Light Rail Transit Association - UK Development Group 

 Discussion Document No 030

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

June 2005 

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URBAN TRANSIT - OPINIONS STILL POLES APART

INTRODUCTION

The UK TRAM FORUM, set up late in 2004, was in response to concerns regarding UK's light rail schemes (1). With four equal partners, the Tram Forum hopes to improve the procurement process, develop a standard performance for systems and standardise specification templates. Although the opportunity to become a member was turned down by DfT, an invitation will be given to attend board meetings but only in an advisory and observational role.

The four partners consist of Transport for London, The Transport Executive Group, The Confederation of Passenger Transport and the Light Rapid Transit Forum. Over the last five years the light rail concept has slowly but surely been gaining support from many quarters, support that unfortunately became somewhat ineffective following the negative response from those controlling the "purse strings".

COST ESCALATION - WHO TAKES THE BLAME ?

Diverting utilities, 92.5% of its costs, can equate to 25% of the total project costs and can be considered as an unnecessary expense for promoters to bear. There is evidence that the Utilities insist on protection in order to acquire updated assets at little cost to themselves. Trackform design is also believed by UK TRAM to be an over-engineered part of the project and certainly time consuming to install. As for the "risk factor", this appears to somewhat slanted against the contractors but unfortunately does not "come" without additional costs.

The Ten-Year Plan, at the time of its initial concept, was backed by the Deputy Prime Minister when describing the Croydon Tramlink system as transport of the 21st century (2). His slogan "Trams not Jams" (3) is no longer repeated in transport circles because some of the factors described above have already taken their toll. MPs at that time also thought of light rail as an important component in the Ten Year plan because of its perception of being more effective than the bus (4). It is also of interest to note that the media questioned why so little reference was made towards urban transit problems in the run-up to the May 2005 elections and sought answers regarding an earlier promise of 25 new tram systems (5).

LIGHT RAIL - A SLOW RISE FOLLOWED BY A SPEEDY FALL

A comprehensive study was undertaken by consultants in 1998 (6) at the request of the then Department of the Environment Transport & Regions (DETR) to investigate the "Pro's & Con's" of light rail and bus operation in an urban setting. This was probably to test the claim by bus operators that buses could do an equal job as light rail in towns and cities but at much less cost. An important discovery coming out of this investigation was that the viable cut-off point for tramway operation was lower than at first thought and further distorted by an engineering quality sometimes above operational need.

HOUSE OF COMMONS INQUIRY (7)

The Transport Sub-Committee of the House of Commons Environment, Transport & Regional Affairs Committee (1999) soon brought out some differences of opinion when Madam Chairman (Gwyneth Dunwoody) MP) questioned the value of light rail schemes against some more modest public transport schemes from all over the country. A useful exercise because an earlier witness had worked out just how many minibuses could be bought for the typical 200-m cost of a single light rail scheme. The minibus calculation appeared to be something of a "red herring" though because he did not seem to have worked out where all the drivers might come from or how these vehicles could be fitted on to available road space.

POSITIVE THINKING BALANCED AGAINST NEGATIVE ATTITUDES

The National Audit office (NAO) report displayed positive views when it called upon the DfT to remove some of the obstacles currently inhibiting local authorities from delivering light rail schemes in England (8). Being 3-m per km more expensive than systems already in operation, being detrimentally affected by bus competition and often built remote from passenger demand points, were just a few examples. There is little doubt though that a gigantic building era for tramway projects lies ahead (9) Quote: "But, some say, even with the sudden spurt of schemes, Britain isn't going to catch up for perhaps a century with the benefits enjoyed by competitor countries". Although written 5 years ago, this message assumes a greater urgency in 2005.

WARM WORDS ALONE WILL NOT DELIVER

This Government's White Paper, The Future of Transport : a Network for 2030 (10) has been described as "warm words but backward steps". It seemed to call a halt to tram schemes, encourage local authorities to close railways and substitute buses, and crucially leave the position on road building at best muddy.

As for Manchester's Metrolink phase three, the transport press (11) suggested that Alistair Darling was giving the appearance of supporting trams whilst actually in favour of dropping the plans in favour of buses.

It is significant that the House of Commons Transport Committee announced a new inquiry into the the costs and benefits of light rail in England (12). The Committee said that, despite 5 new tramway systems being opened since 1990 "Support for light rail appears to be decreasing. There are indications that the DfT now considers that investment on bus routes might be preferable to light rail". This Government hesitation has not gone unnoticed (13) with revelations that a UK system takes 4 times as long to build as in the rest of Europe. When interviewed by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, the DfT Permanent Secretary assured the Committee that the Government had not abandoned light rail (14).

CONCLUSION

Nearly everyone seems to agree that urban traffic problems along busy corridors are best handled with a tramway type light rail solution. Despite the harsh words directed at the DfT and frank admission that they had got it wrong, there is no sign of any urgency to put it right.

REFERENCES

  1. UK TRAM sets out priorities to cut project costs - LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - page 7 - 14th April 2005.
  2. LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - 13th April 2000.
  3. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - page 162 - May 2000.
  4. MPs give major boost for more light rail - TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - page 284 - August 2000;
  5. Road to defeat? - Paul Robinson - YORKSHIRE EVENING POST
  6. LIGHT RAIL AND COMPLEMENTARY MEASURES - Environmental & Transport Planning - 9 South Road, Brighton BN1 65B advertised in LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - 1st January 1999.
  7. Words in Westminster - Michael Taplin - TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - page 98 - March 2000.
  8. LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - page 1 - 22nd April 2004.
  9. Tram for a change - John Pullin - PROFESSIONAL ENGINEERING -page 39 - 5th September 2001.
  10. TRANSPORT RETORT - T2000 - page 4 - August 2004.
  11. Editorial Comment - LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - page 13 - 6th January 2005.
  12. Transport Committee puts light rail under the spotlight - LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - page 7 - 3rd February 2005.
  13. 15 YEARS TO BUILD AN LRT LINE.. RIDICULOUS SAY MPs -TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - page 172 - May 2005.
  14. Rowlands insists DfT has learnt lessons from its poor performance on light rail - LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - page 4 - 18th November 2004.
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Prepared by F A Andrews for the LRTA Development Group - June 2005

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