Why the bus made way for one single tram line

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Exactly thirty years ago, the decision was made to create the Uithoflijn tram. Back then, no one could have foreseen that it would take three decades to construct it. A lot had to happen before the tram line could be realised, and time-consuming adjustments made the process difficult. Former city council member and expert Wolfgang Spier lists the history of the tram for DUB.

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1989: a tram through the city centre
On June 9, 1989, mayor and aldermen decide to extend the existing fast-track tram from Nieuwegein through Utrecht’s city centre all the way to De Uithof. This was the result of a long discussion that had started 14 years before, when the tram to Nieuwegein was first constructed. At the time, it was already being called the ‘Uithoflijn’, and was supposed to run through the city centre. Political parties VVD, PvdA, and CDA were in favour of this city centre route. D66, GroenLinks, and SP opposed the plan.

This VVD alderman called for a less car-friendly policy, and continuation of the three buses between Central Station and De Uithof.

Since time immemorial, passengers starting at Utrecht Central Station can choose between two routes to De Uithof: through the city centre with bus 11 (now 28), or through the southern city districts with bus 12. The latter is the fastest option. Most passengers therefore chose to use bus 12, which then became so crowded that fast-track bus 12s was introduced, which ran between De Uithof and the station without any stops in between. This became the fastest, and therefore most crowded bus.

These fast-track buses could be called the ‘intercities of the city’ and by 1994, they were already so popular that a 12s bus left the station every two and a half minutes. In that year, the municipality decided to abolish the busy fast-track bus 12s between Utrecht Central Station and De Uithof. The decision was made to cater to the needs of people wishing to get on the bus at one of the other bus stops, according to a news clipping from the Utrechts Nieuwsblad newspaper.

Passengers didn’t understand this argument. The Dutch Railways (NS) would never turn crowded fast-track trains to the ones that stop at every station, because that would mean they’d need more vehicles. That’s more expensive for the NS, and disadvantageous for passengers. Protests ensured the decision was reversed. The true argument had likely been that with three bus lines and one tram, there wouldn’t be enough passengers. Trams can fit nearly twice as many people as buses can. If one tram line is added, a multitude of new commuters would be needed to fill up the buses and trams. Where was the city administration going to find these new people? Banning cars? Or abolishing certain bus lines?

1994: Bus track through the city, and ‘Around the South’
The discussion about trams continued. In 1994, the anti-tram parties won the elections. D66 and GroenLinks entered the city administration. They opposed the city centre tram plan, because most people commuting to De Uithof would get on the tram at the Central Station, so why force them through the beautiful, crowded, tortuous city centre? They decided to construct a bus track ‘Around the South’: alongside the train tracks down to then-planned (and currently active and in use) Vaartsche Rijn station.

With this decision, the idea of the tram route through the city centre was off the table. The administration did decide to construct a ‘high-end’ bus track through the city centre. This track starts at the Bijenkorf, passes by the Schouwburg theatre, through the Biltstraat and Rijnsweerd, and ends at De Uithof. As a compromise, it was decided to provide this track with a concrete tram foundation, in case it was ever decided to construct tram tracks in its place after all.

To place this concrete foundation, it was necessary to open up the entire route, and relocate all the cables and pipelines beneath the street: once the concrete was in place, it would be impossible to ever access those again. Costs were estimated at 225 million guilders, making it the most expensive bus track in all of Europe: converted to today’s economy and adjusted for inflation, it cost around 25,000 euros per linear metre (yes, metre). This is three times more expensive than the second most expensive bus track of Europe (in Paris), and twice as expensive as the most expensive bus track in the USA (in New York). The bus track was constructed between 1998 and 2001.

In 1996, the decision was made to start with the first part of the bus track ‘Around the South’. This was built in two months’ time, and ran from the Central Station down to the Bleekstraat (near the Vaartsche Rijn station, which did not exist yet). As soon as it was in use, in the summer of 1996, the bus track was not only used by the many fast-track buses to De Uithof, but by countless city and regional buses as well. It became the busiest bus track of the Netherlands.

The administration’s plan was to extend the bus track to the Vaartsche Rijn station, and then turning away from the train tracks, meandering through the residential neighbourhoods at street level to De Uithof.

1998: Bus track alongside the train tracks
In 1998, during the construction of the bus track in the city centre, the city council of Utrecht approves an initiative to extend the Around the South bus track on the elevated railway embankment down to the edge of the city, and only then, after a stop at a planned station, turn away to De Uithof. The station was part of a government plan called ‘Randstad Rail’ – the idea was to create more stations, and to let metro-like commuter trains run on the existing railway tracks. The station would be situated near the Koningsweg, where the railway tracks from Arnhem and Den Bosch meet: only a stroll away from De Uithof. The council voted against the plan, however. The argument was expressed thusly by then-councilman for the VVD Halbe Zijlstra: “The planning has already been finalised, and that’s why it’s too late for new proposals for public transportation.”

