Light Rail Transit Association - UK Development Group 

 FACT SHEET No 106

SEPTEMBER 2000 

LIGHT RAIL - HOW REAL WERE THE PROBLEMS?

INTRODUCTION

Although Manchester pioneered a new generation of light rail transit it managed to escape much of the criticism later piled onto Sheffield's Supertram. To try and understand what triggered this anomaly, this Fact Sheet will take a closer look at some of the factors leading up to these less than friendly labels attached to Sheffield. Questions that need answering are: were they justified and could they have been avoided?

Although the contents of this Fact Sheet have been limited to published data by transport engineers, planners, consultants or A.N.Other, the different techniques (car commuters/shoppers to Supertram in Sheffield and railway passengers plus motorists in Manchester) will be examined in quite some detail. Because of the different approach, each valid in its own way, the author found meaningful explanations somewhat difficult to present and it would seem valid to comment that a common approach in either city was the exception rather than the rule.

MANCHESTER's PATH TOWARDS METROLINK

In the mid-seventies, Manchester's aspirations were towards a heavy underground rail connection known as the PICC-VIC scheme. Heavy construction costs combined with publicity then coming into Britain from Europe about rising metro costs and environmental damage (1) helped to contribute towards its well publicised rejection. A review of alternative schemes pointed the way towards an upgraded but ground-level tramway, and out of this was born METROLINK. A decision of this nature was made much easier following many other negative reports, one of which, now reflected worldwide, was a steady increase in crime associated with underground operation.

Another less known factor in Manchester was the increasingly onerous duty under section 20 of the 1968 Transport Act requiring support for essential but unprofitable and certainly unimproved local railway services (2). This financial drain also put some urgency into making a decision on future transport direction. The choice of a light rail Metrolink, especially as it was the first of its kind in the UK, was indeed a bold decision and had this change in transport direction not occurred when it did then Manchester could still have been faced with a need to find a solution. Those involved with decision making in Manchester now readily agree that the cheaper light rail option has not only proved itself but has spectacularly "come of age". Surprisingly, in different parts of Western Europe there are still pressures to convert sections of surface tramways to underground operation despite plenty of evidence to the contrary now coming out of Manchester. The reasons for this pressure are far from clear and experts with transport experience have been brutally frank in their published reasons for suggesting that the interests of passengers would be better served by surface operation (3).

SYPTE's PLANNING TEAM RECOMMENDED SUPERTRAM

Although the mid-70's review by the Sheffield and Rotherham Land Use Transportation Study (SRLUTS) looked at bus and rail based solutions, the tram was becoming a firm favourite. Also under investigation was a unique system called MINITRAM, actually a people-mover which could best be described as a small driverless electric vehicle on an elevated guideway needing lifts, escalators or just steps to reach its stations (4).

As in Manchester, once a decision had been made, route planning proceeded fairly quickly leading to that obligatory BILL in Parliament. Because of official objectors (ie : a residents group and National Car Parks) and doubt about Sheffield City Council's attitude, the BILL needed to be adjourned on two occasions. This was added to with further difficulties when passing through the LORDS. Despite further Government legislation (5) it was concluded that there was still an economic case for Supertram.

DIVERTING PUBLIC UTILITIES

When street operation with Supertrams or LRVs is planned the first visible sign that the public has, is work to divert apparatus belonging to the public utilities. Contractual obligations associated with these works are very complicated and not always fully understood by road users and the public generally. For many reasons this diversionary work must be carried out well in advance of the main track laying contract. Unexpected delays, such as long deliveries of essential apparatus, cannot be allowed to hold up the main contractor. This kind of delay, although it frustrates engineers, is resented very strongly by diverted motorists. Unfortunately it is difficult, even with lengthy forward planning, to obviate at least some of the traffic disruption, especially the problems associated with tying together the legalities of separate contracts. It should be noted though that there is an absence of contractual relationship when the public utilities are carrying out their statutory duties. Highway works, necessary for traffic movement, fall under a separate contract, a contract that cannot be finalised during the planning process.

In the case of METROLINK, the weight and vibration of a moving tram did not show-up as needing special provision at sub-base level and were certainly no greater than would be expected from a heavy goods vehicle. The decision therefore to move apparatus was actually as a means to provide access to pipes and cables without disrupting METROLINK operations (6).

STRAY CURRENT AND CORROSION

Power fed to the trams through overhead cables and then through the motors on its way back to the sub-station produces a number of leakage problems. There is always a danger that part of this return current could find an easier path via the earth when it offers less resistance than the tram rails. If such a return route includes a series of pipes etc. then electrolytic corrosion can result at points where current crosses from one to another. Because stray currents are so unpredictable, a working party was set up to produce a specification designed to minimise the effect of current leakage. However it was agreed that the utility diversions would not be judged on the basis of attempting to prevent stray currents. Because the streets through which METROLINK was to run were fixed long before the details of the utilities apparatus were known, there was little opportunity to mitigate costs by altering the return route to avoid apparatus.

