The Liverpool Corporation Tramways closed in Sept. 1957. Since then there have been a number of proposals for improvements in the city's public transport. Three of these got close to realisation. The LETS tramway Project got to the City Planning Committee, the second - Merseytravel’s trolleybus system - got as far as a public inquiry but was rejected by the Government, whilst the third, Merseytram, was refused funding by the Government.
Tramway assets wasted
To understand why Liverpool is in its present impasse over improving public transport and its failure to build a new tramway, it is important to know the context and specially some of the political nuances. 2007 is 50 years after the last tram ran in Liverpool, in 1957. The decision to abandon that system with its many miles of reserved tracks and a modern tram fleet was made in 1948 on the casting vote of the Conservative Lord Mayor. Abandonment was implemented despite a petition with over 250,000 signatures calling for retention. The abandoned tram network was worth over £6bn at 2007 prices. Like a juggernaut, this decision was soon rued but political face could not be risked by admitting it. Ironically as each line closed, replaced by more frequent and sometimes faster buses, patronage fell by at least 30%, a figure similar to that found in the USA.
Road to replace rail ?
A substantial part of the Merseyside urban rail network was also abandoned after the 1963 Beeching Report. Central Station was closed (although the low level remained for the Wirral electric services). Seacombe, Woodside and Exchange Stations as well as the Cheshire Lines from Central were also closed. In the brave new world that followed the publication of Government’s Report “Traffic in Towns” (1963), a network of ring and radial motorways was planned, and the new Merseyside County Council pursued these with vigour, when led by both Conservative and Labour Parties. These motorway plans came to mostly nothing, sunk by local opposition and a lack of public money. In 1974 however, a second road tunnel across the River Mersey was opened to duplicate the 1934 original. It was justified on growing car use and paid for from toll income.
The run down local rail network was improved German style, when the lines out of Exchange Station to Southport, Ormskirk and Kirkby were extended southwards in a tunnel under the city centre to link with the reopened line from Central Station to Hunts Cross in 1977. At the same time in 1977 the Wirral lines were extended in a Loop around the city centre to connect with the Link. A new station at Moorfields replaced Exchange, and has a pedestrian tunnel to the Old Hall Street commercial centre. New underground stations were built at Lime Street, to connect with the main line station, and at deep level at Central to connect with the Link line. Optimism about train travel led to this being signaled for 24 trains an hour. The present maximum is 12. In spite of a £100m pa subsidy, Merseyrail carries about 2% of passenger trips on Merseyside, less than (unsubsidised) taxis.
The municipal bus system, directly descended from the abandoned tramway had a shock when the Conservative Government deregulated bus services in 1986. Operators were invited to compete in order to reduce the then massive bus subsidy. On Merseyside the privatised National Bus Company subsidiaries fared differently. Ribble renamed Northwestern (Roadcar) Company, converted long distance country routes into intensive urban services to compete with Merseybus. NW was bought by the new national Group Arriva. Crosville sadly failed in the new competitive climate, and went bust. Four ambitious Merseybus drivers mortgaged their houses and bought ten secondhand buses and started Fareway, which operated in the north of Liverpool. This quickly grew to have a fleet of 70, offering a service very different from the public sector ethos of Merseybus, which was privatised in 1991 as an employee buy out. Fareway created a good image and won a large part of the north Liverpool market, so Merseybus bought Fareway and closed it down. A short time later Merseybus went bust, and was bought by Arriva. CMT another local bus company was started by the Grant family, whose red buses were a familiar sight, and this was merged with Glenvale operating out of Gillmoss Depot, a part of Merseybus that Arriva could not buy. The 250 bus Glenvale was bought by Stagecoach in 2006. Today unsubsidised buses carry about 15% of all Merseyside trips. Some of the corridors into Liverpool carry more passengers than the whole of Merseyrail. Nonetheless the car is king, with about 70% of work journeys being by car, even into central Liverpool.
Attempt to build a tramway
In 1994 the Liverpool Light Rail Group (LLRG) was formed by Powergen, Northwestern, Merseybus, MPTE, Liverpool Airport and TRAM Power. LLRG looked at the options for privately funded tramways on Merseyside. Quickly a promising specimen Line between the City Centre and Speke/Airport was selected for detailed studies. These included a Feasibility Report, considering 62 routing options, prepared by Scott Hellewell and Co., and a Business Plan, looking at the capital and 30 year operating costs, prepared by Ernst and Young. That concluded it was commercially viable and the required Capital could be raised from private sources.
