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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



The gradual but contagious neglect of our tramway systems in the late 20s and early 30s played a significant part in stifling modernisation and development. This neglect, mostly going unchecked, was probably a key factor in the almost total annihilation of the British tram. Some places struggled literally ”against the tide" to experiment with new technology but, as is now well recorded, only Blackpool succeeded in producing a fleet of high-tech new trams beyond the prototype stage. It soon became obvious though that a “going it alone" policy was well beyond their resources and this historic tramway had to fall back on its pre-war rolling stock.

Britain's transit folly of half a century ago provides an excellent example of "how not to do it". Unfortunately the lesson still needs to be learned as the recent UITP Dresden conference pointed out. Its dramatic message to Eastern Europe was : DON'T ABANDON YOUR TRAMS! (1).


Before Manchester's METROLINK could be built and put to the test, Government legislation unleashed a free-for-all de-regulated bus regime outside London. Competition, the original concept, has certainly been achieved but not in the manner originally intended. Although our new tram systems are proving popular with those that use them, it is a slow process and a ready excuse to delay further funding. It is interesting to note that the National Audit Office (NAO) report actually commented on the overcrowding during peak periods of Manchester's system (2). Also, not known by many Londoners, is the 900% patronage increase between Croydon and Wimbledon since conversion to TRAMLINK.


The path to quality transit is far from smooth as was discovered during the recent inquiry by the Commons Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee. One significant revelation was that "charging schemes" could help to fund light rail but some doubt existed regarding upfront money being permitted before revenue money came on stream (3).

About this time came comment in the Technical Press (4) that John Prescott had a personal antipathy to-wards light rail systems. This brought a swift response from the then Department of Transport with the slogan: TRAMS NOT JAMS (5). The April release date was in some ways unfortunate and seemed to cast a shadow on the promise of 25 new light rail lines in the Ten Year Transport Strategy and somewhat of a contrast to the words of Metropolitan Council Chairman at the opening of the Hiawatha LRT (Minneapolis, USA, in June 2004) WORLD-CLASS CITIES HAVE WORLD-CLASS TRANSPORTATION SYSTEMS (6). A similar view was taken recently by the Independent Transport Commission (ITC) report which commented that governments have concentrated on long distance travel but neglected the suburbs (7)


The failing of these light rail promises appears to have provoked the PTEs into calling for more regionalisation and a role of managing local rail services in their own areas. The Passenger Transport Executive Group (PTEG) also joined in by noting that powers under the 1968 Transport Act could permit the PTEs to extend an influence up to 25 miles beyond their boundaries. Although neighbouring authorities would need to be consulted it would help to cover journey to work areas (8).

What really needs to be sorted out but on a national basis is a clearer understanding of costs applied to Inter-city, PTE Rail and PTE Light Rail. Manchester and Croydon have shown quite conclusively how a modest "Karlsruhe” type of operation can be an effective answer both in cost and passenger appeal. The NAO visit to France and Germany demonstrated the importance of segregation and integration and the comment that simply following railway lines often misses potential generating developments.


This discussion document goes some way to demonstrate just how quickly the transport scene can change direction, a point proved by the 25 new light rail lines of 4 years ago being now regarded as unobtainable., The down-side to policy changes unfortunately is lost time as is clearly being demonstrated in Bristol, a city with early light rail plans but now about to give up the struggle.


  1. RAILWAY GAZETTE INTERNATIONAL - page 333 - June 2004.
  2. NAO calls on Ministers to ease progress on light rail schemes LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - front page - 22nd April 2004.
  3. Jim Coates - Institute of Logistics and Transport - LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - 20th January 2000.
  4. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - page 98 - March 2000.
  5. DOT news release - 6th April 2000 - reported in TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - page 162 - May 2000.
  6. Laurie Blake - STAR TRIBUNE - June 27th 2004.
  7. Suburban Travel Patterns Ignored Says Think Tank - LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - page 2 - 15th July 2004.
  8. LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - page 4 - 8th April 2004

LATE NEWS : The Treasury favours a new method of charging for road use. Will it help to fund new light rail projects ?

Discussion Document 019: top of page

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