ENVIRONMENTAL EFFECTS (MANCHESTER)

To ensure that METROLINK harmonised insofar as is possible with its surroundings, particularly in conservation areas and near listed buildings, aesthetically suitable materials were used for the overhead wiring and other infrastructure items, such as the track bed. To avoid extensive maintenance the materials used were chosen to be capable of providing long term reliability. Indeed, traffic management measures in many parts of the central zone have improved the environment and considerably improved benefits for pedestrians and public transport users alike. Many of the existing junctions on the route now take reduced traffic flows and a large proportion of the route has been relieved from general traffic.

In planning and subsequent preparation nothing was left to chance which culminated in the first phase of METROLINK opening during 1992. For instance the track slab construction method used made rapid progress and this in turn reduced the site occupation time permitting a quick return to a tidy street.

NECESSARY CHANGES TO BUS OPERATIONS (MANCHESTER)

The bus operators were drawn into the planning process at a very early stage. An interesting trade-off was negotiated whereby a loss of commercial opportunity was balanced by potential in other parts of the city centre. By coordinating all the bus changes well ahead of the main construction works, the passengers and operators alike could be familiar with the temporary arrangements in good time. Sheffield had difficulties with bus operators who would not integrate their services with the tram.

AFFECT ON STREET LIFE DURING CONSTRUCTION OF METROLINK

Necessary changes to one's normal routines during track construction were expected to create a significant impact on all forms of street life in Central Manchester, an impact that was softened somewhat by traffic modelling management measures. A "SATURN" computer model (a sophisticated management method of analysing traffic schemes) gave predictions of likely future traffic problems following prohibited movements. Changes though do have "knock on" effects and anticipated new traffic flows particularly at junctions, helped to focus attention on the preliminary measures already provided to avoid unnecessary traffic congestion. Commuters travelling across Manchester to access car parks created very complex traffic movements, movements that do not necessarily have fixed routes which in effect means that routes can be altered to fit the traffic conditions at the time. In the recent past the highway authority carried out a series of schemes under "centreplan" to discourage through movements. In the spirit of advice from American consultants the KISS approach (keep it simple stupid!) was adopted, an approach which segregated trams from general traffic movements whenever possible (7). City life generally in Manchester during construction did affect everyone and a series of regular meetings plus extensive publicity with a public information office in Piccadilly Gardens to deal with "on the spot" enquiries played a major part in reducing conflict. Sheffield did not have an information office but consultation and full public awareness was the name of the game and proved to be extremely beneficial.

HELP FOR THE DISABLED (SHEFFIELD AND MANCHESTER)

Both systems were specifically designed to help the mobility handicapped to gain level access to the vehicles. Highway modifications around loading platforms provide good and safe access with dropped crossings to help wheel chair users. To help blind people textured pavements have been provided as appropriate.

EFFECT ON TRADE (A QUOTATION FROM EARLIER ACCOUNTS)

"As long as it is reasonably well executed light rail is sure to succeed, and it has certainly done so in Manchester. It is a tribute to GMML and, more than that, to light rail's indigenous excellence and high-street presence that ridership has grown so rapidly. Shopkeepers say that the trams have helped to sustain activity at a time of recessionary decline elsewhere. Bury's traders are pleased and Altrincham's are even more delighted. The local Chamber of Trade and Commerce says that an extra one million people have visited the town since METROLINK opened, and the Greater Altrincham Partnership says that the local housing market has received a distinct boost because of the trams. At 25 000 passenger journeys per day (projected to reach ten million per annum shortly) yielding a GBP1m operating surplus; one million passengers were carried in December alone in spite of the recession. METROLINK patronage has exceeded the levels associated with the replaced BR Altrincham line and is approaching the popularity of the retired Bury electrics - - - " (8).

The importance of a good rail link, or in this case good light rail link, to a neighbouring town was clearly demonstrated during the closure of the Bury line for conversion to METROLINK. The normal bus service into Manchester was bolstered by substitute bus services but Bury is on record as having suffered bad trading figures on market days (9).

