British Trams: Edinburgh and Manchester

Trams are pretty abundant in Europe, surviving the onslaught of the automobile industry. While most traditional tramways serve an inner city transport function, Britain’s trams serve more of a longer distance commute function, essentially  doorstep to doorstep commuting as the line goes directly through the city.

Where Ireland has only one tramway in Dublin, quite a few British cities feature trams, and I visited two of them during my Easter vacation: Edinburgh and Manchester.


Edinburgh Trams

Prior to the current system, Edinburgh had an older system that consisted of both electrically driven and cable hauled vehicles.  This system ran from 1871 to 1956 when it was closed down.  The current line, however, is relatively recent, and has had a rather tumultuous history since a modern tramway for Edinburgh was first proposed in 1990.  Lots of proposals were proposed and debated over with the Scottish Parliament introducing 2 bills to reintroduce trams, and the then original proposal of 3 lines very nearly came to an end in 2007 when the Scottish National Party published its 2007 election manifesto, with a cancellation of the tram project as part of its promises.  Following the election, however with the SNP being a minority government, gave permission to the line provided no more public money was used.  After the required approvals, construction kicked off, but the construction period too ran into issues.  What was supposed to be part of Phase 1 b was cancelled due to a lack of funding, and throughout construction there were significant delays as well as cost overruns.  Where the initial projected cost in 2003 was GBP375million, it rose to GBP521million in 2008 when the contracts were signed, which finally ballooned to GBP776million after all delays.

Finally on 31st May 2014 the tramway was opened.  That is, of course, a super condensed version of the story of Edinburgh Trams.  I skimmed through many of the details on the wikipedia page, so those who would like to have a better understanding of the whole debacle can click here.

But my intention to checkout the tram was more motivated by a desire to document trams in various cities, as well as to satisfy the childish need in me to ride the trams.  I have already covered Dublin’s Luas trams in a previous post, and at the time of writing the Luas drivers are striking.  It would also be quite an interesting thing to compare the implementations of tramways in different cities, as well as to serve as a bit of a benchmark should Malaysia ever decide to implement trams: I’m looking at you, Georgetown and KL.

Edinburgh Trams is a mere 14km long, and starts at the Edinburgh Airport, passing through suburbs, and finally terminating in York Place in the city centre.  As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, Edinburgh as a city is split in half into the Old Town portion and the New Town portion, with Waverley station right smack in the gap.  The Old Town portion hosts the city’s oldest buildings and is extremely hilly, making it unsuitable for a tram network.  The New Town on the other hand has a more grid-like structure since it was designed to be like that, and hosts most of the city’s commercial activity.

The flatter New Town also means that it is the most suitable location to run the trams, which is exactly the case.  Edinburgh Trams, to be honest, is a simple system to transport people to the centre of the town and vice versa, offering no integrations with any other transit lines.

The rolling stocks on the line was provided for by CAF of Spain, unlike the usual Alstom Citadis’s we usually see on tramways.

First off, the maps:


Earlier in the day I had spotted the trams from the top of the Scott Monument.  Pictures and footages of it were taken, and it really was an interesting contrast seeing a tram gliding alongside a shorter bus.  Also the view of the people milling about was amazing.


Having nothing planned for the night, I resolved to document the tram infrastructure and possibly to ride it.  At the time I made the decision the nearest stop was St.Andrew’s Square, and so there I headed.

The tram can carry more passengers than the car on the right
Very low platform height

As the tram is operated by Transport for Edinburgh, it shares the same colour scheme as Lothian Buses, which is also operated by TfE.  The white-maroon colours were pretty pleasing on the eye, and the branding is applied to signages as well.

As with the Luas in Dublin, platforms had a low height to allow easy access from the sidewalks.  Unlike Dublin however the shelters had a more “premium” look and feel, being predominantly glass and steel.  The lighting used was an orangey thing, probably a halogen bulb.  The shelters featured ticket vending machines, route/fare/frequency information as well as seats.


Get your tickets here


Validation machine for travelcards


The construction of St Andrew’s Square halt saw the street reduced to one lane, and this meant greater pedestrian accessibility as car traffic was reduced.


