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Light Rail for better public transport

This Discussion Document is published by the LRTA Development Forum to stimulate discussion and does not necessarily represent the views of the LRTA



This discussion paper will investigate the claims made for the kerb guided bus and balance them against counter claims for light rail so as to draw-up a consensus of opinion on actual passenger gains and at what cost.


Leeds in West Yorkshire, now with a substantial operation of guided bus services along two radial corridors, has claimed significant patronage gains on these routes. Although in many ways technically similar to the O-bahn system in Germany pioneered by Essen, and experimented with by the West Midlands some years ago, the latter abandoned the experiments whilst Essen now only funds light rail development. This scenario is very different from the latest situation in the east part of Leeds where a unique method of funding permitted the guided bus project to proceed. This in fact was the very first initiative where operators had contributed towards the capital cost (1).


Outside Britain and Germany, only Adelaide has shown interest and converted plans for a light rail extension to guided bus. A further O-bahn route was later considered but firmly rejected. At a recent election in South Australia, voters were promised an extension to its interurban tram line as well as new rolling stock.


An early claim by Leeds was that a continuous guideway was unnecessary if the main purpose was to eliminate pinch points. Careful planning (ahead of an intersection) of a light controlled pedestrian crossing combined with an isolated section of bus track gave the bus some traffic priority. This theory was put to the test in Scott Hall Road where only about 15% of guided bus track on a bus route gave the bus peak period priority.

One German city (Mannheim) developed this concept a stage further by providing about one kilometer of busway on an existing segregated tram track. This permitted an adjacent bus route to share the track with the trams and avoid a long traffic queue.


The high infrastructure cost is often used to avoid building a tramway although a few places in Britain have reasoned that extra benefits justify the cost. Patronage claims on the guided bus routes in Leeds, no doubt well intentioned and probably strictly correct, have been queried by transport experts as being due to factors not connected with the guided bus mode (2). This view is probably close to reality and backed up by a Transport Research Laboratory Report (3) suggesting that traffic had increased by 6%. It is of interest to record that because buses no longer blocked a traffic lane in Scott Hall Road, other traffic had benefited by nearly 50 seconds.

One high profile rejection was the CERT guided bus project in Edinburgh where the consortium chosen to build it decided to withdraw from the contract. Original ideas to build a tramway are now being "dusted down,' and modified with at least three schemes under consideration.

Late in 2002, a 13 year guided busway plan for Chester was formally rejected by the Cheshire County Council. This plan had earlier replaced a light rail plan for the city. Any future plan for this city has yet to be considered.

A public inquiry in Liverpool was the main cause of a GBP49m guided trolley-bus scheme being rejected by the inspector in his report. Current intentions include plans to construct three tram routes.

The HUMMS report (4) for Hull has recommended four guided bus corridors at a cost of GBP119.5m. This has not gone down well in the city and the City Council is now studying whether a light rail system would be better.


Despite reported signs that the public attitude towards a guided bus project along York Road was accompanied with a certain amount scepticism, two of the major bus operators along that corridor showed considerable enthusiasm, captured by a press report : "Our buses are not as bad as you probably thought they were, honest" (5).

The mixed fortunes of the York Road traffic nightmare started in earnest almost 50 years ago when its former tram and bus services changed to bus only and almost overnight the need for road viaducts and underpasses became apparent.

Almost 20 years ago the road nearly once again reverted to mixed tram and bus operation but strong public opposition combined with a difficult political climate caused the project to be aborted. Whether or not York Road's fortunes will once again change back to mixed tram and bus operation is open to conjecture but a consultants report dealing guided buses during 2000 (6) clearly stated :"Given similar conditions, the infrastructure costs for light rail, busways and guided buses are closer together than has often been assumed. Light rail and busways are very similar in terms of cost".


Catching a bus in York Road presents a passenger with problems that need an instant decision. Buses with similar destinations are available from either the guideway bus stops or adjacent footpath stops and unfortunately the more frequent guideway buses involve a pedestrian needing to cross at least two traffic lanes to use their services.

Under the principle that a decorative bus livery and fancy name will attract passengers tends to fall down somewhat when a long route (from Castleford for instance) makes use of the guideway for less than one minute. What advantage an exotic name (in this case ELITE) if the passenger can not easily detect that the bus is on the guideway and in any case, any time advantage is too small to be measured. A floral analogy is a perfect fit : "A BUS by any other name is still a BUS".


When on a busy route, a bus needs far more vehicles for a given passenger load and can be 8 to 1 when compared with two coupled trams. Apart from the economics, this number of buses is a congestion factor in its own right and certainly causes problems at bus stops. In town centres it is not unusual for one bus stop to handle a multitude of services and a passenger needs a good eyesight, constantly mentally alert, and have no mobility problems when three arrive together. This compares with a Supertram stop where the position of the doors is clearly marked on the platform. Bus boarding times, a serious delay at busy stops, compare with the speedy loading of Supertram services. Standing passengers crowding round the single door on a bus is a serious problem for passengers wishing to alight. A Supertram has many doors and unlikely to have a loading or unloading problem. A strong point appreciated in Sheffield is the ability of a Supertram to keep operating in snow conditions when all other traffic had stopped. Essen has to stop its guided bus service in show conditions because of compacted snow on the track.


Although only a few bus deficiencies have been quoted in this discussion paper a complete list would be quite formidable. If as claimed, busway and light rail costs are similar then it logically follows that the "extras" associated with light rail operation can be provided with light rail operation at low cost and fits the expression :"Don't ruin the ship for a ha'pth of tar".


  1. Tony Harney, columnist in the Yorkshire Evening Post - 30th May 2002.
  2. Consultant Steer Davies Gleave suggested that new patronage could be the result of lifestyle changes such as moving house rather that changing mode - Reported in LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY 28th August 1997.
  3. Leeds Guided Busway Study - Transport Research Laboratory reported in LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - 2nd December 1999.
  4. Hull east/west corridor Multi-Modal Study (HUMMS) - Consultant Faber Maunsell Reported in LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY 1st August 2002.
  5. Columnist Oliver Cross in the Yorkshire Evening Post - 23rd August 2002.
  6. BUS OR LIGHT RAIL : MAKING THE RIGHT CHOICE - Carmen Hass-Klau ET AL - Environment and Transport Planning - Brighton - April 2000.

Comments and responses

Discussion Document 001: top of page

Prepared by F A Andrews - for the LRTA Development Group - March 2003