It is, however, exactly the route of the new bus track the city council chose in 2005 because the route doesn’t have any intersections. Although the decision had been made, this new bus track was never finalised, just as the Koningsweg station never saw the light of day. In the meantime, fast-track bus 12s became more and more crowded, and the buses, after a fast ride along the tracks at the Bleekstraat, were forced to slow down considerably to meander through the busy city roads.

2011: A tram after all
In 2011, after six years of waiting, the city administration at the time saw an opportunity to turn the ‘Around the south’ bus track into a tram route. The then-alderman, from the ChristenUnie party, let renowned research agency Ecorys check whether this plan was justifiable. The agency created a “Societal Cost and Benefit Analysis Uithoflijn” (MKBA). This analysis included the following reasoning: it takes at least two minutes to let all passengers get on the extra-long Uithof buses. There isn’t any room for all these waiting buses, and that’s why the city needs an underground bus station at the Central Station. That would be considerably more expensive than turning the Around the South bus track into a tram track. For curious minds: a link to the report, here.

The reasoning was based on the old-fashioned bus passes that had to be stamped by the bus driver, meaning everyone was required to get on at the front of the bus. It was, however, almost time for the OV chip card to be introduced, after which people would be able to get on the bus at every door. Much faster, of course. For this reason, the costs for an underground bus station were wrongly included in this consideration. In the end, a tram track is much more expensive than a bus track.

2013: Fast-track bus 12s discontinued
What failed in 1994, did succeed in 2013: fast-track bus 12s was officially discontinued. And later on, the bus 12 system for influencing traffic lights was shut down. This added several minutes to the bus trip between the Central Station and De Uithof, especially compared to the fast 12s bus. This then meant even more buses were needed, creating even more chaos. Passengers yearned for the tram.

As a consequence of the station renovations, bus 12 was given an illogical location for its starting point at the new Utrecht Central bus station. It was the only bus line that made its passengers ride the bus for a full circle around the stretched-out bus station. Last year, a plan to correct this failed to be approved.

2019: The tram will run
Originally, the tram line was supposed to start running in the summer of 2018. That didn’t happen. Additionally, the costs for the tram turned out much, much higher than expected (see box), which led to conflicts between the province and the municipality.

Throughout the three decades, the following things disappeared in turn: the Uithof train station from the Randstad Rail plan, the busy fast-track bus Central Station-De Uithof, and a test with traffic-jam avoiding Uithof-motorway-buses.

Future: Perhaps a city centre tram?
The question remains whether the city centre tram is definitively off the table. It’s already being said that the Uithoflijn tram will not have sufficient capacity when it’s in action. Perhaps, people say, a city centre tram is needed. The expensive tram foundation is already in place, and GroenLinks and D66 have since said they support the city centre tram. They’ve forgotten that their colleagues from the previous century opposed unnecessary burdens on the city centre. If more tram lines or metros are introduced, it will be at the expense of the remaining public transportation. And motorways will be broadened further. More about this in part 2.

What made the Uithoflijn so expensive?
In the end, the Uithoflijn cost a total of 526 million euros. That’s equal to the cost of operating the entire city bus network in Utrecht for ten years. Converted into euros-per-metre, this comes down to 64,000 euros. Newspaper NRC found two other above-ground tram lines elsewhere in the world that cost nearly the same amount of money per metre.

However, unlike these two other tram lines, the Uithof trams won’t run in the evenings and on weekends, because it costs too much power for the handful of passengers that would use the trams at those times. That means for much of the time, the tram is parked. With this in mind, you can say that Utrecht definitely has the world’s most expensive tram line, and almost certainly the world’s most expensive bus track. All this despite the fact that Utrecht is in place 801 in the ranking of largest city regions in the world.

One of the reasons for these exorbitant costs is because the current bus track Around the South had to be equipped with concrete tram foundations and rails because a tram would have to run through it, so jackhammers were used. To prevent all buses from running through the Catharijnesingel, the other side of the same train tracks – parallel to the Around the South track – was equipped with a new, permanent bus track (‘Dichtersbaan’).

Secondly, the extremely expensive tram foundation in De Uithof, constructed in 2001, apparently wasn’t strong enough. This required jackhammering a kilometre and a half. A new foundation was laid, and that too required a parallel bus track.

Finally, Utrecht wants the high-floored trams from Nieuwegein to continue their route to De Uithof. If the handful of new tram stops between Central Station and De Uithof are also equipped with high platforms, that’s a doable plan. But the transportation experts feel these platforms (as high as train platforms) aren’t user-friendly. They bought new low-floor trams and low platforms for the stops. That means all the high tram platforms in three municipalities (Utrecht, Nieuwegein, IJsselstein) needed to be lowered. These were all renovated recently when the OV chip card was introduced. The direct tram connection between IJsselstein and P&R De Uithof will take exactly 55 minutes, by the way.
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