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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



Every major traffic problem in Europe, USA or Australia needs a somewhat careful study of its cause and likely cure when a costly and permanent corrective scheme is being proposed. This discussion document will examine a selected number of "high profile" solutions to assess successes as well as failures in the hope that future infrastructure spending will actually deliver its stated aims.


The former tram subway under Holborn and Aldwych is probably a good example of a modal change with a comparatively small funding outlay. This particular tunnel has proved its worth for almost 50 years and will probably continue in its present role for the foreseeable future. This is despite plans, now "on the table", to introduce modern trams between the Kings Cross area and Waterloo as part of the Cross River Transit project. This X-shaped scheme, totalling 16 km, is expected to cost GBP300m, be up and running by 2011 and handle 72m passengers per year (1). All the tramway-type light rail schemes so far built in Britain have followed surface alignments and have only gone underground when special circumstances arise.


One German city (Bielefeld) made an early decision to segregate motor traffic from as much as was possible of its tram system. This was achieved by the funding then available which in effect put the trams underground. This decision then seemed logical because a significant part of the system was already operating over segregated tracks. In effect though this provided an Interurban type of service under the CBD, not necessarily convenient for short journey passengers, and left motor traffic on the surface through the CBD.

Other German cities have since taken a very different approach which was clarified very succinctly in a recent publication Trams in Western Europe: "Many see tram subways as ducking the issue of restricting the motor car in city centres, and argue that hiding public transport underground, making stops difficult to reach, is not the way to maximise patronage" (2).

It is of interest to record that for different reasons Rotterdam eliminated an underground tram stop by in-fill and relocated it on the surface. Vandalism, the cause of the change, is now a world-wide problem and this relocation was in part an attempt to restore public confidence.


The ability of Swiss traffic engineers to successfully üturn aroundü a metro-based project was recently demonstrated in Zürich when the initial plans for a surface motorway with tracks below it was changed from a metro to a tram service (3). Zürich's town trams came to the rescue following a radical change to their modus operandi. The basic problem was island-type platforms with Zürich's trams which had doors on one side only. With a permanent crossover at each end of the tunnel, left-hand operation became possible, which had the intrinsic effect of permitting more than one route to converge on the tunnel with an equivalent divergence at the other end.


Basel's tunnel problems are very different from those just described in Zürich, with the former city needing to cater for international road crossings into France and Germany. The problem is further compounded by the many bridges needed to cross the fast-flowing River Rhine. Because much of the road traffic is actually in transit to or from Switzerland, a decision was made some years ago to keep the trams and local road traffic on the surface whilst providing a tunnel for the heavy through traffic. It is now almost complete, and Basel's residents are able to enjoy comparatively peaceful streets with tram services unimpeded by traffic delays.


Not too many years ago a busy San Francisco shopping street lost its surface tram service but gained two underground light rail lines. It did not take long though for tourist officials and business leaders to realise that hiding transit services underground resulted in fewer visitors. A "reinstate the tram" campaign slowly gained momentum and, as success led to further successes, a permanent tram service was restored followed by a fairly long extension. So successful has this restored service become that many are now asking why the trams were taken away in the first place.


Without some form of surface light rail back-up in the CBD, a tunnel in isolation seems unlikely to actually solve anything. Nevertheless the City Council is pushing ahead with its tunnel plans, causing the Transport Minister to state his reservations in Queensland's Parliament. His worry was that it could "tie an albatross around the neck of future generations" (4). About the same time, an interview with the Brisbane Courier Mail by the Transport Chairwoman on the City Council brought out an interesting comment : "The trams should have stayed" (5).

The irony of this is hidden somewhat behind an often-heard plea in South East Queensland: "We don't want to become another Los Angeles . . such claims are emotional, somewhat irrational and display a considerable ignorance of the reality of Los Angeles" (6).


The first new generation light rail line to open in Los Angeles was the 1990 Blue line from down town L-A to Long Beach. This 35.4-km line has been very successful with a work day passenger load of 73,115 (7). This figure compares very favourably with Manchester's Metrolink which was recently reported as carrying 14m passengers pert year. (This approximates to about 40,000 per work day). After the Blue line in Los Angeles came the Green light rail line and the Red Metro line, and now the Gold light rail line to Pasadena.


While current urban transit in Brisbane is mainly by bus, the main roads in and around the city are likely to remain almost continuously grid-locked. Any future increase in congestion will no doubt act as an incentive to pay the appropriate toll and use the tunnel. The "albatross" suggestion in the State Parliament could well be a subtle reminder that the financial burden of a road tunnel could inhibit future funding for a light rail system.

Britain's comparatively slow start with tramway light rail schemes has now gained momentum and is marked by a distinct move away from underground tracks. Birmingham's CBD light rail tunnels for instance have been allowed to lapse and the city centre extensions, if approved, will be surface tracks. It would be more accurate to suggest that the only underground tracks would be in either former railway tunnels or in underpasses below major road pinch points.


  1. Railway Gazette International - July 2002.
  2. Trams in Western Europe page 4 - Michael Taplin and Michael Russell - Capital Transport Publishing - 2002.
  3. Modern Tramway pages 227 to 241 - July 1986.
  4. Steven Wardhill and Katrina Witham - Brisbane Courier Mail - 28th February 2003.
  5. Mike O'Connor interviewing Councillor Maureen Hayes, Chairwoman of Brisbane City Council's Transport and Major Projects Committee[?] - Brisbane Courier Mail - 19th March 2003.
  6. Robert S Timson, - Director of the University of Queensland Centre for Research into Sustainable Urban and Regional Futures - Brisbane Courier Mail - 4th March 2003.
  7. Tramways & Urban Transit page 387 - October 2002.

Discussion Document 003: top of page

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