Light Rail Transit Association - UK Development Group 

 Discussion Document No 027

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

March 2005 

Home > Discussion Document Index > Discussion Document

SUPERTRAM - WILL IT RIDE-OUT THE STORM ?

INTRODUCTION

Britain's transit plans during 2004 appear to have gone somewhat "pear shaped" with a DfT attitude of "forget quality think price". The substantial cuts in funding display symptoms of becoming permanent along - with an attitude of "no longer needed in Britain". Before anyone reaches a conclusion on this we should at least take a look at events across "the Pond", the urban transit revolution there and the public reaction to it.

Just why Britain has not shown any obvious signs (at the time of writing) of positively reacting to the National Audit Report (NAO) and the Public Accounts Committee Inquiry which followed it is somewhat difficult to fathom but now that proverbial "can of worms" has been literally opened we are confronted with far more questions than answers.

FUNDS SPENT BUT WHAT RETURN ?

The 1-bn spent by DfT was criticised by the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee as was the general attitude towards light rail. Highlighted also was its failure to understand just how the money was being spent and that appears to have put promoters in a very difficult position. To them the high expense of laying tracks, 3-m more per km than those systems already operating (1) was apparently beyond their control. One revealing example given was the cost of moving the utilities when laying tracks, close to the full cost (92.5%).

The changes being forced onto Manchester's "Big-Bang" project, Leeds Supertram and the Portsmouth to Fareham project could well bring down costs but, if the lower cost systems fail to attract passengers, it puts a question mark over justification for the changes and the delays that accompany them.

The appearance of the DfT Permanent Secretary before the Public Accounts Committee was generally given some mild praise by the Media for his frank and helpful manner. This came to his aid during an admission of a poor record by DfT on light rail schemes (2).

FOR THE RECORD - 2nd generation tramway type schemes.

USA - NEW SYSTEMS SPRINGING UP AT A FAST RATE

After this depressing British summary, a brief look at the significant light rail and streetcar (tramway) investment in America would be helpful. A complete list since San Diego (California) in 1981 is far too extensive to include in this document but, to give some sense of proportion, the actual new builds during 2004 have been presented.

WINNING HEARTS AND MINDS IN AMERICA

Not unlike Britain, the local population was somewhat divided and rather sceptical on the merits or otherwise of the light rail systems now springing up across the nation. Once up and running, their value was appreciated and recognised as giving that extra choice to motorists, shoppers and the business community generally. One significant feature was the withering of earlier opposition, it just melted away. A research report (6) has since made some interesting observations

26 North American cities have started operating "no frills" second generation streetcar (tram) systems with another 9 existing systems upgraded and/or extended. 30 more are either under construction, planned or under study. This renaissance shows no signs of letting-up, indeed, it is accelerating as passengers show a preference for trams over buses.

The TRAX (Salt Lake City - Utah) new tram system has been so positive that it has been presented with "The Friends of the Retailer Award".

The Fisherman's Wharf tram extension in San Francisco (California) is being regarded as too successful for its own good. Just like Manchester's METROLINK it is now seriously in need of more rolling stock.

USA : SOME INTERESTING PRESS COMMENT

The new light rail line in Minneapolis (Minnesota) has made it possible for people to visit their local tavern without any driving concerns (7).

A second LRT line will be built in St Paul (Minneapolis's twin city) following an evaluation study between Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and LRT (8).

A down-town study in Salt Lake City (Utah) is to explore a plan for a street car (tram) to share its tracks with a future light rail route (9).

Street cars (trams) last longer, operate more cost effectively than buses, pollute less, carry considerably more riders per unit and are more convenient than buses for people with wheelchairs (10).

CONCLUSION

The deft U-turn for Metrolink reported in the Manchester Evening News (11) is reminiscent of that well known "trick" remark : Heads I win and tails you lose.

REFERENCES

  1. LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - page 1 - 22nd April 2004.
  2. See discussion document No 26 - February 2005 - for a fuller description.
  3. LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - page 1 - 6th January 2005.
  4. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - page 48 - February 2005.
  5. TRAMMAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - page 407 - November 2004.
  6. THE STREETCAR RENAISSANCE (Greg Gormick) - Toronto 2004.
  7. Mary Divine - St PAUL PIONEER PRESS - 1st January 2005.
  8. Terrence Brown - MINNESOTA SPOKESMAN-RECORDER - 15 DEC 2004.
  9. Brady Snyder - DESERET MORNING NEWS - 23 SEPT 2004.
  10. David Adelman - ATLANTA JOURNAL CONSTITUTION - 22 DEC 2004.
  11. Editorial - MANCHESTER EVENING NEWS - 7 DEC 2004.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

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

Click on this link for a PDF version of this Discussion Document.

Home > Discussion Document Index > Discussion Document top