Light Rail Transit Association - UK Development Group 

 Discussion Document No 025

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

January 2005 

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URBAN TRANSIT : "THE BULLET BUS"

INTRODUCTION

The Media in Yorkshire has greeted what it calls "The Bullet Bus" with a certain amount of scepticism followed by comment on its resemblance to a Japanese Bullet Train (1). The designers themselves refer to it as a Streetcar, a vehicle which breaks away from the more traditional concepts we have of the train, tram, bus and car and will, they claim, tempt car drivers onto public transport.

WILL IT ACHIEVE WHAT IS CLAIMED ?

With such positive claims, it is no surprise to find that some of our towns and cities are showing an interest in testing its potential capabilities. Although trials are said to have been made in some places, it may be left to Bristol to actually promote a network of routes (2). The City Council there has already announced an intention to promote a network of bus lanes with the hope that it will ease traffic congestion and speed up public transport. One slight drawback with the STREETCAR bus is that its resemblance to a tram does stop there and the priority lanes, so necessary at key junctions to be effective, can be regarded as an additional cost but not paid for by the operator.

HOW NEW ARE THE CLAIMED ADVANTAGES ?

The promoters claim of costs being 80% lower than a tram but more expensive than a standard articulated bus can be somewhat misleading because it does not appear to take account of the segregated lanes needed at junctions (3). As for the ride quality, a visit to the five existing tramway systems in UK will permit an opinion to be formed for comparison purposes.

A POTENTIAL LOSS OF PEDESTRIAN BENEFITS

The direct costs of providing and operating the Streetcar bus appears to be the only costs falling upon the bus company which understandably explains the operators request for these extra traffic lanes but, on the debit side, limits its CBD availability compared with light rail, especially in shopping precincts. Karlsruhe in Germany is a good example of trams taking passengers to where they want to go.

Other advantages with tramways are a proven ability to load quickly, operate safely in shopping streets (well proven in Europe), an ability to use railway tracks if a route requires it and other environmental advantages.

AMERICAN COMPARISONS

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) as a transit mode is claimed to be gaining ground in the USA with some places proposing vehicle types almost identical to our promised Streetcar bus. The rubber tyred and bullet shaped buses for the proposed Silver Line bus service along Euclid Corridor in Cleveland (Ohio) are due in about four years time. This scheme is being helped by funds from the Federal New Starts Pot, a much sought after pool of money that usually goes to fund rail construction.

This change in financial help for transit projects coincides with a surprisingly new attitude in USA towards the American streetcar (tram), at one time very close to annihilation but now staging a spectacular comeback. This was captured in an article in the Washington Times, quote " - - a love affair with old fashioned transportation : a fierce loyalty to streetcars - - ". Also reported was that two dozen or so US cities and towns have active streetcar lines and about 40 others have streetcar projects planned, according to the American Public Transportation Association (4).

REASONS GIVEN IN THE USA FOR REINSTATEMENT

The reasons given for at least one of the two dozen or so streetcar systems has come from New Orleans (Louisiana) with its return of streetcars along Canal Street after lying dormant for about 40 years. They regard the streetcars as more cost effective than buses, will also increase ridership, will stimulate economic activity and enhance the environment (5).

THREE PILOT ROUTES IN UK

The first of the articulated Streetcar bus routes in UK is programmed to start a pilot service during the Autumn of 2005. To speed up boarding time, tickets will be purchased from on-board ticket machines. Other actions to speed up service speed will be in the "hands" of others who will be expected by the non-too-subtle demands such as : "Keep to your side of the bargain or the product will not be available". As the bus operators have explained: "We've got to have journey time savings to justify the business case investment on these vehicles".

CONCLUSION

Whether or not the overall cost of Streetcar buses will ultimately be less than trams is open to speculation because of the extra infrastructure requirements supplied by "others". Unfortunately, some of the passenger benefits resulting from a tramway type of operation are not always financially credited to light rail. A "tongue-in-cheek" letter recently appeared in the transport press : "Keep the tyres covered and the public will think it's a tram" (6).

REFERENCES

  1. Alison Bellamy - YORKSHIRE EVENING POST - 23rd September 2004.
  2. Tram-type bus may be the answer for Bristol ? - TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - page 446 - December 2004.
  3. Operator pledge, new vehicles in return for bus priority -LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - page 6 - 2nd October 2004.
  4. Desire brings back streetcars - Jennifer Harper – WASHINGTON TIMES 24th October 2004.
  5. C J Lietwiler - TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - page 455 – December 2004.
  6. John Dales - Correspondence in LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - page 15 18th November 2004.

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Prepared by F A Andrews for the LRTA Development Group - January 2005

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