Light Rail Transit Association - UK Development Group 





As readers of this fact sheet take the time to ponder the merits of the three basic transit modes (commuter rail, light rail and bus) , commuter rail stands out as having the highest capacity and speed but conversely the highest costs with the lowest number of pick-up locations, and often in places somewhat inconvenient for foot passengers to reach. At this point enter the bus, able to serve the railway's "no-go" locations and often at a better frequency. Later though, technical developments to the humble tram not only made it very efficient but paradoxically helped also to bolster patronage on local bus services. In its own right the bus has also experienced some technical developments, in some respects close to re-inventing the wheel and in the case of a kerb-guided bus, two very small wheels.

This fact sheet will now take a fairly, close look at some of the points raised by Kenneth G Sislak in his discussion paper (1) as well as some random opinions contributing to this BRT/LRT debate.


The paper considers that with the current shortage of funds BRT is to be preferred to light rail as its lower costs would enable funds to be spread more widely. Certainly many a technically-sound light rail project has "bit the dust" during a budget squeeze only to re-emerge later as a guided bus scheme. This approach although common ignores the full life costs which could tip the balance in favour of light rail. Doubts about bus technology though have often "dogged" ambitious bus proposals, usually on a value-for-money basis, a not unexpected response considering the image problem (2). The need for this caution was apparently justified because of the way that passengers in the past have voted with their feet (3). This downward spiral has continued to be of concern to politicians in general and consultants in particular especially in making that vital comparison between BRT and LRT. An extract from one particular consultant's report (4) gave the tram (L=2 X 30m, W=2.65m) a capability of carrying 21 000 passengers/hour/direction and an articulated bus (L=18m, W=2.5m) with the lower figure of 7 500. The importance of these figures becomes apparent when viewed alongside two controversial studies in Seattle (Washington), one praised the virtues of BRT and claimed it to be equal or better than LRT whilst the other recommended keeping the long-standing LRT proposals alive by making an early start, but with a smaller and more affordable initial segment. Although these views have emanated from the opposite ends of the transit spectrum, it is interesting to record that Seattle's Sound Transit Board has overwhelmingly voted to take the first positive step with what so far has been a very troubled LRT project.


The paper lists busways, which vary from little more than reserved lanes to full blown guided systems, as an indication of their acceptability but, like many BRT advocates, does not indicate that their success is limited and in some cases not yet operational.

Sydney, despite LRT's international reputation for operational success, has almost turned its back on light rail by spending large sums of money on an accelerated programme of bus transitways (5). In justification of its decision, the NSW Government has been quoted as suggesting that Ottawa's extensive bus system carried more than any comparable system in North America. Ottawa is on record though as experiencing between 1991 and 1996 a ridership decline of 18% which probably played a major part in that city's decision to stop building busways and to concentrate in future on diesel light rail expansion.

Curitiba, also quoted by NSW as an example of extensive busway operation, appears now to favour a partly elevated rubber-tyred metro system. Of the proposed busway network for Northampton (UK) and guided busway systems in Birmingham, Ipswich and Leeds, quoted as adequate reasoning for busway expansion in Sydney, only the latter two are operating as Northampton is only in the planning stage while Birmingham closed its bus guideway in 1987 to concentrate instead on light rail.


Recognised as the birthplace of the O-bahn guided bus system, Essen now appears to be turning away from any further development. The most obvious indication of this is the continued expansion of both its standard and metre gauge light rail networks with little or no development of the O-bahn system.

At international level, the outlook for kerb-guided busway development is showing signs of slowing down with Adelaide no longer going ahead with O-bahn expansion and Edinburgh deciding to drop its CERT guided bus contract but persevere with its light rail plans and review a guided bus solution for the west of the city.


Sislak includes the French systems of Nancy and Caen in the list of busways despite neither being open at the time of publication. Since then the TVR (BRT) in Nancy has been through a traumatic time having had to close for some 12 Months due to safety problems. Although expected to resume commercial service shortly there are still concerns as it is reported that consultants have advised the undertaking in Nancy that it is an "impaired" form of guided mode (6).


An obvious benefit gained so far from BRT operation can be observed in Leeds, a city now with two guided bus corridors and the operators pleased with the initial results. Buses now pass lines of stationary cars held at traffic lights and when ahead of the queue often revert to normal operation. As an average bus passenger may well usually be unaware of the change, to or from the guided mode, the necessity and associated cost for a continuous guideway is sometimes questioned. Whether continuous or not the vehicle is still a bus with its inherent image problem, a fact that has not gone unnoticed in the discussion paper by Kenneth D. Sislak as shown by this quote..."Bus systems are not overly appealing to people who value comfort, convenience and speed - - - the attributes of BRT must appeal to those people who now choose to drive an automobile and at least be equal to LRT" (7). It needs to be remembered that this will increase the busways cost.


Disabled passengers, parents with prams or just shoppers carrying parcels would quickly notice if (for economy reasons) the Supertram services in Sheffield were suddenly changed to BRT. Markings on the platforms showing where the doors would be could become redundant because as bus passengers know, buses in city centres often cannot stop to pick-up in as orderly a fashion as the trams, and anyone waiting for a bus has to remain vigilant and be ready to walk two or more bus lengths to board - no need to rush though because loading a bus is usually slow. Making a change from one bus route to another is also a difficult procedure when compared with a tram to tram change. The all-weather reliability of a tram service ensures it will be available when needed most, such as in snow conditions. Other LRT benefits include a lack of exhaust fumes, a safe pedestrian mix in precincts and a low energy demand per tram passenger compared with bus passengers (8). As is well known, one only gets what one pays for.


