Full steam ahead for very light-rail in Dudley (UK)

Posted: 6 May 2015 |

When it comes to innovation in public transport, Dudley (UK) is firmly on the right track with a £20 million very light-rail system in the plans, as Councillor Khurshid Ahmed, Dudley Council’s Cabinet Member for Transportation, explains.

Dudley light rail plans

It’s been more than 50 years since Dudley was linked up to the national rail system, despite globally acclaimed tourists sites, a thriving business economy and a number of key regeneration projects.

But plans for a Light Rail Innovation Centre look set to put the town not only back on the national rail network, but at the forefront globally for rail innovation.

Rail-based solutions are more effective at carrying high volumes of people than buses and studies show that they are more popular – persuading more people to transfer from their cars than they would do for a bus service.

The efficiency of light rail

The key to the affordability of very light-rail over metro is in the light-weight material of the railcars. Not only does a very light vehicle use less energy, it also exerts less stress on the rails it runs on. This in turn enables us to explore innovative track technologies that can be laid without the need to relocate underground utilities. Savings of up to 75% can be made on initial installation costs when compared with standard light rapid transit systems. The vehicles are also cheaper to manufacture and make extensive use of high volume, high reliability automotive components in place of bespoke rail parts. Not only that, they’re faster at getting people around.

Metro has long been a hotly debated option. The well-used line from Birmingham Snow Hill to Wolverhampton has prompted calls for Dudley to link up to this for many years. In 2005 the Borough won approval from the government to link up with line one, creating an extension from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill. This included acquiring the land, building the line and running it. But the huge expense has meant the scheme never got out of the station.

Fast-forward 10 years and very light-rail is the answer to this issue and more. The innovation centre at the foot of Castle Hill is the first phase of the project and it is here that this work on pioneering light-rail begins; that is expected to be open by early-2017. The eyes of the world will be on Dudley as experts from the Warwick Manufacturing Group test the best way to get the system up and running.

It will sit on the site of the old Dudley Railway Station which is now derelict. It was closed to passengers around 60 years ago and the line to Dudley Port was then used as a freight line until the 1980s before being mothballed.

The tracks are still in place, as are the towering brick-built walls which carried a footbridge to the once-bustling rail interchange. The only reminder of the ticket office is a raised area of ground which now backs onto a busy building site, part of the ongoing regeneration of the town.

Trees have sprouted almost now covering what must have been a wonder of its age, ferrying passengers from Dudley to all parts of the country.

The need for light rail in Dudley

Dudley is renowned for its tourist industry, from The Black Country Living Museum and Zoological Gardens at Castle Hill, to the nationally acclaimed geological site at Wren’s Nest via the thriving canal-based tourist trips through limestone caves under Wren’s Nest. They bring in thousands of people every year, a rail system could boost that total even more once it is up and running.

An ongoing £65 million regeneration plan paints a bright future for the town. It includes the Townscape Heritage Initiative which has seen £2 million invested to repair and reinstate historic buildings throughout the town. These have included restoration works on the former Co-Operative department store on High Street, current work on the Fountain Arcade, as well as works to restore Charlton House, 168 High Street, Baylies Hall in Tower Street and the office refurbishment to Elizabeth House and Holloway Chambers in the town.

There are very clear plans to bring more people to Dudley than ever before with a number of high profile tourism and regeneration projects. A rail link could provide a perfect solution to getting people in and out.

Other tourist developments in Dudley

There’s also the ongoing £10.1 million project to develop Castle Hill as a major tourist attraction, the £6.7 million revamp of Dudley marketplace, on the site which dates back to trading in the medieval times, which is due to complete in the summer and the £48 million redevelopment of Dudley College will also transform the town from sleeping giant to major destination. The work regenerating the town was recently shortlisted for the national Placemaking Awards 2015.

The work at Castle Hill, the site where the old railway station once stood and will now accommodate the new Innovation Centre, aims to bring in an extra 380,000 people a year to the town and boost the economy by £4.2 million a year. Rail is a key part of that.

Dudley’s very light-rail proposals

Exterior of the proposed Light Rail Innovation Centre in Dudley, UK

Exterior of the proposed Light Rail Innovation Centre in Dudley, UK

The proposals for very light-rail were given a huge boost in February 2015 when the scheme won £4.5 million towards the Innovation Centre. The funding announcement, through The Black Country Local Enterprise Partnership’s Growth Deal, accounts for just under a quarter of the £20 million scheme. The rest of the money will be generated through European funding, private sector investment and Dudley Council. It is a major step towards developing the technology for the system. The Light Rail Innovation Centre will specialise in prototype vehicle design and construction, as well as providing education, and research and development facilities to local businesses.

Many potential rail projects prove to be unaffordable when the costs of strengthening bridges and overhead electric lines are included. The task of the team at the Innovation Centre is to find an alternative way. The overall project aims to make Dudley and the Black Country the world’s leading provider of low-carbon, very-lightweight railcars, utilising hybrid propulsion technology to transform the performance, cost and sustainability of light-rail-based passenger services.

The centre will create 50 jobs for the town and kick-start a four year plan from the very earliest designs and prototyping testing to beginning to build the first trains to travel through Dudley in decades. Work on the scheme could start as soon as 2016 with council bosses setting a five year target for the rail line to re-open.

Interior of the proposed Light Rail Innovation Centre in Dudley, UK

Interior of the proposed Light Rail Innovation Centre in Dudley, UK

Further down the line, a consortium of leading companies, together with Warwick Manufacturing Group, are looking to create and sell 30-50 vehicles a year – a major boost to the local economy in the Black Country. The existing 60-100km of track nationally could be used to run them on, around 2km of which currently sit in Dudley and will link the town up to the network.

Once complete the very light-rail line will run from Castle Hill to Dudley Port train station over the border in Sandwell, which is on the rail network linked to Birmingham city centre.

All-in-all, these proposals are about delivering a high quality rail service, not only for Dudley but for the rest of the world. It will not only be cheaper and deliverable within four years but will have an impact well beyond that.

It will perfectly complement what we are working so hard to achieve in the town; bringing more people in to Dudley and boosting the local economy. We are always looking for alternative ways of getting people into the town other than the car. With the latest funding announcement, we must be on the right lines.

About the author

Khurshid AhmedCouncillor Khurshid Ahmed is Dudley Council’s Cabinet Member for Transportation, overseeing every aspect of road and rail developments across the Borough. He has been a Member of the council for nine years.

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