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Transport Minister wants more light rail

In response to a question in the House of Commons about transport funding in Manchester The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling) replied " ... All of us are concerned that the prices now being quoted for light rail schemes have increased quite dramatically and unreasonably. If there is to be more light rail, it is important that the costs for those projects come down. They have increased to a large extent because, frankly, many of the people interested in this have decided to quote prices which I do not think that even they believe are realistic.

"I want to see more light rail - the Manchester scheme has been an outstanding success - but it is essential to control costs. People who are bidding for such schemes should be aware that the Government do not take the view that we provide light rail, or anything else, at any price - prices must be controlled. "

Source: Hansard 21 Oct 2003

23 October 2003

The LRTA's Development Officer comments

The statement above is to be welcomed, coming as it does after a report in the Times which gave the impression that light rail schemes were failing and no more were to be approved. It also comes as a counterbalance to previous statements from the Minister suggesting improved bus services as an alternative (see News Item dated 11 July).

Anyone who has the interests of tramways at heart will share the concern at the increase in costs of construction and will agree that the Government should always try to get good value for its money. Many would also be concerned that some of the increased costs come back to the government's own policies and procedures.

The use of Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) as a means of reducing the public cost and transferring risk to the private sector is considered by many to be flawed especially with light rail where so much of the risk is outside their control.

Another factor in the increase in costs is the inordinate delays which take place between planning and implementation with over 12 months between the public inquiry and final approval being common, let alone the time taken now to get approval to proceed with an application under the Transport and Works Act. Financial restrictions intended to reduce the cost to the public purse have in some instances only succeeded in increasing the final cost by excluding vital equipment which has to be purchased later, or by reducing the number of vehicles to the bare minimum. This combined with the problems in realising a fully integrated system compounded by the, albeit recently relaxed, rules of the Office of Fair Trading has meant that tramways in the UK have found it harder to fulfil their full potential.

If the Minister's desire for more light rail and lower costs is to be realised he needs to consider how to provide the framework that will enable this to happen otherwise there is a danger that the gloomy predictions in the Times might become reality.

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