Light Rail Transit Association - UK Development Group 

 FACT SHEET No 105

AUGUST 2000 

TESTING TIME FOR LIGHT RAIL

INTRODUCTION

The successful launch in May 2000 after months of shadow working through the streets of Croydon permitted a curious public to sample and form an opinion on their new transport system. The many months of shadow working must have seemed like years to the bewildered residents but their patience was amply rewarded as was indicated by a healthy public response. Despite early efforts during the design stage to gain public acceptance, probably not as thorny as certain other places in Britain, TRAMLINK had to run a gauntlet of vociferous critics right up to the day that fare paying passengers were carried. Two very important changes in public attitude on the "start up" date destroyed many of the "not wanted" myths (1), changes that quickly silenced this vocal minority as commuters and shoppers made spectacular use of the trams (2).

ATTITUDE CHANGE IN GOVERNMENT CIRCLES

Light rail in Britain has probably lost a few years of technical development because of the actions of sceptics at "high levels", sceptics that have scorned light rail's ability to provide not only an alternative choice for motorists but also to play a more positive role in the "stick or carrot" saga (3). Even before Britain's very first 2nd. generation tramway had been guaranteed Section 56 funding, new obstacles in the form of bus deregulation blurred light rail's potential contribution, obstacles that made it procedurally impossible for the then Department of Transport to do anything other than scrutinise the grant application (4). The Deputy Prime Minister and other members of his transportation team have continually stressed that bus-based options for improved public transport were likely to be the only ones the Government could afford. This was the stated attitude following the commitment to Nottingham (5).

It is difficult to say when the fortunes of light rail changed for the better in Britain but a DETR (Department of Environment, Transport and Regions) defensive comment of mid-1999 could be of significance "The views of the Department had been misinterpreted". If there was any doubt about the current stance taken by the Deputy Prime Minister on light rail, it was dispelled by a full page devoted to his visit to Croydon and subsequent ride on Tramlink, "Prescott backs light rail - it's official" (6).

WORLDWIDE, THE BATTLE HAS JUST BEGUN

After much preliminary work which involved some fairly costly tendering procedures by internationally well known consortia, the Queensland Government "pulled the plug" on the Brisbane light rail project (7) but decided that only the busway project should continue.

Orlando (Florida) has also led a somewhat turbulent path with on/off light rail plans that on each occasion had a variation. The end result was rejection with planners once again returning to that proverbial drawing board. Funding appears to have been a major problem, made more acute by the strong spending on road projects.

Los Angeles (California) managed to start a building programme for both light rail and underground projects but soon ran into problems, mainly with civil engineering difficulties with the underground work. Encouragement to continue with rail projects despite the withdrawal of certain funding came from the Long Beach light rail line which was now carrying high passenger loads. The opening of the Red Line Metro extension to North Hollywood attracted more than one million passengers in its first week of operation. Work has now started on an extension of the light rail line to Pasadena.

Dallas (Texas) proved that the general opinion that "You'd never get a Texan to leave a car at home and take light rail" was far from correct. Over ten years ago voters there rejected a 93 mile (15Okm) plan, a move which could have permanently "killed-off" light rail in Texas. Instead, planners scaled back the scheme to 44 miles (70km) and were then able to proceed with the help of some Federal aid. Ridership is now exceeding expectations and the system is now one of the most busily expanding lines in the country.

METRO NEEDS LIGHT RAIL BACKUP

Several German towns embarked on a plan that would have gradually transferred tram passengers to underground metro services which appeared to have the object of clearing the streets of most public transport vehicles. The theory no doubt was that underground services without traffic congestion would be quicker than surface trams. Passengers soon found out though that this speed advantage was mainly useful for the longer distance interurban passengers with the convenience of easy access for short distance passengers missing. Some cities actually experienced riots over this very issue and had to change their policies.

München (Munich), Nüremberg and Frankfurt were three major cities that reversed their tram scrapping plans but only after politicians and citizens had joined forces to demand retention.

Bonn is another German town that, despite a considerable "spend" on putting its interurban tram services underground, decided to retain the convenience of its surface tram routes, now fully operated with low-floor trams.

Hamburg and Berlin fall into a totally different category with the former fully removing its trams but now planning to bring them back. Former West Berlin also completely eliminated its tram routes but, with the "Wall" now down, is allowing the tracks from the east to spread westwards.

The position in Essen is somewhat complex. At one time it looked as though a combination of standard gauge interurban LRV's and guided buses would eventually eliminate any need to retain the metre gauge local trams. This in fact did not happen and the present day policy is to modernise both its standard and metre gauge tram systems.

CONCLUSION

This fact sheet has highlighted the successes usually achieved by light rail projects when funding sources and political sources cooperate with each other. On paper a project may need a subsidy in its early stages but, with so many other important factors needing consideration, the profit motive needs to be relegated such that it is no longer the prime factor (8).

REFERENCES

  1. TRAMLINK opponents have come under fire for deliberately setting out to run the project down by spreading false stories about the disruption that building work is causing in the town. CROYDON ADVERTISER - 20th June 1997.
  2. Saturday loadings on TRAMLINK were recorded as 20 000. 100 000 extra shoppers per week are making use of the Whitgift Shopping Centre ~ TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - August 2000 - page 285.
  3. Buses are not attracting passengers. Transport statistics for metropolitan areas 2000 - Total bus passenger journeys fell 3% from 1998 to 1999 - Local Transport Today - 3 August 2000.
  4. "SHIFTING THE GOALPOSTS" - MANCHESTER METROLINK by David Holt (page 21) - Published by Platform 5 Publishing Ltd.
  5. Provided that a strong case can be made that no other cheaper transit alternative would be acceptable - Tramways & Urban Transit - June 1999 - page 207.
  6. A DETR news release - 6th April 2000 - reported in Tramways & Urban Transit - May 2000 - page 162.
  7. For more details see LRTA UKDG Fact Sheet No 104. - LIGHT RAIL SCHEME SIDETRACKED - August 2000.
  8. The DLR (Docklands Light Railway) benefit evaluation showed that a busway would perform better than the light rail system. The DLR was eventually chosen because of its better image and would also encourage development - House of Commons Environment and Regional Affairs Committee - Eighth Report - LIGHT RAPID TRANSIT SYSTEMS - 24th May 2000 - page 177.
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