Light Rail Transit Association - UK Development Group 

 FACT SHEET No 118

APRIL 2001 

LIGHT RAIL - SLOW PROGRESS IN SOUTH WALES

INTRODUCTION

After a long gestation period, light rail appears to be breaking out of its "shell" in Britain's three capital cities. Having looked in detail at Edinburgh in a recent fact sheet (1) our attention will now be turned towards Cardiff. Being a busy and compact city at the heart of a former industrial South Wales but, as steel and coal have both become a shadow of their former dominance, the population is having to turn to lighter occupations such as office work. Unfortunately the towns in the valleys to the north were unable to do this and at best could generally be described as dormitory towns to Cardiff.

Unlike London, where the redevelopment around Canary Wharf was heavily dependent on new transport links, Cardiff's equivalent (in planning terms) has yet to decide on a transit way forward.

CARDIFF METRO

It was 12 years ago that the LRTA cooperated with RDS (Railway Development Society) to produce an A4 sized pamphlet to draw attention to a need to utilize the underused railways in and around Cardiff. By using rail vehicles with a street running capability, these services could provide also a convenient and valuable link with the Cardiff Bay development area. At that time (1989) no modern tram type services existed anywhere in Britain to act as a role model and one needed to visit mainland Europe to appreciate their potential and certainly valuable contribution to the Cardiff Region.

The CBDC (Cardiff Bay Development Corporation) were also thinking on similar lines and joined the debate by producing literature to distribute to local citizens and business organisations alike. In this case the basic reason was to protect Cardiff's economic activity, its leisure activities and tourist attractions and to make the population aware that something constructive needed to be done. Light rail was suggested as a cost effective way of attracting the motorist whilst at the same time solving future traffic and transport problems. One probable explanation for this apparent cooperation was that the CBDC had a limited territorial remit whereas the LRTA and RDS did not.

After 1992 it had become quite an easy matter to visit Manchester and see first hand just what light rail could do for Cardiff and the Valleys. The Success of Manchester's METROLINK was no fluke as was demonstrated just 8 years later in Croydon with its highly successful TRAMLINK system. It is worth noting that just as METROLINK was credited with attracting the motorist, TRAMLINK has been very successful in attracting extra trade to Croydon's shopping centre.

THE BEST WAY FORWARD

Cardiff Bay's development, not unlike London's Docklands in its overall purpose, now needed some advice from consultants on future transport direction with many options needing to be evaluated, options such as overhead monorails, light trains on existing tracks, Briway and lastly trams (2). South Glamorgan County Council was anxious that the matter was given urgent priority so that the chosen system could be up and running without further delay. A speedy application could play a vital part in avoiding traffic chaos in the Bay area following its massive redevelopment.

Another later transport study, this time commissioned by the Welsh Office in 1993, engaged Oscar Faber TPA to examine light rail and guided bus options for the Cardiff Region. The purpose was to improve links between the South Wales Valleys, Cardiff City Centre and the Cardiff Bay area (3).

All options tested by TPA fell short of the target 50:50 split and the best was a guided bus system at 48%. It is anticipated that this will be discarded because of its expense (4). With so much under-used railway track in the valleys combined with an emphasis on seamless journey opportunities, a rail option seems to be a likely solution. Europe has many examples of joint operation (light and heavy) which could well be the anticipated way forward in and around Cardiff. If approved it would mirror a suggestion by Regional Railways that the Pontypridd via Radyr line becomes the CITY LINE and be linked to the development area along street tracks. A further proposal, to demolish the embankment between Queen Street and Bute Road. would permit a street level service.

A MIXED PUBLIC TRANSPORT PACKAGE

The Oscar Faber TPA study, made public during 1994, and then quickly moved forward to public consultation, was when citizens learned that the present peak hour patronage of 40% would be moved to 56%. The key proposals including some street running could be ready within 5 years with a second stage adapting the lines between Coryton, Caerphilly and Padyr to track sharing. A bus based rapid transit system was also recommended for the east side of the city, as was some bus priority measures, some improvements to conventional rail services, more park and ride and in the city centre, more parking controls (5).

FRANCHISE FOR CARDIFF's VALLEY LINES

South Wales could have a 100-mile light rail network if the conversion plans suggested by one of the bidders for the 20-year franchise are accepted by the Governments Strategic Rail Authority. The scheme is part of a GBP1bn package of transport improvements proposed by FirstGroup, short-listed for this contract. It would follow on from the present National Express operator and if FirstGroup are successful they will rebrand the franchise First Metro Cymru. This will be followed by a feasibility study into light rail conversion for the region. If feasible, and also subject to funding, light rail could be operational by 2011 (6). The other short listed bidders are National Express, Serco Rail and Arriva/Connex.

CONCLUSION

1989 to 2011 is certainly a long period of time for Cardiff's long suffering commuters and shoppers to wait for what the French would have accomplished in only a fraction of the time. If there was any doubt about light rail's ability to do the job then the long drawn out series of consultants reports, inquiries and feasibility studies could probably have been justified. This though does need to be questioned because there are numerous new and almost identical systems in Western European countries that have pleasantly surprised their operators.

REFERENCES

Note: Since this Fact sheet was written Cardiff has been selected for a trial of a PRT system (Personal Rapid Transit) in the Bay development area.
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