Light Rail Transit Association - UK Development Group 

 Discussion Document No 032

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

August 2005 

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IS IT "HIGH NOON" FOR LIGHT RAIL TRANSIT?

INTRODUCTION

With no construction being undertaken (at the time of writing) on any light rail project or extension in Britain, a question needs to be asked about the attitude of the Government towards light rail. Usually a positive answer is given but unfortunately, actions speak louder than words. Any Government anywhere supposedly follows public opinion but with most activities centred around the motor car and other road based movements, it becomes so easy to pour money into roads at the expense of transit. This trend is not restricted to Britain with its pro-motoring public (and by default) tends to overlook the basic needs of transit passengers.

WAS THE 42ND STREET PLAN IN NEW YORK BEFORE ITS TIME?

This well known thoroughfare had a trolley service from 1898 to 1946 but it wasn't until 1978 that the idea of putting back a light rail streetcar service first surfaced. After much debate, the City Council in 1994 gave overwhelming approval to the project, a move which permitted a contractor to be appointed (1). This project eventually lost its way and was quietly aborted. If it had gone ahead, passengers would have been travelling in 300 capacity low-floor trams which a study had indicated would cost no more to operate than buses but with the added advantage of carrying three times the number of passengers, reducing travel time and lowering traffic accidents. Extensions at both ends would have taken the service to the Hudson and East River ferries taking the route length to 4-km. One of the proposals was to close 42nd Street completely, whilst the other would have taken only three of the six lanes. The cost of moving the utilities though was probably the real reason for not going ahead with it. Since the aborted plan, many new light rail systems have opened in New Jersey, all geographically below the Hudson River (Hudson-Bergen, Camden-Trenton, Newark's extension and a proposed new Heritage Tramway in Bayonne) and transport experts may have hoped their mere presence would have positively influenced the New York public. Unfortunately the average American motorist prefers to preserve as much road space as possible and this is clearly shown in the next section.

FUNDS FOUND AND SPENT BUT THE LINE REMAINED CLOSED

This fairly substantial investment (USD 85-m) in restoring Philadelphia's antique route 15 trolley line was thought to be well worth the money and very much in tune with current transport thinking. To some motorists though, the sacrifice of a few parking spaces so as not to obstruct the trolley was too a high price to pay. Legal or otherwise, the residents along this restored line have become used to road side parking on both sides of the street in question since the trolley ceased in 1992. It has now become a battle of wills with a compromise the only way forward. The idle fleet of antique trams, costing USD 24-m to refurbish, currently sit every day in a shed gathering dust (2). The Director of the Girard Avenue coalition commented: "Other cities, like Houston, are digging up the whole city just to put in a trolley line and here, we already have one and we know that trolleys, where they have been tried, have brought an immediate improvement in the business community.”

A TRANSIT WIN IN TORONTO

Construction of the St Clair Avenue West Transit Improvement project can now go ahead following rejection of an appeal of the TTC'S Government Study Report. The improvement will include new track, passenger shelters, new street lighting, bicycle parking, new trees and public art (3). These very benefits should help to provide a quality ambience.

LEEDS - 15 YEARS OF WASTE ON SUPERTRAM (4).

This project was effectively put on the scrap heap when a vital decision on its future was indefinitely delayed (5). The fear that the power to compulsory purchase pockets of land for Supertram tracks will shortly run out is now almost certain to happen. Has High-Noon been and gone? Yorkshire motorists, not openly hostile to Supertram, found that the Government was allowing the Council to invest money in light rail transit as well as backing road schemes but seemingly itself only in favour of road expansion. This was revealed in a BBC Look North program on 27th July 2005. Supertram's demise was correctly reported as affected by inflated construction costs. In the same bulletin it was noted that Yorkshire's road development costs had suffered in almost the same way but had nevertheless gone ahead.

CONCLUSION

Whilst transit and road construction costs are treated differently our problems with road congestion will grow· steadily worse. Many people drive cars because a suitable transit alternative is just not available. True, bus services are often suggested by the DfT but, if they continue to be adjusted to service demands then their downward spiral will continue.

REFERENCES

  1. Sewe1l Chan - NEW YORK TIMES - 18th April 2005.
  2. PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS ON SEPTA ROUTE 15. - 8th June 2005.
  3. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - page 319 - August 2005.
  4. Editorial Opinion - YORKSHIRE EVENING POST - 27th July 2005.
  5. Paul Robinson & Anne Alexander YORSHIRE EVENING POST - 27/7/05.
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Prepared by F A Andrews for the LRTA Development Group - August 2005

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