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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 seemingly contradictory headline was recently used by London's Chamber of Commerce to describe how the once-reviled tram could be the answer to the congestion problems of 21st century British cities. Scott McIntosh, a former policy adviser at Transport for London (TfL), recently gave a presentation to the Chamber's Transport Forum and presented a view that the tram is a viable alternative to other forms of transport, offering congestion relief to rail lines and efficiently replacing overcrowded buses. Most importantly, the tram also offers an alternative to the private car.


The odds against Sheffield breaking through the image barrier with Supertram after such a difficult start were such that few expected it to happen. Since it scrapped its first generation electric tram system in 1960, (the last English city to do so - the Grimsby and Immingham interurban tramway closed in 1961 and Glasgow in 1962) the city centre gradually turned into a pedestrian unfriendly shopping centre served by an over-intense bus service. This was compounded by a motorist friendly shopping centre close to the city boundary. The quality of Supertram, combined with an element of good luck (being unaffected by snow), eventually won through and patronage began to grow to the healthy figure it is today. A welcome bonus in the CBD is the transformation along the tram route from a forlorn and neglected shopping centre to a smart shopping street (2)


In Vancouver (BC) for instance, a former city councillor urged the Traffic and Transportation Committee to "dream a little" when considering a plan to reintroduce an expanded street car system. We need he said "to go back to the future".

Even more profound was the American Congressman with plans to introduce legislation to create a pilot programme of streetcar (tramway) projects financed from a highway trust fund. This "Community Tram Development and Revitalisation Act" (3)(4) would help more than 40 US cities and towns having already shown an interest in small-scale rails (tramways) in a way that is very different from regional rail systems. This Bill though still requires private sector participation and actual evidence that trams can boost neighbourhood development. This Congressman was somewhat upbeat by the suggestion of future financial help from the trust fund, 75-m USD in 2004 followed by 100-m in 2005 and 150-m in each of the next three years.


As Discussion Document No 007 pointed out, every major city in UK (now including Glasgow) has some form of tramway light rail strategy under investigation but a major obstacle still remains, a severe shortage of funds. A GBP7-bn plan for extra road capacity has raised many questions from the Commission for Integrated Transport (CfIT) and the stressing of a looming danger from a "Policy vacuum" (5). Could an answer be more small scale schemes ? Metrolink has now been with us for a short 11 years and already it appears to have reached the limit of its contribution towards reducing traffic congestion. In those 11 years it has proved itself a friend of passengers, pedestrians, shoppers, the ambience in general, and has now overtaken the local railway system in the "numbers game". This is where a recent example from San Francisco has demonstrated just how many tiers of rail operation are actually needed to convince a motorist to use public transport. Low cost tramways (compared with heavy rail) are able to provide suburban access as well as down-town distribution. Whether by a new tram or just a refurbished heritage vehicle, this type of service has really "taken-off" in America.


Portland (Oregon) is credited with providing America's first purpose-built 2nd generation modern streetcar service with Tacoma (Washington) close behind and due to carry its first passengers during September 2003. After a 42 year gap the Pacific Electric Railway (an interurban tramway in character) has restarted a service in San Pedro (California). Affectionately known as the Red Cars, it originally blanketed the Los Angeles area on more than 1000 miles of track. This newly activated trolley line started operating during July 2003 with a few replica trams of historic pattern.

After 56 years, the tri-city resort area of St. Petersburg/Clearwater/Tampa (Florida) decided to ease its congestion problem with a return to tramway operation. Originally it had an 80-km system, and restarted the service with a fleet of 8 replica trams, each equipped with air conditioning (6). A very interesting example comes from Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) and completes this brief list of tramway developments. Route 15, the former Girard Avenue corridor, operated by buses since 1992, is due to re-open as a tramway during 2004. SEPTA has promised that the 18 restored PCC type trams will be able to operate every 8 minutes which compares very well with the current bus headway of every 12 minutes (7).


Although much of Britain's rail infrastructure appears to have taken a "back-seat" compared with the major developments planned for our road network, those promulgating this road expansion and believing that it does not necessarily generate more traffic congestion have very short memories indeed (8). "The late Martin Mogridge made it clear that the only way (other than road pricing) to solve traffic congestion problems (certainly in major cities) was to improve public transport". To a certain extent, Tyne & Wear are taking a lead by proposing to supplement its existing light metro with a tram network designed to integrate with it. "It is expected the new trams will replace metro trains that will reach the end of their working lives around 2020" (9).


Manchester's Metrolink system did a bit more than just "taking us back to the future", it connected by rail for the first time the two main-line railway stations whilst also providing a through service from suburb to suburb and improving the CBD ambience. Nottingham is very pleased with its new partly street tramway system which is currently going through its driver training phase ready for public service early in 2004 (10). A published photograph shows one of the new trams running through city centre streets and a caption that the last tram in Nottingham ceased running 67 years ago, living proof that that city is truly going back to the future.


  1. London Chamber of Commerce - "Business Natter" - July/August 2003.
  2. "Sheffield's business is on the up and up" - TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - page 328 - September 2003.
  3. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT page 227 - June 2003.
  4. More detail in DD No 005 June 2003.
  5. LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - page 2 - 10th July 2003.
  6. Michael Taplin - TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - pages 214 to 216 June 2003.
  7. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - page 268 - July 2003.
  8. "The arguments that many transport planners thought (were) won in the mid-1990s seem lost today" - John Elliot Independent Consultant - Comment Viewpoint - LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - page 12 - 7th August 2003.
  9. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - page 366 - October 2003.
  10. LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY front page 18th September 2003.

Discussion Document 009: top of page

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