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The future looks bright for UK light-rail systems

Posted: 6 May 2011 | Colin Walton, President, Light Rapid Transit Forum (LRTF) | No comments yet

While most would admit that the United Kingdom lags behind much of Europe in opening new light-rail systems in its major cities, the current coalition government seems keen to draw a line in the sand and examine major new developments as soon as the economic clouds lift.

Urban transit schemes have largely survived the Comprehensive Spending Review, in spite of cuts of £12-13 million being imposed on Department for Transport’s budgets in the years up to 2015.

The investment decisions, announced on 20 October 2010, were welcomed by the Light Rapid Transit Forum (LRTF), which represents private sector interests, and has assumed a key lobbying role in the industry. Its members include manufacturers, suppliers, and support agencies, working in tandem with public sector co-ordinating bodies such as UKTram, the Confederation of Public Transport, and pteg (Passenger Transport Executives in some major cities).

While most would admit that the United Kingdom lags behind much of Europe in opening new light-rail systems in its major cities, the current coalition government seems keen to draw a line in the sand and examine major new developments as soon as the economic clouds lift. Urban transit schemes have largely survived the Comprehensive Spending Review, in spite of cuts of £12-13 million being imposed on Department for Transport’s budgets in the years up to 2015. The investment decisions, announced on 20 October 2010, were welcomed by the Light Rapid Transit Forum (LRTF), which represents private sector interests, and has assumed a key lobbying role in the industry. Its members include manufacturers, suppliers, and support agencies, working in tandem with public sector co-ordinating bodies such as UKTram, the Confederation of Public Transport, and pteg (Passenger Transport Executives in some major cities).

While most would admit that the United Kingdom lags behind much of Europe in opening new light-rail systems in its major cities, the current coalition government seems keen to draw a line in the sand and examine major new developments as soon as the economic clouds lift.

Urban transit schemes have largely survived the Comprehensive Spending Review, in spite of cuts of £12-13 million being imposed on Department for Transport’s budgets in the years up to 2015.

The investment decisions, announced on 20 October 2010, were welcomed by the Light Rapid Transit Forum (LRTF), which represents private sector interests, and has assumed a key lobbying role in the industry. Its members include manufacturers, suppliers, and support agencies, working in tandem with public sector co-ordinating bodies such as UKTram, the Confederation of Public Transport, and pteg (Passenger Transport Executives in some major cities).

I am delighted that the benefits of quality urban transit are now being taken seriously at all levels. We have an excellent dialogue with Transport Minister Norman Baker and his team. As well as understanding each others’ priorities, we have at last overcome the historic problem of having to start virtually from scratch every time a new proposal comes through.

The UK has slipped a long way behind its Western European neighbours in terms of numbers of schemes and delivery times – a French project can be turned from dream to reality in five years; gaining approval for a simple extension of Midland Metro in Birmingham city centre has taken 20.

The future looks brighter. Capital spending on railborne city transport is to be maintained, and by 2014/15, investments in schemes across the country are expected to be higher in real terms than in 2005/06.

In the UK there are seven light-rail systems: Blackpool Tramway; Sheffield Supertram; Manchester Metrolink; Nottingham Express Transit; Midland Metro (Centro); Docklands Light Railway (DLR) and Croydon – now London – Tramlink; the last five were funded using the Public Private Partnership model with DLR having had three extensions funded using PPP.

Three systems; Leeds Supertram, South Hampshire Rapid Transit (SHRT) and Manchester Metrolink Phase 3, were to be delivered using PPP, but were cancelled by the former Labour government in July 2004.

Three metros operate in the UK: London Underground Limited (LUL), Tyne & Wear Metro and Glasgow Subway. LUL has utilised PPP extensively to deliver two line-based projects, four network-wide projects, a line extension and the remaining network.

The largest rail PPP project undertaken in the UK was LUL’s controversial £16 billion contract for three 30-year infrastructure service contracts awarded in 2003 to Metronet and Tubelines. The only other metro extension project in the UK was the Sunderland extension to the Tyne & Wear Metro in 2002. The £1 billion East London Line orbital railway is being funded by grant and operates under a concession; and the £15.9 billion Crossrail project is being primarily funded by grant and a local business tax.

These are the latest LRT headlines:

Under the 2010/11 government review, the expansion of both the Midland Metro and Nottingham Express Transit systems has been confirmed, and the already agreed modernisation of the Tyne & Wear Metro and expansion of Manchester Metrolink remains in place.

London’s Crossrail (a multi-billion heavy rail project) has also been protected, as have other rail projects (including main line electrification to Cardiff, Oxford and Blackpool, and London Underground) schemes.

It is gratifying that the government has appreciated the importance of investing in urban transport infrastructure, particularly lightrail. Light-rail schemes are an important catalyst in the economic regeneration of our city regions, as well as bringing considerable environmental and health benefits.

The major LRT headlines are:

The extension of Midland Metro to New Street station in Birmingham city centre has been agreed, as has the tram fleet replacement programme.

The two proposed new Nottingham Express Transit extensions to Clifton and Chilwell, which are being funded as a Private Finance Initiative project, are to go ahead subject to a review of how the proposals can be delivered cost effectively while still achieving environmental and economic benefits.

Manchester Metrolink’s ‘big bang’ expansion package is to continue, with funding at previously agreed levels.

