The slow expansion of light rail in the UK does not seem to fit well with the need to address the challenge of climate crisis

Midland Metro


The UN Climate Action Summit in New York City at the end of September highlighted the need for urgent and comprehensive activity to address the challenge of climate change and global warming. Amongst the various activities to support this challenge was the need for much more use of shared transport and the reduced use of the most CO2 intensive transport activities including private driving, as well as air travel.

Much good work is being done around the world to deliver better public transport including in the UK. This includes investment in better heavy rail services, high speed railways, modernisation of London’s Underground as well as the development of Crossrail. And, a more comprehensive focus on buses outside of London to stem the decline in usage through better and more modern services.

However, it is of note that unlike many other European countries, and increasingly countries across North America and Asia, light rail still seems to be a niche product in the UK marketplace. There are clearly a number of major schemes in development and operation. In particular Metrolink in Manchester has redefined public transport in that city and seems to go from strength to strength. Nottingham’s Express Transit (tram) is highly regarded and working well to improve mobility in the city following recent expansion in 2015. Furthermore, the West Midlands has revived the earlier Midland Metro scheme opened in 1999, which had limited impact, and expansion through the city centre to Edgbaston is underway.

The West Midlands Metro example is quite interesting as the earlier service usefully ran from Wolverhampton to Birmingham Snow Hill, but without making a major impact on the major city centres. The scheme made practical use of existing or abandoned infrastructure and routes, without the complexity and expense of creating a route through congested city roads. However, by not running through, particularly, Birmingham city centre the service didn’t redefine and focus public attention on public transport and it did not particularly impact the public realm with demonstrably improved public transport services. This has been addressed in the existing 2016 extension to New Street Station and is being further improved via the route to the Town Hall, Centenary Square and further west, as well as through an approved extension to Brierley Hill.

Sheffield Supertram which opened in 1994 was also a relatively early participant in developing a modern light rail service, but has struggled for many years to redefine public transport in the city and be financially successful. For a number of years effort has been concentrated on developing a tram-train extension that finally opened in 2018. Some of the problems in Sheffield have also stemmed from changes in the employment and retail markets in the city and lower than anticipated city centre growth.

After a long debate about alternative transport improvements, Edinburgh committed to light rail and the resulting scheme, which opened in 2013, is impressive in its impact and improvements to the urban realm. However, the costs of the first phase of the scheme were significantly under estimated and although a second phase is now approved and scheduled to open in 2023, the cost of such schemes has left a bitter feeling in the city.

Light rail schemes also operate in Blackpool and South London – I will return to the latter later in this article.

What is surprising is that in a country as large as the UK and with so many large and medium-sized urban centres, there are so few light rail schemes in operation or development at present. Clearly, historically many more cities had light rail services and as was the case in cities across the developed world, many if not most of these services were removed after the Second World War following the increase in car-based mobility and suburban centred growth. This was the case throughout continental Europe, but nevertheless, the last two decades have seen a sustained growth in new and redeveloped light rail services across the continent and this pace of development is continuing. By contrast, the growth in light rail in the UK still remains intermittent and hesitant.

All regions and countries have differing social and economic histories and the UK, even with the Beeching cuts in the 1960s, still retains a vast wealth of heavy rail infrastructure and services. Thus, heavy rail potentially plays a larger part in the transport mix in many UK cities. This is certainly the case in the larger UK cities such as those in the West Midlands, West Yorkshire (Leeds) and Greater Manchester.

In addition, the UK has historically, and currently still does in many cases, have substantial backlogs in improving the quality of local heavy rail services, and this has taken much of the public funding support for many years. One example is the slow removal of the unpopular Pacer rail vehicles.

The story of the deregulation of bus services outside of London in the 1980s also set the UK on a route of public transport provision that was again quite different to most other European countries. The UK local public transport market outside of London has for many years been dominated by attempts to make local bus services competitive, compelling, cost efficient and profitable for operators. The competitive nature of this market was supposed to bring innovation and lower costs to the public purse. It has certainly brought a number of innovations in service, but at the cost of leaving little room in many cities for “centrally planned” and “comprehensive” public transport schemes such as light rail that could not immediately upon opening deal with a competitive marketplace as opposed to complementary bus services. This was part of the problem in deploying the Supertram scheme in Sheffield.

