Light Rail Transit Association - UK Development Group 

 Discussion Document No 028

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

April 2005 

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LIGHT RAIL IN OUR CITIES - THE NEED IS HERE NOW

INTRODUCTION

For many years (almost a quarter of a century in Leeds) the thought of returning to some modernised form of tramway in our city centres has become overpowering. Because the average British adult has for years had very little modal choice and almost forced to buy a car, the mere suggestion of an expensive transit system accompanied with motoring restrictions is far from welcome. Having largely rejected bus travel and poured scorn on the Government's apparent "love affair" with buses, an average motorist remains unaware of Supertrams superiority in a city centre context. Particularly welcome therefore is this timely intervention by the Passenger Transport Executive Group (PTEG) (1) to correct this public misconception.

This 85 page document is full of facts and figures and somewhat beyond the scope of this discussion document series. Nevertheless a synopsis of the six page executive summary has been prepared in the usual discussion document format.

BUS-ONLY SYSTEMS LACK QUALITY, FREQUENCY AND MODAL CHOICE

A major problem with present bus travel across many of our major city centres is the gradual decline in both quality and frequency and almost everyone able to drive is already doing just that. Unfortunately, the drip-drip effect of more cars has dramatically led to our current traffic chaos and a further downward spiral of bus services.

Light rail has now emerged (but with little or no funding) as a key component in restoring quality and capacity into our major corridors along with bus services but in a feeder capacity. Because a majority of motorists in Britain appear to be unaware of what light rail has to offer (few places have trams), The PTEG found it useful to spell out the gains, most of which are laid out below in synopsis form.

ADVANTAGES OF HIGH CAPACITY VEHICLES

A not unusual difficulty with a conventional low-capacity bus service is the ease with which it can fill to capacity, a rare event with light rail which is credited with carrying around four times that of a normal bus and twice that of a tram-like bus alternative. Light rail's higher capacity has other operational advantages in that it eliminates the congestion caused by large numbers of buses circulating in city centres which in turn bring economies of scale into the cost of provision. Although the potential carrying capacity of light rail is 20,000 passengers per hour per direction, most light rail systems in the UK operate at a lower level of about 2,500 passengers per hour per direction. At this level of service, the overall, long-term cost of carrying passengers is comparable to that of bus services. Under these conditions light rail still comes out on top because of its many benefits and improved quality of service.

The suggestion that UK light rail schemes have failed because passenger numbers carried doesn't match predictions, fails to note that all the systems operating in Britain are carrying large numbers and experiencing increased usage. This is very significant because outside London bus patronage is on record as continually falling.

LIGHT RAIL IS AN AFFORDABLE WAY OF REDUCING URBAN TRAFFIC LEVELS

New tram schemes attract about 20% of their passengers from former peak hour car users and at week-ends this rises to 50%. Evidence now exists in Manchester and Croydon of reduced road traffic levels following the opening of their systems. The continual fight by promoters to secure integration of light rail with other modes has permitted new schemes to be increasingly well designed.

In the UK, light rail provides environmental benefits through the reduction in car use of some 22-million car trips per year. As road traffic continues to increase inexorably, any measure that can be demonstrated to avoid green house gas emissions, noise and local air pollution must have a value, even if it is not afforded one in current appraisal methodology.

Last, but certainly not least in importance, is pedestrian safety in areas where trams run on street based tracks. There is no evidence that pedestrians and other road users are any more at risk where trams share road space with them. The UK tram schemes have demonstrated that tram passengers are in a safer environment than those people travelling by road.

CONCLUSION

"Throwing the baby out with the bath water" is almost akin to Britain's current urban transport policy. The benefits that accompany a Supertram scheme are lost when a bus or guided bus policy is literally forced onto the PTE's and although the so-called Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) concept is lower in initial cost, its passenger appeal is also lower which results in a feeling of "false economy".

REFERENCES

  1. Passenger Transport Executive Group (PTEG) - WHAT LIGHT RAIL CAN DO FOR THE CITIES - Wellington House, 40-50 Wellington Street, Leeds LSl 2DE - Prepared for the PTEG by Steer Davies Gleave, 28-32 Upper Ground, London SEl 9PD - February 2005.
FOOTNOTE

After this discussion document was prepared, it was reported from Australia (TRANSIT AUSTRALIA - page 86 - March 2005) that a light rail forum hosted by Sydney City Council was addressed by Dr Kenworthy - Associate Professor of the Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy at Perth's Murdoch University - who said that abandoning trams in Sydney was a big mistake and left the city with "traffic sewers". Trams he said would make Australia's biggest city more liveable, dignified and green by reducing traffic, cutting pollution and increasing public spaces. Surely a message very much in parallel with the PTEG paper summarised in this document.

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

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