When "tramway mania" gripped this country at the beginning of the 20th century, leading to a flurry of track-laying across the land, Edinburgh (at least to outsiders) seemed to be resistant to the phenomenon.
Principally, all the infrastructure essential to efficient electric tramway operation (stanchion poles, overhead wiring and so on) was anathema to the local heritage lobby, apparently as influential then as today. Therefore, while other cities got rid of their horse trams and embraced electric traction, Edinburgh attempted to avoid "visual pollution" with a cable system, propulsion being provided by a constantly-running cable parallel with the track just below the surface of the road.
Although environmentally friendly, the cable cars were slow and prone to breakdowns, in contrast to neighbouring Leith, in those days still an independent burgh, which had introduced electric trams in 1906. When Leithers bound for Edinburgh were required to change from their modern electric cars at the boundary in Leith Walk (a process commonly known as the Pilrig muddle) they expressed disdain at having to complete the journey by the capital's slow and tacky cable-hauled vehicles.
As the new century progressed, public disquiet with the cable cars grew and in 1918 Edinburgh Corporation started to plan for the electrification of the system, fully 20 years after Glasgow launched its first electric route.
For its new transport boss Edinburgh headhunted an Englishman, R Stuart Pilcher, who since 1904 had managed Aberdeen Corporation's tramways department. He went on to organise the electrification of the cable car system in just 53 weeks during 1922-23, while also linking it to the tracks previously owned by Leith, annexed by the capital in 1920.
Several other improvements to the network quickly followed, including laying track in George Street and developing a large cross-over to accommodate trams operating an extensive service of "short workings" to the Zoo during the summer and on bank holidays
However, just as Edinburgh had at last secured a public transport network fit for the 20th century, rapid improvements to the internal combustion engine meant many municipal operators, especially if faced with expensive track renewal, were already considering replacing their trams with buses. The respected transport historian, Ian Yearsley, has speculated that, had Edinburgh retained cable cars for just five years longer, the corporation would probably have gone over to an all-bus system and municipal electric trams would never have graced the city's streets.
In addition to being somewhat belated, Edinburgh's love affair with the tram was also relatively short lived; less than 30 years separated completion of the electrification scheme (in 1923) and the start of the abandonment programme in 1951. The one major route extension, from Corstorphine to The Maybury, completed in 1937, lasted just 15 years. Pilcher's achievements did not go unnoticed and after a decade at the helm in Edinburgh he was headhunted again, this time by Manchester Corporation. There he set about designing a lightweight, energy-saving tram but soon saw the bus as the way forward and embarked on a programme of replacing the trams with buses and trolleybuses.
Retiring to East Lothian, Pilcher lived long enough to be an honoured guest at the closure ceremonies of the three tramway systems he had once managed: Manchester, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. Though a dedicated tramway-man both by training and sentiment, he came away from each event convinced trams had had their day.
The latest system/half-line (delete according to your point of view) is Edinburgh's fourth crack at trams (horse, cable, first electric and now second electric). Only time will tell if this latest generation will last longer than its predecessor or whether professionals like Stuart Pilcher were right all along.
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