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The Light Rail revolution

29 April 2013

Trams and tram-trains look set to play a growing role in connecting many communities. Paul Salveson takes a look at how they’re being integrated into heavy rail networks in Europe and asks whether that could be mirrored in Britain.

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Light rail is back in fashion, with a new system about to open in Edinburgh and major extensions forging ahead in several cities. Urban tram systems were among the greatest achievements of ‘municipal socialism’ before the First World War, with many local authorities investing in state-of-the-art electric tramways which acted as the arteries of urban expansion. It has to be said, however, that some of the early tram networks led to the decline of several urban ‘heavy rail’ networks which suffered from poor penetration into city centres, with dirty and unattractive steam traction. For a while, it was the publicly- owned entrepreneurial municipal tramways which saw off private, under-invested urban rail networks.

Yet by the 1950s, as tram networks came up for major renewal, all too many were scrapped in favour of buses. Most continental countries, even war-ravaged Germany, kept theirs and modernised them. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that Britain saw a revival of interest in ‘light rail’ with Manchester leading the way. Since then there has been an uneven expansion, with Sheffield, Nottingham, Birmingham, Croydon and Edinburgh developing entirely new networks. Good old Blackpool hung on to its trams and has recently renovated the system with new vehicles and improved infrastructure. The most exciting developments are taking place in the birthplace of Britain’s light rail renaissance, Manchester. Extensions are opening to Rochdale, Ashton-under-Lyne and south Manchester, with a link to the airport seen as a key objective for 2016. This will link in to the proposed HS2 station, which will be located about 2km beyond the existing airport station.

Paul Rowen, former Rochdale MP and board member of the Light Rail Transit Association is clear about the benefits. He told TSSA Journal ‘Trams are clean and green. At the same time trams bring about economic regeneration – walk along the main shopping area in Croydon: people now travel into the town to shop rather than go elsewhere. Just as importantly, trams are popular with the public who prefer using them to buses.’.

Rochdale will be the appropriate venue for this year’s national conference of the Light Rail Transit Association, bringing light rail campaigners together to debate the future of what was once seen as ‘the humble tram’. My late friend Colin Ward had a far better term for them – ‘gondolas of the people’. What has this form of transport got to offer?

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Light rail is in a sense the little sister of ‘heavy rail’ and some of the technology is shared – and we’ll look at hybrid ‘tram- trains’ later. It is not a ‘cheap’ option compared to other forms of urban transport and the last twenty years have seen a battle of ideas – and policy – over the claims of light rail versus guided busways or just conventional buses with some degree of enhanced traffic priority. It has been said that the Department for Transport has been innately hostile to light rail and that every pound won for light rail has been like drawing teeth.

There’s no doubt that light rail is, and always has been, political. The early tram networks were largely developed by local authorities rather than private companies, the latter lacking the necessary capital to invest in major infrastructure projects that were essentially local. An additional benefit of local government leadership was that the tram networks could go where there was a wider strategic need, be it housing or industry. That same approach continued in post-war Germany, the Netherlands and Austria. Light rail was a tool of urban planning. Meanwhile in the UK, the very idea of public sector-led strategic urban planning had become politically unacceptable by the Thatcher era. Yet the revival of light rail did not come from thrusting private entrepreneurs, but from the same kind of bodies that promoted trams back in the 1890s – local authorities, mostly in the shape of passenger transport executives. Light rail still embodies public sector dynamism and local enterprise, which perhaps gives a clue as to why it isn’t always popular with some.

Ironically, a small number of some Conservatives have been enthusiastic backers of light rail at the local level – I should acknowledge the great contribution of the late Cllr Stanley King, staunch Conservative, tram fanatic and Bradford city councillor. Good public transport doesn’t have to be politically contentious. Usually, at the local level, it isn’t. And it has to be said that some early schemes such as Manchester and Croydon were approved by Conservative governments. Labour’s John Prescott had visionary plans for several schemes which Alistair Darling scrapped because of cost. Let’s not repeat the same mistakes next time.

Driving urban development

Light rail has the potential to act as a catalyst for major urban development and we have already seen this along the original Manchester ‘Metrolink’ corridor between Bury, Manchester city centre and Altrincham. Light rail can be a vital tool in traffic management, if it is used as the core element of wider strategies to minimise car access into city centres. Sheffield and Nottingham city centres have been transformed through intelligent traffic management strategies based around tram priority. Part and parcel of this is having good park-and-ride at outlying stations and good connectivity with the heavy rail network and bus services. And therein lies a problem. In most other countries where light rail has experienced a revival, there isn’t unbridled on-street competition. The economics of light rail in the UK suffers because a commercial bus operator can undercut tram prices and make the business case for light rail unviable. And as a result, the prospects for getting good quality urban transport, bringing wider economic and social benefits to towns and cities, also suffers.

