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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



With toll road construction and motorway widening being the "flavour of the month" as a result of the GBP 7-bn MMS Transport Plan approval, an obvious question inevitably follows : Should such large sums go mainly into what many believe to be only temporary congestion relief or would spending be more prudent on sustainable light rail projects ?

Neither road widening nor light rail projects are cheap to provide but the Transport Secretary's recent message to Parliament said it all : " - - - it was evident that governments could not build their way out of the problem of the relentless rise in road traffic" (2).


"The UK Governments's entire light rail strategy has been called into serious question after it was revealed that Croydon Tramlink, hailed as one of the greatest recent transport successes, technically only has enough cash to operate until 25th March". "Paradoxically, Tramlink is the most successful of the new generation tram systems, and likely to carry more than 22 million in the current year" (3). "The campaign to convert outer suburban railway lines to light rail has received a massive boost with news that Croydon Tramlink's Wimbledon route has increased business eight-fold in just four years" "One reason is that light rail is able to massively increase the level of service compared with the heavy rail equipment, although even the new Wimbledon service has not been profitable because of the problems in the way it was set up with the Government in 1999" (4).

Despite these financial set-backs, Croydon Tramlink is pressing ahead with likely route extensions, originally a total of 12 planned but later reduced to four. One of these will be chosen as the route likely to be awarded the T&W construction powers. London's Transport Commissioner has commented on the likely winner (the Tooting route) and suggested that not only will it be the best value for money but also the simplest to build (5).


The Commons Transport Committee, chaired by MP Gwyneth Dunwoody, recently noted that nearly one fifth of passengers using the first phase of Metrolink had previously gone by car thus removing many car journeys from the roads each year. With the tram fleet working to capacity, the only possible way to increase loadings with the present system was to either obtain more LRVs or insert a new centre section at the articulated joint. Partly for technical reasons and partly lack of funding, neither option was possible which in effect meant that until the system was physically expanded, Metrolink could make no further contribution towards easing peak-period traffic congestion.

Because of this, it has come as a surprise to experience further delay in financing BIG-BANG which is still at the "starting blocks". With cost estimates growing at an alarming rate, finance becomes a major problem with "optimism bias" (6) now becoming a vital factor in justifying expansion. This in turn will determine Metrolink's future contribution towards alleviating the congestion problem in Manchester. Many transport minded people in this part of Lancashire will no doubt be surprised to learn that one of the 11 multi-modal studies approved by the Transport Secretary is for the M60 motorway around Manchester to be widened.


Despite Sheffield's remarkable improved performance, a patronage increase of 24% since 1997/98, extensions cannot go ahead because of a funding shortage. Supertram though does carry many more passengers than the local rail network and this fact, coupled with the improved business opportunities and recent claims that Sheffield now has the best transport system in the country (7), does tend to justify the current appeal to Central Government to break the 75% funding rule.

Leeds, about to award its Supertram contract to the successful consortium, has also run into funding difficulties whilst South Hampshire with its SHRT-1 project is facing a GBP100-m shortfall.


A study in nine US cities found that light rail patronage had exceeded estimates in nearly every case and surprisingly had tended to boost redevelopment around transit stations. In Denver for instance ridership was up by 40% on predictions whilst in St. Louis it was 3½ times higher that expected. Salt Lake City's light rail system now transports 50% more passengers than anticipated and 50% of Los Angeles's rail passengers had a car available when a survey was carried out, in Dallas it was 59%. A consulting firm hired by Miami Beach (Florida) to help choose between buses, trains and trams gave its long awaited recommendation. This turned out to be a tram system connecting South Beach to Down Town Miami.


Studies into light rail systems with tramway characteristics in Britain are credited with many positive features and when operating in an urban transit role are certainly much appreciated by commuters and shoppers alike. In America for example, light rail is not regarded as a moneymaking venture and because of its crowd-pulling appeal continues to receive much financial support from the taxpayer.


  1. Jim Steer, the Strategic Rail Authority's Managing Director of Strategic Planning - Comment Editorial - LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY 7th November 2002.
  2. LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - front page 10th July 2003.
  3. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - page 126 - April 2003.
  4. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - page 204 - June 2003.
  5. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - page 245 - July 2003.
  6. LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - page 9 - 10th July 2003.
  7. Sheffield's Business is on the up and up - TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - page 328 - September 2003.

Discussion Document 008: top of page

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