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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



Light rail and Supertram systems both here and throughout the world have proved popular with those that use them but less popular when taxpayers are brought into the equation. Getting the balance right is far from easy, especially when the two funding channels (road and transit) are so different. The objectives also are different, one a disciplined pay-as-you-go passenger and the other a get-in-and-go motorist, which means in effect that the life-styles are close to incompatible.


This can be a rather difficult exercise because a widened motorway through a green pasture at one end of the scale needs a balancing operation at the other end to ensure adequate town-centre parking. The funds for this seem to be found and spent without undue delay compared with light rail funding. Although Britain's few systems have shown their practical value in providing "choice", recent moves to continue this progress appear to have "hit the buffers" (1) and apparently gone unnoticed at Westminster. This was more than obvious from the National Audit Office (NAO) report which went into great detail (2) in the revelation of transit failings.


This press release extolled the virtues of the tram and pointed to the ten years now required to design, build and open a tramway system, an unacceptable time scale. The financial and manpower resources consumed long before the first rail is laid could be better employed in adding value to the project.

The LRTA supports the conclusions of the NAO report and hopes that its recommendations are speedily implemented so that light rail can play its full part in making the improvements to urban transit that are so badly needed.

The recent shortlisting of London as a potential 2012 Olympic Games venue presents a huge challenge. to the nation. Few will disagree that it is now time to build on the current City of London and TfL tramway proposals to link the Olympic site with the city and thus assist in bringing large numbers of participants and spectators to and from the venues and events. It will not happen if our existing timescales continue.


Despite the many cost advantages of experimenting with combined rail and tram operation on railway locations and on street tracks in town-centres, its use has mainly been confined to the European mainland. Planning for Nottingham Express Transit (NET) did look at tram/train operation but the logistics for this appeared to be too difficult. Nevertheless its advantages have already been proven overseas and many consultants here have noted its cost savings potential. In a report dealing with light rail and metro matters (4), from a consultant to the Passenger Transport Executive Group (PTEG), it was suggested to be intrinsically lower cost with better city centre penetration and with the success of Metrolink providing a testimony to this. A tram's line of sight operation for instance saved signalling costs and the use of road infrastructure avoids a cost to LRT for its renewal.


A strong suggestion in this report was that if the nation wishes to see substantial increases in resources on urban transport infrastructure then it must be taken out of the hands of Central Government. The inconsistency, confusion and indecision within Whitehall has been allowed to build up because public opinion and Parliament have given higher priority to other matters. Financial problems also arose following a clash between a commitment to the ten year transport plan and funding demands from the national railway system which has grown out of all recognition.


It is not difficult to see that the lower infrastructure cost of light rail and the ability to take passengers where they want to go are features which will draw passengers and an operations profit.


  1. LRTA Discussion Document No 017 - IS BRITAIN THE ONLY PLACE "IN-STEP"? - June 2004.
  2. IMPROVING PUBLIC TRANSPORT IN ENGLAND THROUGH LIGHT RAIL - a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General - 23rd April 2004.
  4. RAIL IN THE CITY REGIONS - final report from JMP consulting (Leeds) to PTEG - March 2004.
  5. INVESTING IN CITIES - a report to Development Securities by Stephen Glaister (Professor of Transport and Infrastructure, Imperial College London) - with the assistance of Dan Graham, Imperial College London - Tony Travers, The London School of Economics - John Wakefield.

Discussion Document 018: top of page

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