TRAMS could hit the streets of central Oxford by the end of the decade.
The idea has been put forward by Bob Price, the leader of the city council, who has revealed he is looking to remove diesel-powered buses from the city streets.
No cost has been put on the scheme, nor an exact location, but Oxford City Council is looking into ways of making the city centre carbon-free.
Now Mr Price has said he wants to look at a scheme that could see trams that run on rails drive through as yet unspecified parts of the city centre.
He says the precise scheme he has in mind has not been tried anywhere in the world, but he is not looking at using overhead cables.
To investigate the idea, he will be meeting with other councils such as Milton Keynes.
That town has electrically powered bus schemes, although Mr Price has in mind a vehicle that would be a hybrid of a bus and a tram.
While he said Oxford’s system could conceivably run on rails, it would probably be unlike most European trams – and broadly be like the cable cars in San Francisco.
One of the famous San Francisco trams
He said: “I don’t think it would work over long distances, so it is something which is regarded very much for a city-centre type operation.
“It would use the technology that Milton Keynes is using but perhaps look more like a tram.
“What I don’t think would suit Oxford would be something like buses. It would be something smaller.”
His own plan could revive tram use in the city for the first time in more than a century – after the old horse tram lines were dug up to be taken out in 1916.
Mr Price says the city council is interested in learning more about the scheme in Milton Keynes, which sees eight fully-electric buses run all day thanks to charging plates in the road in what is the first scheme of its kind in the UK.
He said: “It is our plan to contact Milton Keynes and go over and have a look and see how it works there.
“But we are very open-minded about the form this could take. We have got an aspiration but we are looking at the best ways of realising it.”
The issue of trams in Oxford city centre has been raised before – with city councillor John Tanner, the executive board member for Cleaner, Greener Oxford, saying in 2010 that a light railway tram system was “a possibility”.
How this new scheme would operate during flooding has not been revealed – nor has it been decided exactly where the vehicles would operate.
But Mr Price said that he did not think this would be the sort of scheme that could be extended out into Oxford’s suburbs.
Since January, Oxford city centre has been a low emission zone which only buses with an engine which meets high European Union standards may enter.
This is in a bid to lower pollution levels in the city centre which have failed to go below the target of 40ug/m3 – micrograms per cubic metre of air – since 2006.
One of the most polluted parts of the city centre is St Aldate’s, where Marc Winton’s Oxford Tattoo parlour is based.
He said: “Through the summer, we work here with the windows and doors open and we don’t notice that it is so polluted, but I can understand that the city council wants to reduce emissions.
“Environmentally, I think it is a good idea to keep the city centre clear. I guess if their intention is to replace the bus stops with tram stops, I would be completely in favour.
“We all live in a very polluted society so anything that helps to improve that is going to be a good thing.”
The city’s buses are already among the country’s least polluting and in 2010 a £7.5m fleet of 26 double-decker buses was the first in the UK to use pioneering green hybrid technology.
Buses could soon be removed from Queen Street as a result of the Westgate redevelopment but no final decision has been made yet and it is not clear what impact any tram plan might have on this proposal.
Philip Kirk, the managing director of Oxford Bus Company, said his vehicles were already among the greenest in Britain.
“Obviously we would welcome the chance to discuss any options that would take our environmental achievement to the next level,” he said.
“The Milton Keynes experiment is just that, and we are watching with interest what is going on there.”
County councillor David Nimmo Smith, the cabinet member for transport, said: “I am happy to talk to the city council about what they mean by this.
“It sounds like a good, green idea but it needs to be thought through. I will need to talk to the officers and I am not ruling it out.”
Stagecoach did not comment.
Horse trams in the High Street in the early 1900s
In the early 20th century, Oxford Bus Company – then known as the Oxford and District Tramways Company – operated a horse-drawn tram network which Oxford City Council considered taking over in 1905 with the intention of running an electric tram network.
But following public uproar and a public vote in 1906, the council decided against it, leaving the old system in place until William Morris started his own bus service shortly before the First World War.
The competition spurred the Tramways Company into moving into buses.
Oxford’s old horse tram lines were dug up in 1916 and it is thought that the metal rails were recycled for the war effort.
In 1994, Oxford Bus Company took part in a pilot for completely electric buses with Oxfordshire County Council and Southern Electric but the technology was not good enough.