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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 37 - Bygone days of handsome tramcars

IN THE vastnesses of space, untouched by the sun, nowhere near the moon, too far to be influenced by the biblical description of "the sweet influences of Pleiades" and unhampered by "the bands of Orion," but near enough to put a girdle round the globe, will be, if earthly aspirations go according to plan, a calculating, commercial eye that will oversee our destinations if not our destinies.

It will be encased in a satellite that will focus on Edinburgh with its car-clotted arteries, crowded and spasmodic buses, pot-holed roads resembling sections of some lunar landscape and feral cyclists using the city as an adventure playground - all indicating few signs of intelligent life.

It is part of an over-the-top plan to bring aid and comfort to public transport users, and means that at least 60 electronic displays are likely to be erected at bus stops by June next year, initially on a major route, and, if the project is successful, throughout the city.

Costing £2.23 million, the project, mainly funded by the Scottish Executive, will have 200 Lothian buses and 30 First buses fitted with a top-technology, global positioning satellite system using a central computer database to pinpoint bus locations to within a few yards.

In this star-track system, bus arrival times will be sent to the next stop, depending on traffic congestion, time of day, weather conditions and doubtless whether some female pensioner does not have to empty out her handbag to find her bus pass, whether an arthritic passenger can be dissuaded from manhandling his Zimmer to the top deck and if some foreign tourists can be stopped from asking passengers for fare-paying change while insisting on shaking hands with everyone, including the driver.

I don’t wish to be a space-technology alarmist but one accidental button-push and system cross-over might obliterate arrival times of stately municipal argosies dipping through the suburbs, cause London’s Metro system to go down the tubes and American missiles to be aimed at targets of mass distraction like the new Scottish Parliament building.

What I like about Edinburgh’s public transport system is its enthralling roulette-wheel numbers aspect. A bus might rumble up on time or, like the mills of God, grind its way, exceedingly slowly. Electronic displays stating that some will be 15 minutes late can only cause irritation, despair and possible disarray. What can one do apart from waiting despondently - walk, take a taxi, fall into a faint or a fit? Better, in my view, as a long-standing bus stop veteran, to embrace philosophically the element of chance.

I would prefer to see the money spent in repairing city roads and pavements or helping to provide extra, more comfortable buses with, if possible, a return to conductors to take the fare-gathering strain off drivers.

I rejoice, however, in the planned return of trams to Edin-burgh. The last one ran in 1956, and the city has been the loser in the disappearance of an efficient, smooth and eco-friendly system. There may be Freudian significance in the fact that I used to have dreams about them equated with personal happiness, possibly signifying a life moving purposefully in predeterminate grooves, but with the possibility of hastily backing on one’s tracks should the going get difficult.

Iain Gray, the transport minister has announced a £375 million plan for the city council to build two tram lines to serve the north and west of Edinburgh. The first of the high-speed, high-passenger capacity trams should be operating by 2009, and the system could extend to outlying areas including Musselburgh, Penicuik and Dalkeith.

Is it possible that the cold grind of steel on steel made by the dawn’s early light trams, that sounded like a wake-up call to face another day of unremitting toil, will be heard again? I hope so. It stiffened the municipal backbone and prepared Edinburgh for the ride to work on the city’s handsome, sedate and gently-rocking tramcars unlike - no offence meant - Glasgow ones which, though efficient, were garishly-painted and, to my Edinburgh-biased ear, sounded like cheerful, off-key, one-man-bands.

Meanwhile, as ever, the Scottish Executive has promised us the moon but is to deliver a satellite. I hope, one day, it will be tracking the trams and, on the electronic displays, show that the city is back on the right, congestion-easing, traffic lines.

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