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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



Although this discussion document has a somewhat dramatic title, the majority of people in Britain will no doubt applaud the tenacity of the Welsh people in their determination to see the stadium completed and successfully attracting championship games. What is needed now is an equally determined effort towards defeating the city's chronic traffic congestion as well as improving links with the Valleys. Some of the preliminary transit design work has already been done and presumably paid for but vital missing components appears to be the political will and a clear public understanding of the various modes still available. At the time of writing a concept has yet to be chosen, as has a funding source. Fortunately, during the past decade Britain has amassed a vast amount of experience, experience that will no doubt help Cardiff to make that final breakthrough.


Cardiff has much catching up to do, since Greater Manchester broke the tramway-type light rail taboo with Metrolink way back in 1992. To this end a visit to mainland Europe by Civic officials and interested politicians should go some way towards convincing doubters and other sceptics that tramway-type light rail does help to reduce traffic congestion, does improve city-centre ambience, is a passenger-friendly transit system and is a successful formula for bringing more shoppers into the CBD.


It seems a very long time since the Railway Development Society and the Light Rail Transit Association produced a joint brochure suggesting a study to identify suitable corridors in and around Cardiff as prospective sites for a future light rail system (1). By protecting selected parcels of land from future development, much money could be saved and some disruption avoided at a later date.


Although transit funding problems in Britain have been slowly creeping towards a more relaxed attitude by the Government, some places have been unable to benefit because they had already passed the point of no return, and found that aborted schemes cannot easily be re-activated. Places like Nottingham, Leeds, Portsmouth, Liverpool and Bristol had held on though, and are now at various stages of planning or actually building their projects, albeit using somewhat different funding procedures.

Unfortunately, certain recent political events may cause the rules to change once again, something that may or may not help Cardiff. A probable sign of a new pattern of realism recently raised its head in Croydon, creating a paradoxical situation of extreme complexity. The improved transit parameters introduced by the new tram system have systematically increased passenger loadings, reduced cars in the town centre and introduced more shoppers to the "high street": an undoubted success. Nevertheless, it has failed dramatically with PFI funding rules (2). Somewhat surprisingly, some slightly different aspects of funding rules from the past were highlighted in the Western Mail over ten years ago when the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation Director of Engineering Operations stressed an opinion (prevalent at the time) that trams between Cardiff Bay and the city centre "could only be built with private sector cash" (3). The political climate of the day did little to clarify this apparent confused thinking but could go some way towards helping to explain why the bank manager of the day usually became the final arbiter for a sizeable number of failed schemes.


The Cardiff Bay Development Corporation seemed well aware of these funding problems andappointed consultants to carry out a GBP100 000 study into ways of developing an efficient network linking the city centre with Cardiff Bay, with a price tag of well over GBP100m. Another incentive for the Development Corporation, and part of its raison d'etre, was the calculated opportunity to provide 2000 homes and 40 000 jobs.

Proposals from Oscar Faber TBA were published during August 1994 and these included the Cardiff Bay tram link, conversion of some of the Cardiff Valleys' rail network to light rail operation on shared track, a guided busway, improvements to the existing rail network outside Cardiff, park & ride schemes and policies to control private cars (5).

Six bidders were then shortlisted for a GBP50m DBOM franchise for the line, with a completion date of 1999 (6). In the short term, total conversion of the Valley lines to LRT was considered out of the question but thoughts of a Karlsruhe-type solution were beginning to emerge. Representatives from Regional Railways on a visit to Karlsruhe were particularly impressed on two points: one was the universal rail option of urban, suburban and interurban journeys with no duplication of infrastructure, and the other was the similar sizes of Cardiff and Karlsruhe (7).


Although work was due to start a few years ago, the project is now indefinitely delayed and at present hangs under a cloud. One factor was a need to prepare for a Rugby World Cup match. This involved bus lanes and a dedicated shuttle bus service along a Continental-style boulevard (8). A further complication was a new City Council interest in the ULTra light rail concept, electrically-powered vehicles carrying just four passengers. Fares could be charged on a per-vehicle basis permitting passengers to key in their chosen destination (9). A similar concept is currently under consideration for down-town Minneapolis, and the confident promoter there ( SkyWeb Express) has built a 60-foot-long demonstration line (10).


A debate on Cardiff's ULTra in the National Assembly for Wales resulted in applause from a Plaid Cymru member, as a decision was made to cease funding it. Cardiff, he said, should be emulating major cities in England and mainland Europe, places that are spending money on developing integrated services using buses, trams and light railways (11).


Much comment has appeared in the transport press about ULTra and its experimental nature. An important point which does not appear to have been addressed is a passenger's personal safety outside peak hours.


  1. Cardiff Metro Light Rail For Cardiff - RDS and LRTA - November 1989.
  2. "Croydon Tramlink a massive success - why is it going bust?" - Tramways & Urban Transit - page 126 - April 2003.
  3. Clive Betts - Welsh Affairs Correspondent - Western Mail - 18th February 1989.
  4. David Vickerman - Environment Correspondent - Western Mail - 10th October 1990.
  5. Local Transport Today - 5th January 1995.
  6. Local Transport Today - 23rd May 1996.
  7. A W Elshman - Light Rail Review No 4 - pages 22-26 - Platform 5 Publishing Ltd and LRTA -March 1993.
  8. Local Transport Today - 21st May 1998.
  9. Local Transport Today - 3rd May 2001.
  10. Toni Coleman - Pioneer Press Columnist - "Fast Lane : Personal - Rapid Transit Slow To Gain Momentum" - 24th March 2003.
  11. Local Transport Today - 3rd April 2003

Discussion Document 004: top of page

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