A lack of local champions for these types of civic initiatives has also been an issue for the last 20 years. These champions are only now being replaced via the new city mayor process across England.

A lack of local champions for these types of civic initiatives has also been an issue for the last 20 years. These champions are only now being replaced via the new city mayor process across England.

Most problematically, the provincial bus services remain in a cycle of flat to declining demand and thus, are in many ways not meeting the ambitions to address climate change outlined at the start of this article.

London is also an interesting user case for light rail. Firstly, I would say that the Docklands Light Railway is not “light rail”
in the case being discussed in this article. It may have originally began in the 1980s as being close to light rail in its ambitions, but the growth in East London has created much more of a “mini-Metro” service. These mini-Metros or in some cases even “regional mini-Metros” are seen in cities such as Vancouver, Canada with its Skytrain as well as in Tyne & Wear in the UK.

Thus, the only case of light rail within London is the Croydon Tramlink. What is most surprising about Tramlink is that having created a well-regarded and thriving service proposition in South West London since 2000, which carried 29 million users in 2018/9, it has not subsequently been expanded or replicated in the city. There was much debate about a tram scheme in West London along the Uxbridge Road in the early 2000s, but with the termination of this proposal, no definitive action has been taken to expand light rail further in the city. Transport for London has certainly invested substantially in all forms of public transport over the years and the overall public transport system is popular and comprehensive. But, unlike, for example, Paris, or even Barcelona, which is steadily reintroducing trams into an otherwise successful public transport offer, London has not, so far, laid out clear and fundable proposals for further trams schemes.

This is particularly interesting as the growth patterns of London over the last few years have led to the emergence of significant urban clusters away from the traditional West End, City, and Canary Wharf areas. The density and coverage of some of these clusters such as at Vauxhall, Stratford or even Kings Cross, seems to call out for an intermediate mode of local distribution that connects these clusters with the rest of the urban transport system, distributes demand from key rail hubs and offers sympathetic urban realm improvements to the transport offer. Ironically, this is the type of service that Croydon Tramlink already offers to the redeveloping central Croydon area.

So, is there something in the social or economic structure of the UK that simply makes light rail an unnecessary option in many, if not most of the large cities? Is this nature different than what we are otherwise seeing in cities across Europe and many parts of the rest of the world? Could there be natural corridors in densely populated and growing cities and areas such as Brighton, Oxford, Cambridge, South Hampshire (Southampton, Fareham, Portsmouth), South Dorset (Poole, Bournemouth, Christchurch), Coventry or even Exeter, where such schemes could significantly change the proposition of public transport and create substantial modal shift?

What would it take to change the debate about light rail in the UK and bring more of the urban realm and accessibility improvements that we see in other countries to our cities? This may be gradually occurring as the schemes, particularly in Manchester and the West Midlands, are expanded. However, the rate of growth in these types of services still remains quite surprisingly slow versus the global average.

High Speed 2 may be the opportunity to address some of these gaps with new or renewed light rail services via the resulting need to distribute large numbers of rail passengers from new stations in cities such as Birmingham and eventually, Leeds, Nottingham, Sheffield, etc.

Of note is the interesting user case of Berlin. Due to the historical impact of the division of the city during the Cold War, today half of the city has a modern tram network (in the East), while the West has a public transport system without trams and uses buses to fill the gap for intermediate mode transport. Berlin’s conclusion is clear and the eastern tram network is being expanded west!

The rate of growth of schemes such as light rail in the UK does not seem to fit well with the need to address the challenge of climate change, encourage sustainability and improve urban mobility in the UK in the coming decades.

About the author:
Giles K Bailey is a Director at Stratageeb, a London based consultancy assisting businesses think about their strategic vision and innovation. Previously, he had spent nine years as Head of Marketing Strategy at Transport for London.

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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