Plans for a return of trams on Aberdeen’s streets appear to have gone up in smoke – decades after the city’s fleet met a similarly fiery end at the beach.
Tram-talk has captured the imagination of our readers this week, after the councillor in charge of the city centre masterplan, Marie Boulton, brought forward the idea in an exclusive interview.
But now, it has emerged that top Town House officials believe Aberdeen is too small to make such a vast multi-million-pound transport project viable.
And Mrs Boulton’s administration colleagues – Aberdeen Labour and the Conservatives – have made it clear they believe the move would put the Granite City on the wrong track.
The independent, the council’s capital convener, tentatively revealed she would like to see a light rail network in place in Aberdeen as an alternative to buses and the fancied Aberdeen rapid transit (ART) alternative currently being eyed up by transport chiefs.
However, the Lower Deeside member made it clear no work was officially being done on a tramway project and that it would only be an option far off in the future.
Aberdeen’s trams were retired in spectacular fashion at the beachfront in 1958, as they were burned having come the end of their use.
Reintroducing trams in Edinburgh cost nearly £400m more than it was meant to, with the fiasco doubling the expected cost to the public. It also took three years longer than planned to build.
Boulton’s administration partners put brakes on new Aberdeen tramway
Keen to “set the record straight”, council leader Jenny Laing pressed Aberdeen Journals to reveal her Aberdeen Labour group’s position on proposals: that a city tramway was not something they, or the current ruling administration, had agreed to pursue.
Mrs Laing told us: “I note the comments of Councillor Marie Boulton and I understand from speaking with her that thoughts about bringing trams back into the city are her personal view, and not the wider administration.
“I can confirm that the Aberdeen Labour group will not be seeking the re-introduction of trams as part of our manifesto commitments for 2022-27.
“Having spoken to officers, it is their opinion that Aberdeen has too small a population to make trams viable.”
And resources convener Ryan Houghton, moved to distance his Conservative group from the idea as well.
“While it’s always worth considering ideas, we don’t support introducing trams in the near future,” he said.
“Significant work would be required around sustainability and financial viability.
“The recently approved regional transport strategy details the current projects to improve connectivity and received unanimous support.”
‘Tram-like’ rapid transit service in the works for Aberdeen
That regional transport strategy, backed by regional transport body Nestrans, has already sourced Scottish Government money for a feasibility study on the ART.
Similar to the Glider service in Belfast, the bus-tram hybrids could well be brought to the Granite City with a hefty contribution from Holyrood’s £500m Bus Partnership Fund – but only if they remain on the roads, not rail.
SNP operations spokesman on the council, Alex McLellan said talk of bringing trams back had undermined that work.
He added: “I’m glad Councillor Laing, and her Labour colleagues, are in agreement that a tram network simply would not be the right direction of travel for Aberdeen’s transport network.
“It is concerning though that Councillor Boulton failed to mention that officers didn’t think trams were feasible.
“It won’t help public confidence in the masterplan if the councillor with oversight of it is pushing forward with ideas she’s been told aren’t viable.
“Perhaps, given she once suggested the AWPR should be tunnelled under the Granite City, that tram has already left the station.”
While readers told us of their support for the idea, numerous others came forward raising concern at the prospect of so much money being spent on a big ticket item, when the likes of Union Street are in such dire need of attention.
It is a view shared by Liberal Democrat group leader Ian Yuill, who said: “The council needs to get the basics right and Councillor Boulton’s latest flight of fancy does nothing to tackle that.
“We need roads that aren’t crumbling, pavements that aren’t uneven, Victorian schools that are fit for purpose and services people can rely on.
“Trams don’t deal with any of those issues and, look at what happened in Edinburgh.
“Providing a tram network in Aberdeen would be massively expensive, take years and do nothing to meet the challenges the city faces today.”
Boulton: ‘We shouldn’t limit our aspiration’
But Mrs Boulton told Aberdeen Journals she stood by her comments on trams as a possibility for the city, though she respected her colleagues’ right to have their own views.
“I suggested we shouldn’t limit our aspiration and should consider investigating the opportunity of trams or even light rail, we could even ensure they could be powered by hydrogen, keeping it green,” she said.
“The only conversation I have had with officers have been limited to being told ‘it would be too expensive’ – but that was without any work being carried out by officers to evidence this statement.
“However, I did meet on several occasions with an expert on modal shift who has worked across the world and within the UK on projects with trams/monorail/light rail. I did ask that we get him to carry out a study, unfortunately this has never happened.
“I wouldn’t restrict looking at just the Aberdeen population but if it worked reach out to parts of Aberdeenshire to help build a regional network.
“I know Nestrans is currently investigating the Glider which is a guided bus that looks like a tram and is operational in Belfast and has been successful, moving people out of their cars and onto public transport, which would suggest that people are attracted to -‘tram-like’ transport.
“I have never said we would introduce trams tomorrow and welcome Councillor Houghton’s comments which don’t completely kill off the idea at an appropriate time in the future.”
Next stop: A council-owned bus company?
While signalling Aberdeen Labour would not support a tram project now, or in the next six years, Mrs Laing looked to draw attention to the city’s bid to set up a new municipal bus company – hoped to help tackle emissions and encourage low carbon transport in the city.
Officials, with plenty on their plates as they plot a £150m overhaul of the Granite City, are working on a plan for the city-run buses, expected to come to light in February.
As well as being backed by Aberdeen Labour, the idea has the support, in principle, of the SNP too – who are eyeing even more of the SNP’s bus funding making its way north-east.
However, Mrs Boulton revealed “surprise” that the idea was still ongoing, given an £8.3m partnership between the city authority and First Bus to run hydrogen double deckers throughout Aberdeen.
“It is my understanding we are even looking at putting in a refuelling station at their depot,” she added.
“I know there was consideration given to buying First when it was up for sale and again it was my understanding that situation has changed.”