Marchmont Circle route that catered mainly for the best of the bourgeois breed and middle-class voyagers.

AS IN a gleam of ancient sunlight, I see the familiar yet strangely exotic-sounding destinations loom at my wind-blown, subconscious tram stop - Gorgie, Joppa, Comely Bank, Restalrig and Goldenacre. For me they were as entrancing as the South American peaks, Chimborazo and Cotopaxi, and, in a pioneering spirit, I would sometimes take a No 7 tram ride to Stanley Road or other numbers for faraway destinations, merely to see how the natives lived.

Edinburgh’s trams, unlike the multi-coloured, rickety-as-rickshaw Glasgow ones that screeched like tenement stair squabbles, were as upright as church pews and were not only people-carriers but also soberly-hued, sturdily-engineered symbols of the concept of predestination.

Passengers never suffered from piped music pollution, and although I heard some culturally-minded passengers say they would liked to have seen string quartets, perhaps comprising retired local instrumentalists, playing light classical and musical comedy selections on upper decks on carefully-chosen routes, the idea struck no sympathetic corporation chord.

In 1956, the last Edinburgh tramcar ground its way to oblivion but I, and many other veteran municipal travellers, still miss them despite a recent report by the National Audit Office that most of the seven new tram and light-rail systems built in England since 1980 attracted far fewer passengers than expected, had "little impact on reducing road congestion", and were not properly integrated with other transport.

EDINBURGH trams will, doubtless, run on fully-integrated lines, but, the report aside, I have some unease. The Paris-based company, Transdev, has landed the £750 million contract to run the city’s tram system that should have two routes running by 2009. One will travel in a loop from St Andrew Square to Leith, Granton and Haymarket, and the other, from St Andrew Square to Edinburgh Airport, will include Princes Street, Haymarket and Gogar roundabout.

A proposed third line, linking the city centre to Newcraighall via Cameron Toll and Kinnaird Park, should operate four years later.

I have nothing against France, although its people live in a state of controlled tipsiness from the age of five, induced by vin ordinaire, do not love animals unless cooked and only stop waving their arms to go to sleep.

I wanted a British-to-the-steel-backbone operation but, since the Frenchies will put us on track - Gaul and wormwood to some Edinburgh tram-lovers - let us, sacre bleu, go the whole cochon and import Gallic drivers, possibly short, blue-vested, beret-wearing people who could operate onion-festooned trams and steer with characteristic elan while, in special compartments, traditional French three-piece accordion bands played music in threequarter time. It could turn our trams into transports of delight. If I am dreaming, let me dream on.

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