Light Rail Transit Association - UK Development Group 





The million or so bus journeys reported as being withdrawn throughout Britain will no doubt set off "alarm bells" in Government Circles and certainly with it hopes of luring motorists away from their cars (2). An avalanche of rising costs can be expected to make many bus services commercially unattractive with inevitable consequences. The multitude of problems now faced by bus operators and passengers alike are becoming particularly serious with a growing realisation creeping in that the bus, once thought of as a cheaper solution to our transport problems, now needs some "back-up" support from its former urban competitor - the tram. Although once spurned as too inflexible, it is now able to use that so called inflexibility to advantage, firstly by being able to cut through traffic congestion and secondly with a strong passenger appeal.

In a hidden sort of way, the start of the bus run-down crept in almost half a century ago. As trams at that time were being withdrawn, not all displaced passengers turned to the replacement buses, they simply bought cars. The consequences of this were somewhat insidious and mostly went unnoticed. But, as time progressed, noticed they were. A car with seating space for four or more passengers soon made inroads into a bus operators revenue and, combined with early congestion problems, became responsible for a negative spiral which grew at an alarming exponential rate. Certain large conurbations are unlikely to feel the full affects of a complete bus route withdrawal or just a reduction in frequency because places like Manchester, Sheffield or Croydon are fortunate in having good quality transit alternatives (3). It is quite probable though that in some bus-only towns many passengers will already have deserted services making prospective cuts inevitable. France can be given credit for proving beyond doubt that a combination of bus and tram services (integrated and not competing) will restore a reliable network of services to places getting very close to "no-go" transit areas (4). An unusual phenomenon has been the overall patronage of a mixed bus and tram system with buses sharing the public euphoria generated by the success of a new tram system (5). A Supertram, holding about 250 or more passengers, would require approximately 3½ buses to equate to that load. This tends to illustrate quite clearly the manning problems associated with buses on busy roads. Because of poor productivity under these conditions a bus driver's weekly reward is not very attractive. This is further compounded in favour of the tram when multiple-unit operation is applied to increase capacity. With a tram this is easy and does not require a second driver. Also, slower end to end journeys by buses, resulting from congestion and slow passenger loading, demands more buses, each with a driver. From these examples it is not difficult to understand the dilemma experienced by a bus operator when interviewing potential drivers. Although stress is part of a bus driver's job, a recent study did look at this problem and made appropriate recommendations, more breaks and reduced hours behind the wheel (6). So much effort has been put into cost comparisons between bus transport modes and light rail schemes that the cost of motoring has escaped close scrutiny. The average motorist is convinced that his/her costs are far too high and yet that same motorist will often use high fares as a reason for not using public transport. The methods of funding road schemes are so diverse that cost based questions put to motorists are virtually meaningless. Far more valid would be a question on his/her attitude towards road charging (7). With little doubt, traffic congestion is a primary cause of bad timekeeping and whilst an "all bus culture" prevails the problem will remain. Although many cities build light rail systems that can integrate with a bus network, one prominent politician recently told a business meeting in Leeds that that city's Supertram plans were an expensive mistake (8). This brought a quick public response in the press with a comparison between Leeds and Bremen in Germany, the latter being given 10 merit points and Leeds only three (9).


The newspaper report appears to have captured a vivid picture of "things to come" and pulled no punches when giving the reasons why. Despite this surprise intervention by a former Government minister, all places in Britain with modern tramway networks have proved their worth and what is more, have either expanded them or plan to do so when funds become available. The bus problems highlighted by THE INDEPENDENT are very much with us today but can easily be corrected when the promised funds for tram expansion become available.


  1. Barrie Clement - Transport Editor THE INDEPENDENT 28th November 2000.
  2. The DETR's investment in a "balanced package that tackles road congestion through improved public transport and targeted investment in the road network" is forecast to cut congestion overall by 6% from current levels by 2010 - LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - 20th July 2000.
  3. Metrolink in Manchester was reported as abstracting about 28% of patronage from buses - LIGHT RAIL AND MODERN TRAMWAY May.1997.
  4. Bordeaux for instance is paying much attention to constructing its new tramway with good connections to other modes of transport RAILWAY GAZETTE INTERNATIONAL - December 1999.
  5. Karlsruhe, with a population of 280 000, has increased the patronage of its whole network from 56 000 in 1982 to 115 000 in 1997 - BUS OR LIGHT RAIL - MAKING THE RIGHT CHOICE (page 81) Carmen Hass-Klau, Graham Crampton, Martin Weidauer, Volker Deutsch - Environmental & Transport Planning.
  6. WHAT MAKES BUS DRIVING STRESSFUL - by the Transport & General Workers Union and the Sheffield Occupational Health Project - LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - 10th September 1998.
  7. Revenue from road charging could be used in two ways, to fund alternative transport measures and to act as a lever on traffic restraint - Professor Phil Goodwin - LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - 9th October 1997.
  8. Mr John Gummer, former Environment Minister, and now an Environment Consultant, had been invited to speak at a Yorkshire Property Breakfast meeting held at Leeds Mariott Hotel - YORKSHIRE EVENING POST eighth January 2000.
  9. YORKSHIRE EVENING POST 25th January 2000.

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