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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



Discussion Document No 005 (1) gave the reader a good account of the strenuous efforts being made in USA to bring back, where appropriate, low cost mobility for shoppers and tourists. A key part of this mainly pre-war street-car technology is its well proven solutions to many known problems. A side product of this is improved ambience and a lower infrastructure cost. Light rail though still retains its importance to attract motorists from distant suburbs.

Whether or not involved authorities fully appreciate the subtle difference between light rail and the down-town advantage of a heritage tramway is open to conjecture but when those controlling the purse strings review local transport in the CBD they tend to lean heavily on the bus and fail to notice the "short comings" that accompany it. A particularly good example of a heritage tram service comes from Melbourne where a small number of traditional trams recently received a braking upgrade to permit them to operate a free service in present day traffic conditions.


The above remark fits perfectly the new trends in town-centres for tourists and shoppers. When it was realised that the humble tram could effectively serve a CBD after the automobile had been successfully attracted onto pedestrian free roads, a street-car building programme gained momentum. Portland (Oregon) was recently responsible for attracting world attention to its low-cost street car service that operates successfully alongside the high-tech. LRVs (2).


As most people know, economy usually takes second place to fashion and public transport trends are no exception. After the second world war the bus blossomed as a fashionable way to travel and in many ways created a plausible excuse to start a tram scrapping policy. It was so easy, even if irresponsible, to cover over the tram lines and make bonfires of the trams. A few cautious voices, drowned in the euphoria of that period, stressed a danger of "too many eggs in one basket" but only Blackpool managed to save some of its tram system. In some respects this was fortuitous for the experience it had gained over many years of mixing promenade heritage trams with the Fleetwood interurbans.


Although Stockholm (Sweden) took no part in World War II, its trams were sacrificed when the 1967 rule of the road was changed. A town centre with fewer tourist facilities and reduced mobility for shoppers was a recipe for blight and no matter how the "high street" sparkled, transport changes would eventually take their toll. The underground railway though, with higher quality services but fewer and partially hidden stations could hardly be described as the perfect exchange for city-centre trams. This brief preamble will probably make it easier to understand why Stockholm restored in 1991 a 3-km section of former tram route 7 with refurbished heritage cars (3).


Although not the capital of Turkey, it is nevertheless a very large and interesting tourist city. As was the fashion at the time (1960s) the street tramways were abandoned with familiar results. Just like Stockholm, Istanbul reopened its tramway in 1990 (4) and although mostly in a pedestrian precinct was recently reported as carrying 10,000 passengers per day. A second heritage service along similar lines but in a different part of the city has just opened but this time with 2-axle historic cars acquired from Jena in the eastern part of Germany (5),


Despite comparatively small populations, both Australia and New Zealand have shown an interest in heritage type tramway operation. The opening of Christchurch's tourist tram loop in the South Island of New Zealand during the mid-1990s was a very spectacular event. Refurbished trams about 100-years old were led by a brass band in a ceremonial procession to a ribbon cutting ceremony (6). The new 2.5-km tram loop around the city-centre closed a time gap of about 40-years without trams.

Although Sydney's last tram ran in 1961, sufficient corridor cars still exist which has permitted some high profile appearances in various parts of Australia. Being of the same gauge as the railway system in NSW, they replaced electric trains on a short branch line to Sydney's Royal National Park. Another high-profile duty was a static appearance at Canberra's Federation event. On this occasion it was helping to demonstrate what the Australia Federal Capital could expect if the plan to construct a heritage tramway went ahead.

It is of interest that the new low-floor trams to be ordered for the Glenelg line in Adelaide will inter-run with the 75-year old trams being replaced and converted for heritage type operation.


Just as places in USA are struggling hard to contain costs, the fashion of searching for vintage trams has assumed a new significance in Britain. The heritage tram concept is just awakening and a few examples have already demonstrated significant cash savings. Although situated in the wrong place for a heritage town-centre service, the Heaton Park discovery in Manchester has conclusively demonstrated its cost advantages.

The decision to construct a tourist/heritage line in Birkenhead (Wirral) has helped to highlight Britain's thoroughness in destroying our tramway heritage 50-years ago. Although an original tram body has been found and refurbished, two traditional trams (Hong Kong pattern) had to be built before the line could open. Although a modest start, the operators do hope that in due course they will be able to provide the local community with a service.

As the spacious grounds at Beamish developed into a folk museum, a need arose for some form of transport between exhibits and displaying a style blending in with its historic townscape. A few trams had already been collected from various places and these now provide a good example of a heritage type tramway. The constant queues of people give some indication of its popularity.


Some of our historic towns and cities could benefit from the heritage tram concept and at a cost that is not excessive. An interurban type light rail line for example could improve its access route and lower its costs if it could share track with heritage trams. Hull would provide a good example, a light rail line from the coast reaching the CBD direct instead of circling the city as was the previous practice.


  1. Discussion Document No 005 - LRTA Development Group BRING STREETCARS BACK TO YOUR TOWN - June 2003.
  2. Milan Sramek RAILWAY GAZETTE INTERNATIONAL - page 224 April 2001.
  3. Trams back in Stockholm streets - RAILWAY GAZETTE INTERNATIONAL July 1991.
  4. DEVELOPING METROS 1993 - page 36.
  5. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - page 66 - February 2004.
  6. Graham Bush - Associate Professor of Political Studies University of Auckland - LIGHT RAIL & MODERN TRAMWAY pages 254-5 - August 1995.

LATE NEWS : After this document had been- prepared it was reported in TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT (pages 130-1 April 2004) that an Ultra Light Rail low-cost tram system was proposed for Kalamata in Greece. Being a vehicle with steel wheels running on steel rails its energy demand was low (30% less than an equivalent vehicle with rubber tyres) and when boosted by fuel cells and regenerative braking was many times more energy efficient than an ordinary road bus. It is also claimed to be ideal for operation in pedestrianised areas where buses are banned.

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