Light Rail Transit Association - UK Development Group 

 Discussion Document No 021

This document is published to stimulate discussion and does not necessarily represent the views of the LRTA

September 2004 

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URBAN TRANSIT : FORGET QUALITY, THINK COST

INTRODUCTION

The current transit scene in Britain is so volatile that to forecast its future direction is close to an impossibility. Our planners, politicians and a very sceptical public appear somewhat bemused and any provisional support for a transport policy that includes light rail often now fails at the first hurdle of the sticky question : Where is the money coming from?

Conducting a world-wide survey of urban transit networks would reveal a high value placed on other benefits, benefits that in transit terms have a low value but are important nevertheless. Unfortunately these don't enter the lowest-common-denominator sum for the scheme as well as its value for money criteria.

INTEGRATION - A VITAL TRANSIT COMPONENT

When trams and buses are permitted to do what each does best in a coordinated transit system, many other qualities stand out as vital to the ultimate success. Environmental gains, public safety in general, easy to locate stopping points, level and easy access and probably the "make or break,' asset of a frequent service, all play a vital part in attracting passengers. This in turn helps to reduce traffic congestion whilst at the same time reducing the clamour for more road construction. This potential change in travel habits could help to reduce a gradual encroachment on our green pastures as well as lowering demands on taxpayers, new highways do not come cheap. Could it result in more funding allocation for light rail schemes?

Nottingham can now be credited with going some way towards this integration target, helped considerably by the careful siting of park and ride locations. Although only a few months in operation, extra long trams and an attractive frequency, a quick and safe journey, has certainly appealed to residents and a standing load is not unusual. Many in Britain are oblivious to light rail advantages and some correspondence in a nationwide transport journal has helped to highlight this (1).

For the first time in 15 years Britain has no new lines or extensions under construction. Many light rail plans exist but the funds are simply not available. It is interesting to note that Nottingham is currently planning two more lines and two novel methods of financing them are in the public arena for debate, either a work place parking levy or a congestion charge (2).

GOVERNMENT BUS POLICY

Government sources now claim that:

"Buses increasingly provide better value for money than rail services and in some areas may provide a valuable alternative" (3).

The cost of providing a bus route is undoubtedly lower than an equivalent tram route but when only the direct costs of providing the service are considered. Buses do not need a track but are reported to have higher operational costs which, when combined with other benefits, can alter the equation which justifies the service. Other factors need looking at such as the well known and regular loss of passengers on buses outside London. This passenger decline is still with us along with regular adjustments such as service reductions.

Because "decent" railways in the world's fourth largest economy and during a period of prosperity are unaffordable, regional authorities should have more flexibility to make choices between rail and other forms of transport - i.e. buses (4). The Government White Paper "The Future Of Transport : A Network For 2030" seemed to call a halt to tram schemes, encourage local authorities to close railways and substitute buses, and crucially have the position on road building at best "muddy." (5).

CONCLUSION

There is much evidence throughout the world to indicate that a coordinated transit approach, trams supported by buses, is the preferred way forward in urban conditions. Although our Government appears to nave turned its back on light rail expansion, it does no appear as a view shared by the transport journalists interviewed in a MORI survey. When asked which types of transport had improved in service qualify over the last 5 years, most suggested trams (68%) closely followed by local buses (64%) (6).

REFERENCES

  1. "Light rail schemes cancelled - but at what long term cost?" - Elsa Woodward in Local Transport Today (p.15) 12 August 2004
  2. LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY (P.5) 12th August 2004.
  3. Transport and Rail White Papers - LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY (P.2) 12th August 2004.
  4. PRIVATE EYE (Issue No 1112) - 6 to 19th August 2004.
  5. TRANSPORT RETORT (T2000) - P.4. - August 2004.
  6. "Journalists have poor perception of Government's Transport record" LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY (P.32) 12th August 2004.
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Prepared by F A Andrews for the LRTA Development Group - September 2004.

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