Guided trolleybus crashes
Labour controlled MPTE then pulled out of the group, and began to promote a Guided Trolleybus line to Prescott. Meanwhile LLRG turned itself into the Liverpool Electric Transport Systems Ltd (LETS), raised substantial private funds and submitted in 1998 an application for planning permission to Liberal-Democrat controlled Liverpool City Council. MPTE submitted over 20 objections to this proposal, which was turned down in October 1999. Had it been approved a tram line would have been opened by 2003.
MPTE’s guided trolley bus was based on the untested wire guidance system, which came to grief in 2000 at the London Millennium Dome. Costs quickly rose as it was realised that buses guided over the same road continuously would destroy the existing surface and need instead a concrete track. A dedicated concrete track required the relocation of utility pipes, ducts and cables, little different from tramway tracks ? The Guided Trolleybus Line to Prescott was promoted by Merseytravel, as the most viable potential line on Merseyside. The project was however turned down by the Government in 2000, which also introduced a new system to justify local public spending on transport, with the Local Transport Plan (LTP).
LETS and LTP
LETS expanded its work on a privately funded tramway to Speke/Airport, by considering a ten line network to serve the whole area, including a line across the Mersey using the 1934 road tunnel, making practical a route between Arrowe Park Hospital via the centres of Birkenhead and Liverpool to Speke/Airport. Of the ten lines considered, a core four line starter network was offered to the LTP, extending the LETS line to the Airport, which was included in the first LTP. This was blocked by Merseytravel, which also engineered the removal of the sympathetic Chairman from St. Helens, who was replaced by the Director General and Chief Executive of Merseytravel.
Merseytravel and Merseytram
In 2002 Merseytravel began promoting Merseytram, on a line to Kirkby, not the more viable line advocated for the Guided Trolleybus to Prescott. Merseytram costs escalated from £225 million to £330million. The idea of a tramway already advanced by LETS was generally acceptable. Merseytram (now called Line One) was to run from central loops via London Road, past the Royal Liverpool Hospital and then on to Kirkby and a terminus close to the existing bus station but some distance from the Merseyrail station. The line was to be12 miles long and expected to cost £225m with £170m coming from Central Government.
This alignment however seemed to be designed to upset the maximum number of people, with the need to demolish a number of pubs (important institutions in Liverpool) and rows of houses. Merseytravel also planned to chop down a stand of nearly 200 year old mature trees on Muirhead Avenue, where there was only an infrequent bus service. On Utting Avenue however the plan was to run in the carriageway to “save” 50 year old trees, which had grown in the abandoned tramway reservation. Utting Avenue also had intensive (competitor) Arriva and Glenvale Bus services, to be squeezed with general traffic into one lane, reclaimed from displaced residents parking. This created another big public backlash. Glenvale was threatened with a Compulsory Purchase Order to take part of its Gillmoss Bus Depot, so that the tram line could run through it. The tram depot was to use part of the old English Electric Factory site on the East Lancs Road. Few people could understand why a depot for 21 trams needed to be twice as big as the Merseyrail Kirkdale depot for 56 three car train sets.
Merseytravel hoped the Government would fund Merseytram Line One with a £170 million grant. The funding gap was to be filled with borrowing, and the privatisation of the tolled Merseytunnels.
Relations with the local bus companies, which Labour controlled Merseytravel is campaigning to re regulate and would like to deprivatise, have never been very good. Arriva bid to be the Merseytram Operator but was not selected, one day after the last day that it could register as an objector to Merseytram. This was seen as a cheap manoeuvre to prevent one of the major transport companies being an objector. At the Public Inquiry Merseytravel admitted that as well as needing a capital grant, Merseytram would need a £10million pa operating subsidy, on optimistic passenger and revenue forecasts.
Merseytravel expanded its proposals to a three line tramway system, the Public Inquiry for the first line started on April 20th 2004, and finished on 1st June 2004, and by Christmas Merseytravel had its Transport and Works Act Powers to build Line One. Line Two was to run via Knotty Ash and Page Moss to Prescot and Whiston Hospital. The line would be 9 miles long and was expected to cost £200m to build, including 22 trams. The first stage of public consultation started and continued until the 3rd. September 2004. The consultation leaflet can be downloaded from the Merseytram website (www.merseytram.co.uk) where there is also an online questionnaire. Line Three was proposed to run down Smithdown Road and then split with two legs running to the airport via different routes.
