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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



The above title epitomizes a growing chasm between the two principal urban transit modes, LRT and BRT. Paul Weyrich, of the Free Congress Foundation, has gone straight for the "jugular" in his defence of light rail transit: "The Bush Administration is right about most things, but they are dead wrong about one of them - urban mass transit".

The Governments of both Britain and America appear to be on a pro-bus anti-light rail crusade and although their motives may not be identical, their ultimate aims coincide. Advocates of BRT claim a much lower cost to build it with speeds comparable to LRT whilst supporters of LRT point to what they regard as a major flaw with BRT - "people don't want to ride buses".


Transport planners, traffic and highway engineers, took a long time to accept that new roads do not relieve traffic congestion and arguments that were won in the mid-1990s seem lost today. "Please - - do not build more roads just for people to commute - - - if the road lobby and the construction companies want to lay more tarmac, make sure that the money is spent in getting buses and trains up to the best Continental standards first" (2). This is somewhat compounded by the starvation of funds for new light rail systems, and their extensions. On this very point both Britain and America are displaying some common ground. On the other hand, many public bodies in America have fought hard for their LRT systems and generated enough evidence that new roads with bus services are not a suitable substitute for LRT.


Although known to have a higher infrastructure cost than BRT, LRT is cheaper to operate and does succeed in attracting the motorist. According to Paul Weyrich:"no matter how much the seats are made more comfortable, a bus is still a bus". Bus operators often claim flexibility even though this is sometimes counter-claimed as its greatest weakness because a rider can never be sure that it will still be there next year. A fixed rail system for example will be there for many years to come.


Manchester's traffic levels could only be lowered further if METROLINK was allowed to expand as planned. Just a few more trams could have a dramatic effect on traffic levels and recent Government proposals locally tend to highlight the stark difference in thinking between UK and USA. Having gained significant momentum with 26 American cities now operating some sort of light rail transit and 19 others seriously considering it, it highlights Britain's poor showing, just 4 new tramway type light rail systems rising to 5 early in 2004. With so few working examples, one should not be too surprised that many people here think of tram passengers needing to cross one or more traffic lanes to board a tram.

An analysis of current travel habits has helped to understand why our middle class shoppers and commuters, people who would never consider catching a bus, have not flocked to the sleek new trams now in use. "We have failed to copy France's success, the linking of universities, hospitals and city centres" (3).


OPTIMISM BIAS, the current jargon connected to Government funding for light rail projects, was recently exposed as preventing private sector companies from making money. Somewhat surprising following reasonably high passenger loadings (4).

This apparent bias is probably why the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) called for bidders for rail franchises to study ways that would help to cut costs. Bus substitution was one possibility with conversion to light rail operation another option (5).

The recently appointed Transport Minister suggested widespread public affection for the railways as the reason for "skewing" investment decisions in their favour. He claimed that the 150 000 people employed in the rail industry and at least 200 000 registered train spotters (?) hold much influence on transport policy. He also commented that rail is only 7% of transport but tax taken from people who never travel on railways goes towards the much larger sum spent on rail compared with road construction (6). The distinct failing of applying pure economics to transport issues is that many of the advantages of rail or light rail operation produce little or no financial value when drawing-up a typical transit balance sheet. For example, more shoppers attracted to the CBD, less cars, faster transit journeys, cleaner air, less noise, safer streets etc, all valuable environmental assets but taken very much for granted.


The SRA would probably find some of the new American tramway systems of special interest when reviewing the future of underused branch lines. As a columnist for the US Trains Magazine put it: people want to be on a streetcar (tram) line, they couldn't care less about being on a bus line".

Britain's transport direction towards more buses could equate to more roads to accommodate them.


  1. RESISTING BUS RAPID TRANSIT - Paul M Weyrich, Free Congress Foundation - Notable News Now - August 27th 2003.
  2. John Elliot (independent consultant) - View Point Comment LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - page 12 - 7th August 2003
  3. Consultant Tony Young in: "CITIES' GREAT TRAM REVIVAL GOES OFF THE RAILS" - a report by Ben Webster in TIMES ON LINE - October 08 2003.
  4. NEWS EXTRA - LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - page 9 - 10th July 2003.
  5. LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - page 6 - 10th July 2003.
  6. Transport Minister Kim Howells - speaking at a Fabian Society seminar - LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - front page - 2nd October 2003.

Discussion Document 010: top of page

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