Light Rail Transit Association - UK Development Group 

 Discussion Document No 026

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

February 2005 

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Many of Britain's transport experts have for years commented on our backward attitude towards urban transit and reinforced their comments with some "hard facts". On transit matters we are noticeably far from achieving something equivalent to that proverbial level playing field and unfortunately, those controlling the purse strings seem unwilling to correct it.

Many voices are now displaying concern at our 100% stoppage of infrastructure investment and although the signs are there for a positive change in policy, the barriers (at the time of writing) are still down.


The DfT has obviously been shocked at what the National Audit Office (NAO) had uncovered and revealed in its report. Without doubt this report was carefully worded but a large part of the national press mistook it as a criticism of light rail for a poor performance. True, performance was poor but with so many additional barriers (hoops) introduced at regular intervals, light rail success was close to an impossibility. Shifting of the "goal posts" usually added to both "time and costs".

That proverbial "straw that broke the camels back" could well be that notorious risk factor which was partly the cause of estimated patronage being over optimistic. Some alert contractors spotted the danger and pulled out at an early stage whilst some of the others vowed never again to touch a light rail project.

Other financial burdens were in the form of competition from unregulated bus services and also from the 92.5% portion of the costs of moving the "stats". Paradoxically, Sheffield's wise procurement of quality trams permitted substantial passenger gains after many years of unregulated bus competition.


David Rowlands, the DfT Permanent Secretary, conceded to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (Re: the NAO Report) that the Government should have insisted on some form of integration with bus services. Mr Rowlands would also have been shaken by comments from an MP quote "This is one of the reports you read and can't believe". "You were just handing out money and doing nothing, I can't believe a department can be so complacent". There was an apology from Mr Rowlands for getting the Supertram patronage figures in Sheffield totally wrong. Other admitted mistakes were buses competing for passengers, a lack of multi-modal tickets and park and ride facilities. Stand-alone schemes do little to tackle congestion and never again would one be approved by DfT. Road charging he suggested during the interview might help to pay for the tram. To the Question "had the Government abandoned the tram?" he replied, No we should not lose sight of the fact that light rail schemes bad delivered a lot of what they were meant to.


A German Professor and also consultant, in a letter to a transport journal (2) questions why it has taken so long for the Government (DfT) to learn the light rail lessons. Having published numerous books on this particular subject, one partly financed by the then DETR, it should no longer be a closely guarded state secret any more that many cities throughout the world have made a great success of new light rail systems whilst others have wasted a lot of money. A country such as Britain cannot afford such an ineffective department.

A well known transport consultant (3) found David Rowland's performance in front of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee quite amazing. Mr Rowlands department has been completely detached for the last 15 years. "Blind prejudice and political dogma" have prevented Britain from gaining the full benefits so obviously available from the continental schemes.


It appears so obvious that Britain is far behind the rest of the world on its urban transit policies and even more amazing that not a single light rail project is under construction anywhere in the country.


  1. Andrew Foster's report on David Rowland - LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - page 4 - 18th November 2004.
  2. Carmen Haas-Klau - LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - Pages 15 & 16 - 2nd December 2004.
  3. D Scott-Hellewell - LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - Pages 18 & 19 - 16th December 2004.

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

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