SHEFFIELD, A VERY DIFFERENT TOPOGRAPHY TO MANCHESTER

The Supertram project in Sheffield is very different from METROLINK in Manchester which is mainly a linking of two former but unconnected electric railway lines with some city centre tramway tracks. Sheffield on the other hand created three Supertram corridors over mainly street track. Compared with Manchester this was a recipe for conflict between the contractor building the system and the motoring community, made more acute by the fact that many future tram passengers were still driving their cars and demanding road space. This was compounded by the topography of Sheffield's road layout compared with Manchester's fairly flat terrain. The "hole in the road" was also a major problem and many Sheffield people now concede that the ambience around Castle Square is vastly improved. Other major civil engineering works connected with Supertram were responsible for extended traffic delays and their eventual completion was actually beneficial to traffic flow when completed. These works included the bow-string bridge in Commercial Street, the elevated tram and pedestrian complex at Park Square, two major viaducts for trams, a tram underpass below a traffic complex on the Ring Road, and pedestrian access by subway at Netherthorpe Road. One very surprising reaction after the tram system opened was the continued heavy use by motorists of the Infirmary Road tram route towards Hillsborough. Just why motorists preferred to do this when a parallel road had been remodelled to cater for large traffic flows is difficult to comprehend. The problem was eventually resolved by special traffic measures which not only speeded up tram services but also required one less tram to operate the same service.

CONFUSION OVER FUNDING (SHEFFIELD)

New rules for receiving Section 56 Grants meant that to qualify, the project needed to be profitable, needed to be the most cost effective way of meeting defined social needs, developers had to be willing to make contributions and benefits had to be gained by non-users. Against this background of "moving goalposts" a grant was sought from the Department of Transport which was initially declined. The then Minister for Public Transport later agreed to fund the majority of the projects cost, a promise that later turned out to be not legally binding which caused much political embarrassment in South Yorkshire at a later date.

PRESS REACTIONS

One factor which caused some surprise was the difference in attitude between prominent newspapers in the two cities. The editorial attitude in Manchester could be regarded as METROLINK friendly, even to the extent of chartering an aircraft complete with banner to fly over the opening ceremony for Midland Metro with a message that clearly supported Manchester's expansion plans for METROLINK.

The Press in Sheffield was at one time somewhat critical, even hostile, with its comment and often put the blame on Supertram for events with which it had no connection. For instance, during the construction period a headline appeared - "Supertram blamed for man's death". Ambulance chiefs were quick to point out that the Supertram works had in no way delayed the ambulance. It has recently been noted that press attitudes have changed somewhat, probably helped by 22% of Supertrams passengers claimed as having transferred from cars (10).

CONCLUSION

Both Manchester and Sheffield can be regarded as pioneers and despite "hiccups" in the early stages are now very successful. Planned new systems can now be spared from going through that expensive "learning curve" thus bringing down the cost of light rail systems.

REFERENCES

  1. The Dutch Minister of Transport, following civil unrest, announced in 1976 that no more new underground lines would be approved in the Netherlands - David Holt in MANCHESTER METROLINK (p.6.)- published by Platform 5 Publishing Ltd. (1992)
  2. Local cross-party support averted a forced closure of some lines and possibly accelerated service economies - David Holt in MANCHESTER METROLINK (P.7.)
  3. A major European City of the 21st Century with tram subway plans is displaying mistaken and outdated thinking associated with the 1950's and 60's - Scott McIntosh(London) in the correspondence section of the August 1998 issue of TRAMWAYS AND URBAN TRANSIT (P.321.)
  4. An artists impression was illustrated in TRAM TO SUPERTRAM (P.21.) - by Peter Fox, Paul Jackson and Roger Benton - Published by Platform 5 Publishing Ltd. in Association with South Yorkshire PTE. (1995)
  5. During 1986 The South Yorkshire County Council was abolished which then made Sheffield City Council responsible for non-trunk roads and, later during that same year, all bus operation outside London was deregulated.
  6. A Paper by D J Rumney, BSc, CEng, MICE, ACI, Arb, MIHT, on MANCHESTER METROLINK - Diversion of Public Utilities Apparatus.
  7. A paper by S J McLeod, CEng, MICE, FIHT, and A P Young MSc, DipHTE, CEng, MICE, MIHT, MCIT, ~ HOW TO FIT A RAILWAY THROUGH A REGIONAL CENTRE - Published in HIGHWAYS AND TRANSPORTATION - April 1990.
  8. David Holt in LIGHT RAIL REVIEW No 4. (P.43.) - Published by Platform 5 Publishing Ltd. and LRTA. (March 1993)
  9. David Holt in LIGHT RAIL REVIEW No 3. (P.12 & 13.) - Published by Platform 5 Publishing Ltd. and LRTA. (November 1991)
  10. Tramways & Urban Transit - March 2000.
To go to next Fact Sheet - click here
To return to Fact Sheets Index - click here
To return to LRTA Home page - click here