Light rail networks have returned to some of our cities, and the prospects for expansion are good. It’s something to celebrate

 

The Manchester Metrolink system provides an exemplary case study in how to grow a network incrementally and sustainably

 

Anyone walking through Sale on the morning of December 4 may well have caught sight of something you do not see every day: several passengers at the Brooklands tram stop pushing a vehicle at the request of the driver to get it going, and succeeding.

I always knew that people in the Manchester area were behind their tram system and pushing for more progress but I had not realised that they would demonstrate this literally.

Part of the cause of the problem here was that the tram was packed and the driver was struggling to get the doors to close. This must qualify as a problem of success.

The Manchester Metrolink system provides an exemplary case study in how to grow a network incrementally and sustainably, from the first phase between Bury and Altrincham, which opened in July 1992, through to the extensive network we have today, with still more additions planned.

This is a testament to a clear vision and long-term commitment by local decision makers, with crucial support from the Department for Transport when it has mattered.

But all that would be insufficient without one key ingredient: public support. People like light rail. Passenger satisfaction as measured by Transport Focus was at an impressive 91% last year.

Light rail combines the local immediacy of the bus with the feel of the train. And psychologically, because it runs on rails, everyone knows it will be there tomorrow, a confidence that sadly does not always extend to bus services. It is easier to attract people out of their cars and onto trams than it is onto buses.

And yet for decades, it was a defunct mode of transport. Town after town had ripped up its rails until by the mid-1960s only Blackpool survived. Then in the 1980s, the pendulum began to swing back. The Tyne and Wear Metro opened, followed by systems in London’s Docklands, Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, Croydon, Nottingham and most recently Edinburgh.

Passenger numbers have continued to edge up year after year even if particular circumstances in 2017 saw the first decrease for almost 10 years, a small overall fall of 0.2%, skewed by a decline in London. Outside the capital, journeys in England rose by 2.4%. Interestingly, the small decline in London journeys following years of strong growth roughly mirrored the graph charting bus passenger numbers in the capital.

Yet in the big scheme of things, light rail pales compared to the bus and train. Just 3.3% of public transport journeys are by tram. There are doubtless many towns and cities who now wish their tram system had not been removed, just as there are many who regularly curse Dr Beeching for removing their railway line. And in both cases, were they still there, they would be well used and turn in an operational profit. The challenge is reinstatement, which has either been shut off by developments on the ground in the intervening period, or is seen as prohibitively expensive.

Yet there were credible plans in place to repair the damage. In the first decade of this century, a raft of planned tram schemes in places like Leeds and Liverpool were worked up, only to have the rug pulled from under them at the last minute by the Labour government. It was a body blow, not just to the individual towns, but to the concept of light rail.

When I became transport minister in 2010, I was determined to do what I could to grow the tram network. Apart from anything else, trams are clean, creating no air pollution at the point of use – an ideal answer to today’s urban environmental problems.

When I became transport minister in 2010, I was determined to do what I could to grow the tram network. Apart from anything else, trams are clean, creating no air pollution at the point of use – an ideal answer to today’s urban environmental problems.

The first thing to do was to ensure those plans for enhancements to existing services which were in the pipeline were not cancelled as part of the root and branch review of spending which the coalition government embarked upon. I am pleased to say all were given the go-ahead, and tram growth was back on track.

Philip Hammond, my first boss the department, was generally supportive of capital enhancements, so getting extensions to Manchester, Birmingham and Nottingham’s systems, and an upgrade to the Tyne & Wear Metro, was relatively unchallenging.

It became clear to me, however, that there was a need for much greater co-ordination of those involved in light rail, not least to try to get costs down. There was too much bespoke ordering when a more unified standardised approach would have made more sense.

The result was Green Light for Light Rail, published by the department in 2011. It was, I think, the first government policy paper on light rail in decades and remains so. It helped that officials were on board, at least metaphorically, including the eternal Steve Berry.

Out of that report came an industry-wide body, UK Tram, a new enthusiasm for growth, and a new confidence. Enhancements were planned, and vehicles replaced. I recall visiting Blackpool and seeing the striking image of the country’s oldest tram parked next to one of a brand new fleet about to enter service, a picture of continuity over more than a century.