St Andrew’s Square is the stop just before the terminus at York Place, and having nothing else to do, I decided to walk to York Place to see if walking was faster than taking the tram.

Of course it is given such a short distance, but I took longer because I stopped to take various pictures.


A newly arrived tram was idling at the platform when I arrived at York Place, and so I quickly bought a ticket from the machine and got onboard.  The fare is a flat fare of GBP1.50, unless you buy a ticket to the Airport which would cost you GBP4 as the Airport is its own separate zone.  This also means that the further you travel the cheaper the actual cost of your ticket gets, as you would be paying GBP1.50 no matter how far you travel, bar the Airport of course.  Unlike Dublin, ticket possession is enforced by a conductor onboard.  Unfortunately I misplaced my ticket after the trip so no pictures of it unfortunately.

Very comfy ride
Route map above the doors

The seats are leather seats and are quite comfortable indeed.  I suppose this makes sense as the tram covers a long distance.  Also notable is that the ride was pretty quiet, save for a pleasing low hum.  I had previously noticed this when standing right next to a departing tram, where there was only that low hum, compared to the Luas which has this more annoying whine.  Track noise also seemed minimal compared to the Luas.


I rode the tram until Princes Street, which was only 2 stops away.  During the short ride I was left impressed by the ride quality.  If I had more time during the day I would have taken the full length of the tram into the suburbs but stopping short of the airport.  Also a point to note was that the overhead power cables were barely noticeable, something which those concerned with street aesthethics may worry about.  So long as it isn’t a tangled mess, we shouldn’t have any problems.

Checkout this video for footages of the Edinburgh Tram that I shot, including from the Scott Monument.  There is also footage from the short ride on it, showing how smooth and quiet it was:


Manchester Metrolink

Manchester’s Metrolink has been in operation since 1992, longer than Edinburgh’s Tram.  Unlike Edinburgh, the Metrolink system is essentially Manchester’s rapid transit backbone, featuring over 93 stations and 92km long.  It radiates outwards from the city centre and is composed of multiple lines interchanging in the middle.  Unlike Edinburgh and Dublin the tram vehicles and stations feature a higher floor as the system inherited lines formerly utilised by British Rail which had higher platforms.  As such, low floor trams and platforms were out of the question.

The vehicles used are new Bombardier Flexity Swift M5000, and there is a total of 9 lines.

First off, a map of the system.  I found this version of Wikipedia which is arguably less confusing than the ones used on the stops.


As you can see from the map, most of the lines go through the city centre instead of terminating there, giving it a bigger catchment area than Edinburgh Trams.

I had a look at both a street platform as well as the ones in Manchester Picadilly station.  The Metrolink platform is located in the basement of Picadilly station.



After walking around town me and my friend decided (well…mostly me) to grab the Metrolink to Picadilly station.  Unfortunately no thanks to the confusing maps on the station, we ended up waiting at the wrong stop and had to speed walk to a correct stop.  This is because the maps at the halts utilise a single grey colour for all lines, with the different lines indicated by coloured triangles.  This made it harder to find out whether the stop we were at was on the same line as Picadilly.  As it turns out, it wasn’t.

See how its all grey?
At least I got some pictures


Compared to Edinburgh’s trams, the Metrolink is way noisier.  It rumbles and screeches more, probably due to the tighter turns.  The system is also busier, as it serves a “Metro” role as well.  Travelling within the city zone (shaded on maps) also requires a flat fare of GBP1.20.

High platforms and busy too
This part of town is highly pedestrianised
See? People!
Onboard the tram
Route map onboard

Some footage of the Metrolink to be viewed here:

At some portions you can see the trams being run in a 2-in-1 composition for what presumably are busier routes.

So that was it for the 2 tram systems I rode on during my Easter vacations.  Metrolink honestly felt more like a bustling light rail system (which it is) than Edinburgh’s Tram.  Comparatively Edinburgh’s Trams felt more like a nice curiosity, but then again Manchester is way busier than Edinburgh.



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