Light Rail Transit Association - UK Development Group 

 Discussion Document No 034

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

October 2005 

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LIGHT RAIL : "IF YOU CAN'T BEAT EM', JOIN EM'"

INTRODUCTION

This grammatically incorrect but well known saying may seem a little strange when used in connection with light rail but it is the perfect fit for a current trend in transit planning : If plan "A" is rejected then switch to what might be referred to as plan "B".

Defeated in court, those not in favour of light rail in Houston (Texas) appear to have returned for a second "bite at the cherry". Only Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in Houston appears to justify FTA (Federal Transit Administration) funding with conversion to light rail being undertaken at a later date. Although not what voters had approved earlier, the lower initial cost of BRT makes the suggestion look attractive. (Sound familiar?)

"CONVERTIBLE TRANSIT" (1)

This short-term BRT approach for future extensions with a later change to light rail appears to have gained official support. Legal rulings in favour of light rail during the earlier BRT - LRT debate was summed up at the time with some strong newspaper comment (2) which also drew attention to some false claims by opponents to light rail.

The heading was : "ENOUGH POLITICAL POSTURING .... JUST BUILD IT".

In short, this was the general attitude during the earlier design phase however with the delayed Ground Breaking plans now permitted to continue, the starter line could now go on to completion. 74% of citizens had after all voted for light rail which was later reflected in the public response when an early patronage figure of 11,000 per day jumped to 29,000 per day before the system had even reached its first birthday.

It will be interesting to see if the earlier public acceptance with light rail will continue with BRT.

BRT EXTENSIONS AT LOWER COST

The success of Houston's light rail starter line apparently generated an urge to speed-up development along the proposed transit corridors, made possible by changing to BRT. Right or wrong will probably not be known until the buses need to be replaced and a quality light rail system will then only be justified if BRT has succeeded in attracting an improved patronage figure. Plenty of proof does exist, not only in Houston but world-wide that trams do attract motorists and nearly always to a level that has justified the initial light rail investment. This then casts some doubt on the wisdom of initially using low-cost BRT instead of light rail transit from "day-one".

This view point is strengthened by the well known fact that buses have a much lower appeal to motorists and a "bus first tram second" approach has every likelihood of the transit route and its vehicles being stuck in a bus lane permanently.

WHAT YOU SEE IS "NOT" WHAT YOU GET

Some BRT projects may use vehicles disguised as trams, which could be regarded as somewhat flattering to the tramway image and probably able to "fool" a few passengers. As most residents of hilly communities have already discovered, a few inches of snow will soon sort out these tram vehicle "look-alikes" from the real thing.

QUOTES FROM TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT

"Figures prove it - buses just can't do the job" (3)

"Busways and its vehicles are in most cases cheaper to construct but offer lower capacity and quality".

"UK light rail schemes typically persuade 20% of motorists to leave their cars at home while bus upgrades only achieve 4-6.5%" (4).

INTEGRATED OPERATION

When a modal change simply cannot be avoided, it is interesting to note the engineering techniques now used to help a passenger make a vehicle change as easy as possible. Germany has led the field in putting the passenger first and has only made it necessary to change vehicle when absolutely necessary.

LIVE EXAMPLES

A route change in Dresden (5) has used a paved-over stretch of tram track to permit a bus "to dock at a tram platform".

Zwickau has used a tram route to give access to the CBD for a train that has a railway type profile. Trevor Griffin in his "HI TRANS" article has suggested that railway rolling- stock through streets should be made more "tram-like".

Mannheim has used the curb guided bus principal to overcome difficulties at a busy road junction. A segregated tramway, parallel to the bus route, was paved-over right up to this junction to permit the bus to approach traffic lights without queuing in traffic.

The many techniques used in Germany (tram/train/bus) to encourage people to use public transport have proved the need to spend money to make the system attractive. The methodology proposed for Houston will undoubtedly save money initially but will it achieve the objective of attracting the motorist?

HOUSTON REVISITED

This city is at a transit crossroads and although enjoying some light rail successes, is changing to a lower-cost transit mode and hoping to maintain the momentum created by the starter line. A stated intention though with the BRT planning is to include some light rail technology. This could assist fund raising later if the bus services attract enough passengers.

CONCLUSION

BRT is generally acknowledged as lacking the capacity and attraction of light rail but when a quality rail application cannot be initially justified it remains to be seen whether or not Houston can buck the trend.

REFERENCES

  1. RAILWAY AGE - page 17 - August 2005.
  2. THE HOUSTON CRONICLE - 11th February 2001 - Sunday 4 star Edition.
  3. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - page 201 - Letter by Professor Maurits Van Witsen - May 2005.
  4. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - page 286 - Why tram? Nothing else does the job so well! - Jonathon Bray, Assistant Director of PTEG - July 2005.
  5. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT – page 350 – Photo of a bus in Dresden docking at a tram platform – Trevor Griffin “Hi-Trans” article – September 2005.

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

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