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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



A British visitor to any town or city in Europe will notice an ease of movement not available in many places back home. Our general attitude to public transport can be summed up by a consultants remarks not many years ago downgrading light rail schemes as silly and a waste of money (1). This view was shared by many in this country at that time mainly because the only tramway operation on the British mainland was more historic than modern.A few embarrassing years later and these comments could be seen as somewhat unfortunate, more so because his home town happened to be Croydon. Despite its financial problems, the various authorities associated with Croydon and TRAMLINK engaged the same consultants to establish the economic and regeneration effects of this new tram system upon the area it serves. The findings were very positive, a reliable service, workers punctual at their place of work, a dramatic drop in unemployment and property easier to sell (2). After such an accolade it must have come somewhat as a surprise to hear that "TRAMLINK had a cash crisis" (3).


"Death knell for the city centre" and "Supertram will choke life out of it" were headlines in the local press just before the service started in 1994. Approximately ten years later and a 180 degree turn-around in attitude appeared in the TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT columns: "Sheffield's business on the up and up" followed by "Sheffield has the best transport system in the country" (4). This Yorkshire city now has many track extensions in the pipeline and an interesting proposed extension is into and beyond Rotherham. Giving credit where it is due, the Managing Director (light rail) of the Stagecoach Group commented that the resurgence of the tram has been helped by its ability to negotiate sharp bends and heavy gradients, to accelerate and stop more quickly, to reduce pollution and congestion, to move large numbers of people more quickly and efficiently than would be the case with a bus and at a fraction of the cost of an urban railway scheme (5).


This is indeed a place now planning to blend some modern tramway practice into its well established light metro system. The opening of the city centre tunnels in 1980 gave better access to its CBD shopping centre whilst at the same time integrating the services of the diesel operated suburban railway routes. After the initial successful impact though it suffered somewhat from the national deregulation of bus services. Built to a very high standard, its ability to compete with the parallel one-seat ride bus services was somewhat limited and thus was born the ORPHEUS project. It is proposed to feed 8 new street tram services into the metro system and later provide a one-seat ride by actually running the trams through the tunnels. Although this in many respects follows European practice, the Transport Secretary is not convinced that ORPHEUS will solve congestion on the A1 & A19 trunk routes (6).


An anticipation that GMPTE may be asked to drop some parts of its project because its "BIG-BANG" scheme came in at about GBP200-m above the initial projected cost has failed to materialise and the Transport Secretary was reported early in 2003 as having approved the full contract (7). Truly a recognition of Metrolink's ability to help with solving Greater Manchester's traffic congestion. Another plus for Metrolink is its LIGHT RAIL label, a mode now being credited with being more versatile than heavy rail.


Despite its isolated route and fairly lengthy walk to and from New Street Station, the line has attracted amongst its passengers 31% who have switched from their cars (8) which convincingly demonstrates its potential ability to reduce traffic density when allowed to penetrate the CBD. GBP1-bn has been allocated to the West Midlands which should help with at least two extensions, one of which could be through the CBD. What is gaining favour in some political circles is an underground tube proposal but, at GBP3-bn, it has been labelled a "non-starter". Not very helpful with this particular proposal is the public's fear of underground services, fears such as the Kings Cross fire and the rising crime wave.


The 28-km Leeds Supertram project is currently affected by rising costs but the West Yorkshire PTE insists that it still passes the Government's value-for-money tests. The Department for Transport (DfT) says that no decision has been taken on any additional money being made available but recent Governments pronouncements have made this extremely unlikely. Two possible outcomes have appeared in press articles, either a pruning of costs or some form of congestion charging.

Promoters of the South Hampshire scheme are reported to be fed up with indecision and are urging the Government to make its mind up and allow it to move on to the next stage. Both the County and City Councils believe the project to be good value for money. The causes for cost increases are considered to be beyond the control of the local authorities.

As for the Merseytram project, the Government has issued a clear warning that it is not prepared to write a blank cheque for the scheme (9).


Professor Phil Goodwin (10) hit a somewhat controversial note when he argued that traffic restraint policies are essential to combat growing congestion. Revenues from road pricing he suggested could be partly used to fund alternative modes such as better public transport and pedestrianisation.


Many people in Britain, passengers, motorists and academics, have for years offered advice on which way the nation should go to reduce traffic congestion. Report after report has pointed the way forward but after years of procrastination two possible outcomes loom on the horizon, use road charging to fund public transport schemes or allow time-sensitive projects to remain without any funding and then simply abort them.

As our title suggested though, there may be another way. GIVING CREDIT WHERE IT'S DUE could be interpreted as being recognised for its non-contributory benefits, that is advantages gained by the public but not credited financially to light rail.


  1. Kingsley Lewis - Associate Director of Consultants Colin Buchanan and Partners ~ LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY 20th September 1989.
  2. CROYDON ADVERTISER (South London) 22nd August 2003.
  4. GVA Grimley - London Property Adviser - TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT Page 328 - September 2003.
  5. Light Rapid Transit Operations In The UK - Andy Morris Managing Director (Light Rail) Stagecoach Group INSTITUTION OF RAILWAY OPERATORS - September 2003.
  6. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - Page 407 November 2003.
  7. LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - 9th January 2003.
  8. Special Feature On West Midlands - LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY Page 15 - 10th July 2003.
  9. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - Page 444 ~ December 2003.
  10. Professor Phil Goodwin - Director of Transport Studies at University College London LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - 9th October 1990.

Discussion Document 012: top of page

Prepared by F A Andrews for the LRTA Development Group - January 2004.