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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 provocative heading goes some way towards drawing attention to the wide gulf that exists between those that for personal reasons want to retain and expand the motor-car way of life and those that believe in a blended mixture that includes some form of light rail, as the correct way forward. What has been responsible for bringing these contrasting lifestyles into prominence is an April 2004 report released by the National Audit Office (NAO) on the effectiveness (or otherwise) of tram and light rail systems now operating in Britain. It does reveal some rather biased attitudes towards light rail, attitudes that the media "cherry picked" in their news columns.

In order to display as neutral a picture as possible, this discussion document will review the current UK systems and make a comparison with USA, France and Spain.


For space reasons this paragraph will need to be restricted to system openings since 1980, systems with an ability and suitability to operate over street tracks if required. The date In brackets is the year that it opened.

USA1.San Diego(1981)
4.San Jose(1987)
6.Los Angeles(1990)
8.St. Louis(1993)
11.Salt Lake City(1999)
14.Southern New Jersey(2004)
17.Charlotte(under construction)
18.Memphis(conversion : heritage to Light Rail)
19.Phoenix(under construction)
20.Seattle(under construction)

This is certainly a very formidable list of new systems

3.Paris (T1)(1992) (Tramway)
6.Paris (T2)(1997) (Light Rail)
11.Marseille(under construction)
12.Mulhouse(tram/train under construction)
13.Nice(under construction)
14.Paris (T3 ?)(tram/train under construction)
15.Valenciennes(under construction)

For a nation similar in population size to Britain, a total of 15 systems tends to demonstrate the French commitment to light rail.

SPAIN 1.Valencia(1994)
4.Alicante(tram/train under construction)
5.Malaga(under construction)
6.Sevilla(under construction)
7.Tenerife(under construction)
8.Vigo(under construction)

For a nation with a comparatively small population, 8 new systems in operation or under construction is a good record.

BRITAIN: 1.Manchester (METROLINK)(1992)
2.Sheffield (South Yorkshire Supertram)(1994)
3.Birmingham to Wolverhampton (Midland Metro)(1999)
4.Croydon (TRAMLINK)(2000)
5.Nottingham (Nottingham Express Transit)(2004)

At the time of writing, no new systems are under construction.

PART 2. EXTRACTS FROM THE NAO REPORT. (the quotation numbers are ours)

  1. "Light rail has improved the quality and choice of public transport - - - the Manchester Metro has attracted so many passengers that it experiences overcrowding at peak times".
  2. "Light rail systems are not fully integrated with other forms of public transport - - - They are more likely to be regarded as attractive alternatives to the car if they operate in a joined-up integrated way".
  3. "As people leave their cars and travel by public transport, some are replaced by other motorists using the free road space that they have vacated".
  4. "There are fewer barriers to light rail in France and Germany - - - in England promoters have to pay 92.5% of the cost of diverting utilities. In Germany promoters contribute less while in France they pay nothing. In France, a local tax on employers is a major source of funds for developing light rail systems - - - in Germany there are more light rail systems that share their lines with heavy rail services through what is known as the tram-train concept".
  5. "As a condition of its grants for light rail schemes, the department should require local authorities to build into the design and implementation of their schemes, where appropriate, measures to integrate light rail with other modes of transport, the department should look for evidence that the relationship between light rail and bus services has been considered including physical integration, as well as the provision of through ticketing arrangements and passenger information about routes, fares and timetables.- - - encourage park and ride schemes - - - give priority to light rail vehicles over road vehicles at key junctions".
  6. "Interchange at stations - - - the PTE in Manchester considers that a key factor in the success of the Manchester Metrolink has been the systems physical integration with other forms of public transport. - - - the Midland Metro for example terminates at Snowhill Station about one km short of Birmingham's main station at New Street. - - - access to the main station in Sheffield was initially via steps but in 2002 a new footbridge with lifts linked directly with Supertram".
  7. "The impact of light rail on regeneration and social exclusion has not been fully evaluated - - - Manchester Metrolink has helped to regenerate the Salford Quay's and Eccles areas - - - Croydon has helped to attract inward investment to Croydon and brought good transport links to relatively socially deprived areas such as the New Addington area of the borough. - - - Midland Metro contributed to the regeneration of land in the Wednesbury area of West Midlands".
  8. "Potential passengers were discouraged from using the systems while broken ticket machines meant lost revenue from passengers who were using the systems".
  9. "Light rail costs are inflated by light rail adapting heavy rail specifications and safety arrangements".


The NAO Survey has helped us to understand why so few light rail systems have succeeded in penetrating the maze of data and other similar problems surrounding urban transport in our towns and cities. A serious obstacle was the continual shifting of "goal posts" when a contender reached a point close to seeking approval and funding. One factor that needs adjustment is financial recognition for benefits to the public in general.

Whilst every effort has been made to accurately present this document, no responsibility can be accepted for its contents.

Discussion Document 017: top of page

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