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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



Despite repeated suggestions over many years that we as a nation are not investing enough money in our urban transit systems, the threat of "grid-lock" may soon become a reality. Compounding this scenario is the noticeable deterioration of our railway system with fares continually rising, often beyond inflation, and punctual operation becoming a thing of the past. Warnings on a regular basis to planners that road planning in isolation is no longer an option have gone unheeded. This was demonstrated by recent reports of major plans for road expansion and tends to leave public transport in the doldrums (1).


Confusion amongst our traffic and transport experts appears to be mounting with reports in the media that the Commission for Integrated Transport chairman has suggested a serious look at road charging throughout England by 2015 if congestion was to be reduced (2). This tends to fly in the face of opinion polls which back up experience now gained that motorists will use public transport if it is properly integrated.


This editorial comment in the Yorkshire Evening Post sums up the Press's general attitude to road charging and follows a (non too scientific) poll conducted some months earlier by this same newspaper which indicated a very strong public dislike towards road charging. This apparent public opinion tends to suggest a neglect of public transport and begs the question : Is tramway type light rail just being forgotten or worse, being ignored?


Although much emphasis has been placed on motorway widening and the charges that are likely to accompany it, the overall effect cannot be detached from the urban congestion problem. This is because logic dictates that road widening equates to far more vehicles on the "road". For obvious reasons, many minor roads into town centres will continue to be toll-free and will probably become "rat-runs" which in turn could delay urban bus services, even those acting as feeders to and from railheads. It is no secret that most local authorities still prefer to rely on the "carrot" effect of attractive public transport and accordingly view access charges as akin to the "stick" approach (4).


Although an answer to the above question is somewhat hypothetical, it is not unreasonable to suggest that if those holding the purse strings had provided the appropriate funding for tramway type light rail schemes when the demand started to grow, today's car culture would have developed in a more friendly fashion. Although the charge to enter London appears to have had the desired effect with respect to congestion, any affect on London's commuters should have a minimal effect because of the capitals many alternatives. Outside London though, towns and cities may be unable to cope with a charge to enter the CBD and consequently face a real risk of losing business to out-of-town establishments. Four tramway type light rail systems have so far been opened in the past 11 years and although only a small beginning have demonstrated that a well planned system will attract many former motorists. This appears to have been recognised by many former local authorities and demonstrated by the many light rail schemes in the pipeline.


Although Manchester, after years of procrastination, finally broke through Britain's anti-tram "veneer" in 1992, it was actually some overseas study tours in 1983-4 that confirmed light rail as the correct way forward (5). Of the many extensions that have been proposed to Manchester's outlying suburbs, only the branch to Eccles has been given priority, presumably because it was so closely associated with the Salford Quays development project. A package, known as the 'BIG BANG' will add another 56km to the network with a completion date of - 2010. This will include extensions to Oldham, Rochdale, Ashton-under-Lyne and Manchester Airport (6).

Not only did Manchester take the lead in Britain with its Metrolink light rail project but it also proved that motorists along its route could be attracted to it. This should have alerted our politicians and planners that integrated services were a recipe for success if introduced on a national basis. When compared with similar tramway type projects being built outside Britain, the 27 years from concept to completion of BIG BANG is somewhat excessive and goes some way towards understanding why the threat of a congestion charge is still very much alive.


Only three places in Britain have so far followed Manchester's lead but each place has a long "wish-list" of extensions but so far none have succeeded in attracting the appropriate funding. This despite clear evidence that a tram service is not only passenger friendly but a means of reducing traffic congestion.



At the time of writing 4 locations in Britain have expressed an interest in developing tramway type light rail systems, Bristol, Edinburgh, Liverpool and London.


Congestion charging can be considered as one of the most provocative subjects raised in this present day traffic and transport debate, mainly because it affects almost everyone and in so many different ways. Paradoxically, the outlook for urban transit in Britain falls somewhere between a road building era with tolls and more Treasury supported Supertram networks (11). The importance of good urban transport links has sadly been overlooked in this road/rail debate even though there is now evidence to show that if provided, the car will still be important but in a more leisure type pursuit.


  1. "Publication of Deputy Prime Minister and Transport Secretary John Prescott's transport White Paper is delayed as the Prime Minister Tony Blair has reportedly ordered it to be made more motorist-friendly" - Local Transport Today 12th June 2003.
  2. Professor David Begg Yorkshire Evening Post (page 4) 7th July 2003
  3. Editorial Comment - "A transport policy to halt Britain" Yorkshire Evening Post (page 10) - 7th July 2003.
  4. Consultant WSP on behalf of the British Council of Shopping Centres - Local Transport Today - 29th July 1999.
  5. Surveyor - 19th March 1992.
  6. Railway Gazette International - January 2003.
  7. Tramways & Urban Transit - August 2002.
  8. Surveyor (page 6) - 24th November 1988.
  9. Tramways & Urban Transit - May 2003.
  10. Local Transport Today - 29th May 2003.
  11. "Glasgow, UK's last major city without a light rail strategy" Tramways & Urban Transit (page 261) - July 2003.

LATE NEWS : Tramways & Urban Transit (page 284) - August 2003 - Strathclyde Passenger Transport now looking at possible light rail.

Discussion Document 007: top of page

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