This was the sub heading of the discussion paper by Kenneth G Sislak, which was actually drawing attention to two vastly different locations and the totally different reasons for applying BRT to their respective transit plans. Cleveland regarded BRT as a substitute for LRT whereas the Nashville (Tennessee) proposal was for BRT as a precursor to LRT.

The existing patronage level in Cleveland's Euclid Corridor is close to justifying light rail (over 27 600/day), and considering the 20-25% gain normally anticipated with a new LRT service this tends to demonstrate a potential need for LRT to be seriously considered. To do otherwise tends to suggest a lack of confidence in the future prosperity of the corridor, a commercial decline that would better fit the lower passenger flows usually associated with bus operation. The switch from low-floor electric trolley buses to diesel electric buses using a fuel cleaner than ordinary diesel (9) could be a first step in this thinking. To a certain extent, this supposition is backed up by the reported 50% patronage loss since 1980 (10).

As this fact sheet was being prepared a news item arrived that could, if proved accurate, have some serious consequences for the Euclid Corridor. A large bus operator has discovered that natural gas buses have higher operating and maintenance costs and suffer more frequent breakdowns than electric trolley buses (11). Although the change proposed in Cleveland is from electric trolleybuses to diesel engines using low-sulphur fuel, there are certain cautionary signs that should be noted.

The decision to go for a bus solution seems to have been taken on cost grounds in comparison with light rail partly in tunnel rather than a streetcar type of operation as in Portland which could have helped to raise the profile of the city. The comparative costings show no track costs for the busway despite the changes needed to provide the segregated busway and one could assume that these costs will end up against a highways budget.

In the case of Nashville the comparison is made between BRT and LRT with and without subway. Although seen as a possible precursor to light rail no account seems to have been taken of extra costs that would be required to implement the changeover nor the long term costs of operating a busway.


The Euclid corridor project in Cleveland proposes the elimination of some on-street parking (12), a restriction that appears to accompany many bus-only schemes. For example, the busway scheme in Brisbane (Queensland) has apparently failed to attract the motorist, and future plans there include road tolls to enter the city centre (13). The extra funding needed to provide an integrated tram and bus network will, because of the nature of the tram, make it easier to allow footpaths to be extended outward at tram stops and thus provide parking bays between stops.


Seattle though (referred to earlier) made the important decision to proceed with LRT after many years of procrastination and in doing so applied some transit logic: Design the initial segment to suit the funds available. The incentive to make this start was also probably made with the knowledge of a well known fact in transit circles: Bus ridership has risen in almost every city that has built a new light rail system (14). While there may be instances where BRT is the right answer for a particular location it is important that the decision is made in a comprehensive way and not on the grounds of short term expediency


  1. BUS RAPID TRANSIT (BRT) AS A SUBSTITUTE FOR LIGHT RAIL TRANSIT (LRT) - A TALE OF TWO CITIES - a discussion paper by Kenneth G Sislak - Director of Public Transportation (Wilbur Smith Associates Cleveland Ohio) - Submitted to the Eighth Joint Conference on Light Rail Transit sponsored by the American Public Transit Association and the Transportation Research Board, Dallas, Texas -- 11th-15th November 2000.
  2. LIGHT RAIL REVIEW No 8. page 26 - 20th May 1998 - Platform 5 Publishing and the Light Rail Transit Association.
  3. Barrie Clement (Transport Editor) - THE INDEPENDENT - 28th November 2000.
  4. BUS OR LIGHT RAIL : MAKING THE RIGHT CHOICE - Carmen Hass-Klau et al. - Environment and Transport Planning - April 2000 - Table 12 on page - 49.
  5. Sydney's Western Bus Transitways - TRANSIT AUSTRALIA - page 281 - December 2001.
  6. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - February 2002 - page 65.
  7. A quote from Kenneth G Sislak's Discussion Paper - see Reference No 1. for details.
  8. A bus passenger per mile needs between 0.83 and 1.4- MJ which compares with the 0.59-MJ per passenger mile needed on an LRV - HOUSE OF COMMONS SELECT COMMITTEE - "ROADS FOR THE FUTURE" - report by M R Taplin in LIGHT RAIL REVIEW No 3 -. Platform 5 Publishing and the Light Rail Transit Association - November 1991 - page 62. - Published jointly by Platform 5 Publishing and Light Rail Transit Association.
  9. Internet information - GREATER CLEVELAND REGIONAL TRANSIT AUTHORITY - 17th December 2001 -
  10. Page 8. of Kenneth G Sislak's Discussion Paper - See Reference No 1. for details.
  11. G Leicester - Manager - TRANSLINK (Implementation Planning) - Vancouver - 2nd January 2002.
  12. Internet information - Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority - 17th December 2001 -
  13. COUNCIL TO DRIVE CARS OUT OF CBD - COURIER MAIL (Brisbane) - 18th December 2001.
  14. Dave Enslow - Vice Chairman of the Sound Transit Board (Seattle) 7th November 2001.
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