Tram-trains and integration

If early trams undermined existing suburban steam railways, the experience in recent years has been more positive. HS2 will be fed by light rail routes at Manchester Airport and Toton (for Nottingham). In most major European cities the tram connects into longer distance and suburban rail networks at major termini, usually with integrated local ticketing systems making interchange even easier. Karlsruhe, Germany, took this approach a big step further by creating a hybrid between light and heavy rail: tram- train. Karlsruhe’s main station is about a mile from the city centre, served by several local lines. Anyone going into the city centre had to change. As some of the routes were becoming run-down there was an opportunity to better integrate them into the wider urban transport network. Some of the outlying branches were converted to tram operation, but using vehicles that could operate on conventional heavy-rail infrastructure as well as street tramways. It has become a huge success and more and more routes have been converted for tram-train operation. An additional benefit has been to free up capacity at the main-line station for longer distance services. Similar schemes are now common across Europe.

The ‘tram-train’ concept has generated considerable interest in the UK and the last five years have seen the development of studies to test out the idea. That sounds long-winded, and it has been. The original idea of having a pilot on the Penistone Line between Huddersfield and Sheffield was eventually dropped. The Department for Transport, Network Rail and Northern are pursuing an alternative pilot based on the Rotherham – Sheffield corridor, allowing tram-trains to run directly onto the Sheffield ‘Supertram’ network. Part of the problem with the pilot project has been cost. The original Penistone scheme assumed a fleet of just five tram-tram sets which inevitably made unit costs high. Yet tram-train has got potential in areas like Sheffield where the main station is distant from the city centre. Transport for Greater Manchester is exploring the potential of converting six heavy-rail lines to tram-train operation, allowing services from towns such as Glossop, Wigan and Marple to get easier and faster access into and across the city centre.

Tram-train isn’t a universal panacea and up-front costs can be high, even compared to conventional tram schemes. Up to now, the Greater Manchester approach has been to convert existing heavy-rail lines to light rail operation using conventional trams, then using on-street alignments to connect the network or to go beyond the former railway into the heart of a town or city centre. Lines closed by Beeching, such as East Didsbury, are being brought back into service. The most recent extension, to Rochdale, has been along the former heavy rail ‘Oldham Loop’ from Manchester, with the final extension from Rochdale railway station into the town centre. Edinburgh’s trams will finally start running this year whilst Nottingham is pushing ahead with extensions.

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A growing network?

It’s clear that light rail is good for towns and cities and more tram networks are needed: London, Leeds, Cardiff, Glasgow, iverpool, Bristol and even smaller cities could be suitable for light rail. Freiburg for example, with a population of just over 200,000, has an extensive modern tram network like other German towns of similar size. They don’t have a free-for-all with de-regulated buses offering ‘choice’ but they do have a fabulous integrated transport network. Some of the challenges we face are political and it is unnecessarily difficult to develop light rail schemes in the current environment. Maria Eagle’s proposals for ‘deregulation exemption zones’ would be ideal in cities where light rail is being developed, ensuring the best possible integration between bus, light rail and heavy rail. It’s right that light rail should be promoted at the local level by well-resourced transport authorities which are in the public sector.

But you also need a supportive national policy with dedicated resources within the Department for Transport which can provide positive assistance, rather than discouragement. We need to get away from each city doing its own thing and re-inventing wheels: the more standardisation in technology the better. This means closer working between PTEs and transport authorities, the DfT and devolved governments in Wales and Scotland. An incoming Labour Government should set up an ‘Urban Transport Challenge Fund’ which could fund new light rail schemes and other innovative projects which help regenerate our cities.

A rolling programme of light rail schemes across the UK will not just be good for urban connectivity and regeneration. It has the potential to be good for manufacturing. It’s mad that we have to buy all our equipment from abroad. A condition of procurement policies must be that a large element of the vehicle and infrastructure components should be manufactured and assembled in the UK.

Finally, whilst most light rail networks in the UK are publicly-owned, operation is largely contracted to private operators, though not in every case. Now that trams have returned to Rochdale, the birthplace of the modern co-operative movement, might we look to a co-operative tram company, owned by its workers and passengers, in the future? That would be real community transport.

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Blackpool's network has been rebuilt with new track and level-floored vehicles offering rapid accessible transport, in addition to summer 'heritage' services.

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