Light Rail Transit Association - UK Development Group 

 Discussion Document No 035

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

November 2005 

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WHY IS BRITAIN NOT READY FOR LIGHT RAIL?

INTRODUCTION

Was the 1992 start for Metrolink in Manchester a bit ahead of its time in this highly motorised nation of ours ?

Yes and no

Although it is well used it is unable to take advantage of its popularity, held back by national attitudes that favour less costly forms of transport. If Metrolink had not been a rail based system, known speculation suggests that expansion funds could by now have been made available (1). Quote :"...the cost of 39 national road schemes has spiralled by £1.3-bn and yet the Government appears to be more than happy to accept and cover such cost increases without batting an eyelid, but remains unwilling to cover even the smallest cost increases on existing rail and light rail projects let alone countenance new projects, has led us to question yet again the fallacy that is its so called INTEGRATED TRANSPORT POLICY". (The capitals are ours)

ONE SMALL STEP AT A TIME ?

A continual struggle between the priorities for more road building as against meagre light rail expansion has been a fact of life for many years in USA. Those advocates in UK of Supertram schemes may well be somewhat surprised at the American urban light rail successes when viewed against our current (at time of writing) zero expansion rate.

first step in America is often a heritage type tram mounted on equipment salvaged from vehicles at the end of their commercial life. This has been successful principally because "first generation" technology is still capable of a good performance and becomes available with a moderate price tag. Beamish for example would probably never have "got off the ground" if light rail standards had been adopted instead of a first generation tramway. Those remembering our tram days will recall that the few post-war built trams could, even today, almost equal a modern LRV when working on a typical urban type service. The "heritage" explosion in USA is too extensive to quote in this discussion document but a few successful examples will he given later.

KENOSHA (WINCONSIN), A PARTICULARLY GOOD EXAMPLE (2)

This small city of about 90,000 people (about 70 miles north west of Chicago) has operated a 2.7-km streetcar loop since 2000 to connect a commuter rail line with down-town attractions. The service is provided with 5 refurbished Toronto PCC (Presidents Conference Committee) cars, each converted from Toronto's broad gauge to standard by refitting with trucks from a group of just retired Chicago rapid transit cars. From APTA's Heritage trolley and streetcar website, the entire project was completed for the astonishingly low cost of about $5-m ($2.2-m/km at 2000 prices). Some advantages of this low-cost start are an ability to be expanded later beyond the CBD, to be particularly useful as a circulator distribution system and also lend itself to an inclusion of park and ride sites.

REPLICA STREETCARS IN CHARLOTTE (NORTH CAROLINA)

Approved by voters in 1998, Charlotte is now planning a transit orientated system consisting of 17.7-km of heritage tramway, 33.8-km of light rail, 48.3-km of commuter heavy rail and buses operating in 5 corridors (3). Although the light rail system will not be operational until 2007 (the last tram ran in 1938), the heritage line on its 3.5-km corridor between uptown Charlotte and the historic Southend district will become the line of a future light rail corridor. The single line track has teen built to light rail standards. Heritage operation was possible because of economies made by operating with some replica streetcars built by Gomaco.

A BRIEF SAMPLE OF SOME HERITAGE SUCESSES

PHILADELPHIA (Pennsylvania) refurbished track on the former Girard Avenue route and restored 18 PCC heritage trams so that a tram service could operate after a gap of nearly 10 years.

SAN FRANCISCO (California) gradually reopened the Market Street line and extended it to Fisherman's Wharf. A huge fleet of Heritage trams service this route but its tremendous success meant an urgent world-wide search for more rolling stock.

TAMPA (Florida) reopened a 3.7-km heritage tram service in 2002 with 7 replica Birney type trams. The last tram had run in 1946.

LITTLE ROCK (Arkansas) opened its 3.5-km heritage line in 2004 with 3 historic type trams.

MEMPHIS (Tennessee) opened its 3.8-km heritage tramway in 1992 with a mixture of historic trams.

NEW ORLEANS (Louisiana) recently reopened a former tram route after many years of bus operation. An unusual feature here is the building of new trams to a historic body design but equipped with modern technical gear.

All these heritage type lines are reported to be a success and often a precursor to an upgrade and appropriate extension to light rail standards.

BRITAIN AT THE TRANSIT CROSSROADS

Local authorities, professional transit planners and potential passengers, must be very frustrated at the Government's continual support for light rail type operation (when asked) but then taking an opposite view at the eleventh hour when funds are being sought. Unlike USA, our first generation tramway schemes have been either museum based or, in the case of Blackpool, tourist orientated. Some light rail schemes in Britain have so far had a fair amount of urban type operation and with a performance very close to our post-war built trams which obviously would have a much lower price tag. Whether or not replica post-war trams modified in carrying capacity could be recognised as heritage vehicles by DfT is open to speculation but after all, Leeds 602 is a similar vintage to the PCC.

CONCLUSION

Although a heritage type service may (in transit terms) be regarded as a stepping stone, it could also be viewed as a lifeline to keep the tramway concept alive. A perfect living example of this is available in Adelaide (South Australia).

REFERENCES

  1. ENTRAIN, Platform 5 Publishing Ltd - page 5 - November 2005.

  2. Heritage streetcar systems - effectively developing the potential of a re-emerging light rail mode for urban transit -a paper by Lyndon Henry submitted for presentation to APTA's (American Public Transportation Association) June 2005 rail transit conference in Pittsburgh - edited and expanded with the permission of the author by LIGHT RAIL(UK) LTD. Warrington Cheshire

  3. Light Rail Arrives in Charlotte - William D Middleton - RAILWAY GAZETTE INTERNATIONAL - page 621 to 624 - October 2005.

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

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