New contractor appointed:
Following a failure to agree the construction contract with Balfour Beatty, the contract was re advertised with the result that a new contractor was selected and was due to be finalised by May 9th 2004. The new contractor was Laing O'Rourke (the main contractor on the £800m private Grosvenor retail development on Paradise Street, through which line one was planned to run. Light rail specialist Grant Rail was contracted to construct the 11-mile route from Liverpool to Kirkby in a collaboration known as M-Pact. Work was due to start on July 1st. 2004 but the Government did not release the funding.
City of Culture 2008 and a link to airport ?
A suggestion by city councillors, calling for the airport link to be brought forward in time for the City of Culture year 2008. This was proposed by merging lines two and three, and caused consternation to the two bidders, Met and M-Tram. They were concerned about increased costs arising from the uncertainty. As a result they did not submit bids before the expiry of the deadline.
A council spokesman said that the suggestion made by Liverpool City Council's Executive Board was merely an opinion put forward as part of the consultation process. Talks to resolve the situation resulted in the Council retracting on 8 October its proposal for a change in the route. This did not satisfied one of the bidders - M-Tram, which withdrew saying that the project was too much of a risk, to embark on because of Liverpool council's last minute calls for a re-route. That left just one bidder - MET - to meet the revised deadline of 16 October 2004.
The funding gap
In the run up to the 2005 General Election, the Government failed to confirm the funding for Merseytram but did give Merseytravel £4million for further studies. These arose from the Public Inquiry, which was held after the National Audit Office published its critical Report on Light Rail in 2004. Part of the reason for the high costs was the complex city centre network of 4 connected loops, needing four expensive 3 way junctions, to service a 3 platform terminal station at Kings Dock (for at most a 5 min frequency service). The comprehensive utility diversion required coupled with the City’s preparations for 2008 Capital of Culture must surely have been part of the reason for strained relations between the authorities., not to mention that Merseytravel was Labour Controlled and the City Council Liberal-Democrat.
Two consortia were selected for the final bidding process. They were M-Tram (Mitsubishi/Serco/Nedrail) and Keolis/PB. The winner was expected to be announced in June 2004, but was been put back to the end of the 2004 so that the two preferred consortia could bid for Lines 1 and 2 together, on the logic of sharing costs to reduce those for Line 1.. It was hoped that construction would start in early 2005. Mr. Scales DG and CEO of Merseytravel announced that Merseytram would open in Sept. 2007, 50 years after the original tramway closed. Then as the Government delayed a decision on funding, this slipped until it was impossible for Mersetram to open in time for 2008.
Had Merseytram been opened in time for the Capital of Culture Year, one wag joked that Merseytravel would coach the tourists arriving at the Airport to Kirkby, so they could travel into the City Centre by tram. There was concern that any slippage would cause disruption during Liverpool's Capital of Culture year in 2008. On the back of his success in promoting Merseytram, Mr. Scales was appointed late in 2005 as a Director of Labour controlled Edinburgh Council’s Transport Initiative Company (TIE).
In mid 2006 the Government pulled the plug on Merseytram, as well as the Leeds Supertram and South Hants light rail lines. Coincidentally the core authorities were run by different parties from the national Labour Government, which at the same time gave amber lights to tramway projects in Labour run Birmingham and Manchester. Merseytravel threatened a Judicial Review of the Government decision, but backed down and has been trying to put together piecemeal proposals to spend the £170million, that had been requested from Central Government. One such project was the merger of Garston and Allerton Stations using a redundant football pitch for an interchange Liverpool Park Southway Station, with bus stands and 250 car parking spaces. Justified at £5.5million, the out turn cost was £38million, and now handles 5000 passengers pd (1.5m pa)
Mini tram plans
In early 2007 another private company offered Merseytravel a mini tram system between the Airport and the new Interchange station. This was based on the flywheel powered trams developed by John Parry. The DG and CEO of Merseytravel said that he welcomed the offer. So the company spent considerable sums on working this up to a serious proposal. A week before a follow up meeting in April, Merseytravel announced plans for bus lanes between the Airport and Interchange Station. The meeting lasted 10minutes as angry Company executives told Mr. Scales what he could do with his bus lanes.
Between 2005 and 2007, Labour was the largest party but needed the support of the Conservatives to control the 18 seat Merseytravel. At the 2007 local elections, Labour only won 7 seats, the Liberal-Democrats 9 and Conservatives 2 seats. Labour could retain control of Merseytravel with the support of the Conservatives, and the casting vote of the Chairman. The AGM of Merseytravel is due to be held on 28th June, when this will be decided. A Liberal-Democrat controlled Merseytravel is likely to have fewer points of conflict with the Liberal-Democrat controlled City Council ?