LRTA logo Light Rail Transit Association
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 business venture can normally be judged by either its successful performance or, if unable to attract customers, its apparent failure to make a profit. In transit terms only, this philosophy does not strictly apply. Croydon Tramlink for example attracts a large number of passengers but still remains in the "red". Britain has unfortunately become well known for its "profit and loss" attitude and whereas other countries tend to regard a 50% farebox recovery as not unreasonable, they also recognise important community benefits and reward the operator as appropriate. Government prevarication in the UK though appears to encourage low-cost alternatives which often fail to attract passengers. This in turn raises the crucial question, will it be value for money? (1).


Most discouraging to promoters is the present rearrangement of priorities which permits a project further down the funding queue to leapfrog other contenders. The use of Design, Build, Operate and Maintain (DBOM) procedures appears now to be a recipe for delay. Speaking at the LIGHT RAIL & RAPID TRANSIT conference in London, the head of local transport policy in the DfT indicated that the two current schemes awaiting funding following cost escalations were by no means certain to go ahead in something like their existing form. He further went on to suggest that the funding strategies for light rail projects may not yet be right. The DBOM method of financing light rail schemes has probably "run out of steam" and become "frayed round the edges". "We need to move the market on from: Don't touch light rail with a barge pole to how can we re-create the conditions for successful public-private partnership?" he said (2).


The risk factor, disliked by the private sector, depends very much on light rail projects being able to achieve the patronage levels calculated at the design stage and later indicated in the tender documents. These calculated figures could probably be achievable if our transit rules followed closely the well proven Continental practice of coordination and integration. A major difference in Britain is that bus operators are permitted to compete with light rail/Supertram services and only slowly does the patronage figure reach its target.

Although the serious impasse of bus competition and the laws that allow it may soon be reviewed, much damage has already been inflicted on potential light rail schemes. One high profile failure could well be Bristol where the promoters appear to have given up the struggle. Equally serious is the public announcement that Carillion, the private developer on Nottingham Phase One, will never again allow itself to become involved in similar light rail projects.


With so many questionable high cost features being applied to rail type developments, many light rail schemes are tending to fail at an early stage. Recently quoted in a railway journal was a high cost example of a new railway platform at Glasshoughton (West Yorkshire) costing GBP2.3-m which included GBP90,000 for insurance (required by Network Rail). This was then compared with a bus equivalent costing 3 to 4 thousand pounds (3). The use of the comparatively low-cost footpath-type Supertram platforms in Sheffield must surely indicate some of the economies that are available for light rail projects when designers appreciate the subtle differences between suburban rail and light rail.


There is a perpetual danger that by constantly picking on light rail schemes for further scrutiny as if they are the only victims of inflated construction costs could cause a "cheap and utilitarian tram system" to be built (4). An important concern of the Leeds Civic Trust is the potential damage to the attractiveness and character of the city. A suggestion from the Trust was that as capital projects frequently balloon in cost, Central Government should bite the bullet and pay for them.


Although many guided busway schemes have been proposed over recent years, only two prominent schemes, both in Leeds, have been built, one with financial help from two of the bus operators. Many similar schemes nationwide have gone "close to the wire" before being either aborted or delayed for further scrutiny :

CHESTER - started as a light rail scheme but later changed to a guided bus scheme. It was later aborted because it lacked local support.

EDINBURGH - aborted when the selected contractor pulled out of the contract.

HULL - received a consultant recommendation for guided bus but failed to get local support.

LIVERPOOL - guided trolley-bus proposals were rejected following a public inquiry.

NORTHAMPTON - a long standing guided bus scheme but still going through the design stage.

These are just a few proposals for guided bus schemes.

Passenger comment regarding the schemes in Leeds the guided sections (15% on the Scott Hall Road routes) are too short to be significant in peak-periods and of no advantage at other times. Low-cost is usually given as the reason for considering guided busways although the threshold for looking at light rail instead is surprisingly low (5)(6).


Two contentious guided busway schemes over disused railway lines, Luton - Dunstable and Cambridge - St. Ives, have recently had Government backing to convert them to guided bus routes. A vote by Bedfordshire's County Councillors on 12th February 2004 rejected the guided bus route over the Luton - Dunstable railway line by 29 to 8 with 2 abstentions. A railway line was called for instead to connect the West Coast main line to the Midland main line.

On 10th February 2004 a full meeting of the Cambridgeshire County Council voted to go ahead with the proposed guided bus scheme by 35 to 14 with 4 abstentions. A public inquiry is expected to be held in September. The Cambridge and St. Ives Railway organisation (CAST.IRON) wants the railway to be reopened and has claimed that the railway option will cost less money (7).


Opinions in Britain vary considerably on a way forward but one has only to cross the Channel to see transit being used as it should be. One could also question the campaign to interest motorists towards public transport when the cost argument is being used against it, especially Supertram with its many in-built quality features.


  1. Alistair Darling ordered a review of the Supertram plans for Leeds to see if savings can be made - Paul Robinson - YORKSHIRE EVENING POST - 25th February 2004.
  2. Michael Faukner - Head of DfT's Local Transport Policy - LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - page 3. - 16th October 2003.
  3. Christian Wolmar - RAIL 478 - page 19. - Jan. 7 2004 to Jan. 20 2004
  4. Trust us --- we do need Supertram - Paul Robinson - YORKSHIRE EVENING POST - eigth March 2004.
  5. Chris Cheek - Director of Public Transport Consultant TAS -speaking at a Conference on Light Rail Light Rail is cheapest once peak patronage is above 3,750/HR LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY 28th September 2000.
  6. Professor Carmen Hass-Klau speaking at the same conference (above) - We need to think about energy savings and a guided bus is still a bus - LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - 28th September 0004.
  7. ENTRAIN - Platform 5 Publishing - page 31 April 2004.

Discussion Document 016: top of page

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