The Tyne & Wear Metro’s £500 million modernisation programme is to continue, with funding at previously agreed levels.

Track-laying for the extension of Metrolink started at Rochdale railway station on 25 October 2010. Metrolink will reach Rochdale in 2012 and be extended to the town centre in 2014.

The short extension of Metrolink to MediaCityUK has been opened to serve a major development driven by the transfer of British Broadcasting Corporation activities from London and elsewhere.

A report to the then Greater Manchester Integrated Transport Authority (GMITA) – now Transport for Greater Manchester Committee – has suggested that tram-trains could provide a cost-effective way of easing overcrowding on the region’s railways through the operation of a higher frequency service.

The report urged the GMITA to support the Sheffield–Parkgate tram-train trial, which would help establish a case for Metrolink-type operations to be extended to existing heavy rail corridors.

The first trial run on the new Chorlton branch to St Werburgh’s Road, was undertaken on 8 January 2011.

Extending the tramway from the new terminus south to Didsbury and Manchester Airport is now a priority for Metrolink’s contractors: clearance work beyond St. Werburgh’s Road station (to be renamed Chorlton High) is now underway. It will eventually reach East Didsbury in 2013.

The new Metrolink line to Oldham and Rochdale opens in 2012, as well as to Droylsden.

Centro (the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive) has described the UK Government’s confirmation that it will finance the £127 million extension of Midland Metro from the existing Snow Hill terminus through Birmingham city centre to a rebuilt New Street station as “fantastic news.”

Included in the approval is the acquisition of a fleet of new trams, allowing increases in passenger capacity and a boost of frequency to every six minutes throughout the day, plus a new workshop and maintenance facility at Wednesbury.

The extension to the current 12.5m (20km) line to the centre of Wolverhampton will see trams running along a viaduct at Snow Hill (already built), stopping outside a new entrance at New Street. The extension will take around two years to build.

Centro is still investigating ways of funding the proposed Wednesbury to Brierley Hill Metro branch and also extending it beyond Brierley Hill and into the neighbouring town of Stourbridge. The PTE expects that sharing tracks between main line freight trains and light-rail vehicles would save £60 million from what had been estimated as a £289 million extension.

The government’s support to Nottingham’s planned phase 2 extensions is subject to detailed discussions with Nottingham City Council over affordability. The previous administration indicated it would provide £530 million of the expected £680 million.

Two consortia – Arrow Connect and Tramlink Nottingham – have been bidding to build and operate the extended tram network, proposals for which have received considerable support from the local business community. Also approved is the redevelopment of Nottingham railway station, which needs to be bridged by the extension to Clifton.

A new and dramatic wave is washing over the shore at the southern tip of Blackpool on the England’s north-western coast. As the Blackpool–Fleetwood tramway prepares to celebrate its 125th anniversary in September, the £102 million modernisation – with 16 new Bombardier FLEXITY 2 trams, new track, electrics and signalling – is a model of speed and efficiency.

As some UK light-rail schemes become embroiled in time-consuming bureaucracy, soaring costs and long delays, the Blackpool project could provide a new model for quicker and less costly LRT provision (though the resort, of course, already has the alignment and necessary permissions in place).

The scheme is being planned and implemented by a small, tight-knit team at Blackpool Council. The authority owns the infrastructure, while Blackpool Transport Services – a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Borough Council – will run the trams when they start work in spring 2012.

Turning to London, Tramlink has started the search for extra trams to augment its hardpressed fleet of 24, and continues to investigate extensions as well as improve the present system with more double-tracking.

Also in the Capital, many of London’s DLR stations have been rebuilt to accommodate the longer trains needed for increased passenger demand. Having lift and escalator access, with level entry from platforms to trains with good circulating space, the Greater London Authority’s Transport for London (TfL) body claims the DLR is ‘Britain’s most accessible rail network.’

Notwithstanding services for special events or depot workings, basic routes are Bank–Lewisham, Tower Gateway– Beckton, Stratford–Canary Wharf and Bank– Woolwich Arsenal.

London’s hosting of the 2012 Olympic Games means the DLR will provide spectator transport to several venues including the Olympic Park at Stratford. TfL expects normal daily passenger loadings to double to 500,000 during the world sporting event. The Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) has partially funded system expansion, including the Canning Town to Stratford International line and a tranche of new rolling stock.

The Tyne & Wear Metro (Newcastle) is to receive the largest cash boost in its 30-year history, £580 million for the overhaul of rolling stock and stations, and a complete new ticketing system. Against an in-house bid, DB Regio has signed up to operate the system.

Now well into its second decade, Sheffield continues to provide a magnificent service with effectively the same equipment as when it began. However, its 25 trams have enjoyed a recent total facelift, and there remains the ambition to expand the current 18m network to reach Rotherham and to the south.

Finally, a brief comment about Edinburgh. The legal disputes over planning, procurement and delivery are still far from settled, and the system may open three years behind schedule in 2014, but there seems little doubt that when the trams do run, the critics will be clamouring for extensions that are currently on the backburner as unaffordable. In 10 years time, city residents in their cleaner, quieter city will be wondering how they managed so long without Edinburgh’s trams.

About the Author

The LRTF’s very active working President is Colin Walton, Chairman of Bombardier, the UK’s only volume train builder, who is a regular attendee and policy driver at meetings.

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