We had a great ride up the line, with accompanying music from a small jazz band, though I later learned that a new tram had derailed on its first timetabled outing early the next morning due to sand in the tracks, which I suppose is the Blackpool equivalent of leaves on the line.

Like others, the Blackpool system is growing, with a very useful extension to Blackpool North railway station begun in late 2017.

Yet while it was proving possible to expand existing schemes, starting from scratch in a new city was a much higher hurdle. The cancellations of the Labour years have weighed heavily.

One new scheme of course has appeared, namely the one in Edinburgh. To say this had a difficult birth would be an understatement. Costs rocketed, delays multiplied, and the planned network was pared back. Nor were existing traders in the heart of the city best pleased by seemingly endless roadworks along Princes Street. The whole thing proved catastrophic for the ruling Lib Dems who ran the council and were the architects of the scheme.

The planning and development stages were, I am afraid, an object lesson in how not to do things: expensive bespoke requirements, poor contract management, and above all exploitation by the utility companies who gleefully saw an opportunity to upgrade their infrastructure out of the tram budget. Wolves versus lambs.

The interface with utilities remains a significant problem for tram schemes everywhere. The department did, following the publication of the 2011 report, try to kick-start discussions on this, but like that Blackpool tram, they seem to have run into the sand.

We might usefully look across the Channel to mainland Europe where light rail schemes abound and where engagement with utilities does not create the same problems. This is partly down to legislation, partly to culture, but also to less demanding standards, such as the depth required to excavate before laying new lines.

The good news is that after a difficult birth, Edinburgh is doing well. There were 5.3 million passenger journeys in 2015/16, and 6.8 million in 2017/18.

Next up is work on the South Wales Metro, scheduled to begin later this year. This will bring light rail back to the streets of Cardiff for the first time in more than 70 years.

Other places are looking at the potential of light rail too. These include Leeds, currently the largest city in Europe without a tram system. It has waited a long time. After the cancellation of the Leeds Supertram in 2004, plans were developed for a trolleybus network instead.

In 2010, we were realistically faced with the choice of ploughing on with this or cancelling it altogether. Although I would have much preferred a tram option, we allowed the trolleybus scheme to progress, but in due course that too was aborted. Let us hope the new plans, which are at an early stage, make it third time lucky.

There are also thoughts about bringing light rail to Cambridge, partly using the existing guided busway (or misguided busway, as some sardonically term it).

 The real game changer could well be tram-train, the concept that vehicles run on both tram lines and heavy rail

But the real game changer could well be tram-train, the concept that vehicles run on both tram lines and heavy rail. Back in 2010, we inherited plans for a trial between Sheffield and Rotherham. At Philip Hammond’s request, I looked again at the concept, and whether this was the right location for any trial.

I was clear the idea was a good one, but due to the need to use electrified rail, there were actually very few locations where this would work without major investment and I concluded this was indeed the right place for a trial.

When Justine Greening took over as transport secretary, although generally hands off and quite Lib Dem in transport matters, she took some persuading to let this proceed. I am sure the fact that she comes from Rotherham played a big part.

As Passenger Transport reported (PT196) the country’s first tram-train took to the rails in October last year, even if like the Blackpool tram, day one saw an unfortunate incident, a collision with a lorry. The accident happened on the tram-only section of line with the tram signal at green. Fortunately only minor injuries to four passengers resulted.

Why tram-train could be a game changer is the significant advancements made recently in battery technology and supercapacitors which will enable tram-trains to run on long sections of unelectrified track as part of any route. This opens up the prospect of tram-trains appearing in many more cities, and so giving a real boost to light rail.

Already Transport for Greater Manchester is looking at the potential for three tram-train routes. The city’s busy main railway station, Manchester Piccadilly, has only two through platforms, so using tram-train here would open up the possibility of many more through routes and services, with vehicles diverting onto the nearby road network rather than having the bottleneck of the station as a barrier.

Light rail is back, and a good thing too.

 

About the author:

Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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