Opinion: Green light for Light Rail

Six years ago amid a huge amount of controversy, the then Transport Secretary Alistair Darling announced the scraping of several “tram schemes” designed to serve Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Hampshire. In doing so he effectively scrapped plans outlined by the then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott for a network of 30 Light Rail schemes to serve our major conurbations. The reason – escalating costs.

Light Rail was deemed too expensive in this country compared to costs on the continent.

Despite a subsequent report from the Transport Select Committee on what could be done to reduce costs little was done by the Department of Transport (DfT), which was to all intents and purposes “anti-tram”.

Only the Greater Manchester Authorities succeeded in reversing Darling’s decision, mounting a very successful all-party campaign that restored the £650m spending on the expansion of Metrolink in the region.

In Parliament in 2006 I set up the All-Party Light Rail Group that provided a regular forum for discussion and campaigning for light rail systems. This provided a focus for the successful campaigns for Nottingham and restoration of the Blackpool tram. However, the DfT maintained its stance that trams were too expensive. So much so, that a July 2009 report on Climate Change and government plans to combat it made no mention of the contribution trams can make to reducing greenhouse  emissions.

Last year just before the General Election the All-Party Light Rail Group produced a report entitled Light Rail & the City Regions Inquiry. This set out a number of changes that could be made to reduce the costs of tram schemes in the UK. A summary of the report was sent to all MPs elected after the General Election.

Then the Coalition agreement which for the first time contained a commitment to Light Rail. Along with the appointment of Norman Baker as Liberal Democrat Transport Minister, there was a step change in the way light rail schemes were treated by the DfT. Within weeks the evaluation model which was used to assess Light Rail schemes and which penalised them for taking cars off the road was scrapped, to be replaced with an assessment that for the first time put trams on a level planning field. All Light Rail schemes awaiting approval – Nottingham line 2, Birmingham, Manchester and Tyne and Wear were approved, but more importantly Norman commissioned a DfT report on what could be done to reduce the costs of such schemes. This reported during our conference and mirrored the APPG report. Among its most important recommendations was:

  1.  Treating utilities like water and gas the same as under roads – they do not need to be moved at the promoter’s expense.
  2. Developing collaboration between promoters and tram manufacturers to reduce costs.
  3. Giving transport authorities and local communities greater powers to decide to adopt schemes themselves without needing central government approval.
  4. Using Tram Train to expand the areas which can be reached by a light rail system.

This week this process is being taken a stage further when Norman Baker is hosting a “Tram Summit” to take his plans forward. For the first time this will give those involved in the tram community a real chance to influence government policy.

Trams are popular – outside of London the six tram schemes carry more people per year than buses. They are environmentally friendly and popular with travellers who do abandon their cars to use them. We now have an opportunity to develop tram schemes in cities like Leeds and Liverpool, but more importantly extend it to smaller cities and towns like Preston, Bristol and Middlesbrough.

We should also be extremely proud that it is a Liberal Democrat Minister who is bringing forward a green agenda for transport that will benefit all of us.

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5 Comments

  • This article is misleading. Public transport upgrades, including trams, were designed to be paid for, in part, by congestion charges. Unfortunately with the votes against a congestion charge in Manchester, and indications of similar outcomes elsewhere, the schemes were financially unaffordable.

    Congestion charges are an excellent idea, especially if the proceeds will fund public transport. Will Norman Baker pursue this as an option?

  • Some comments on the Edinburgh experience would be useful.

  • Old Codger Chris 30th Nov '11 - 3:20pm

    Add Cambridge Guided Busway to the Edinburgh trams. Light rail projects sound great but the devil may be in the detail.

  • The Edinburgh exoerience illustrates how not to go about doing a tram scheme – not properly costed and ridiculously over specified. Part of the problem in the past has been to treat trams as heavy rail and insist on regulations that add to the cost. What the Green Light for Light Rail does is provide a level playing field – why should promotors have to find 20% upfront when it is only 10% for a road scheme? Why should utilities be moved totally at the promoters expense? Why should trams be penalised because the Treasury loses income because there are fewer cars on the roads.
    These were some of the hidden costs of UK Tram schemes compared to costs on the continent. Yes Manchester involves utilises the Oldham Loop line but it will provide a vastly improved service – one tram from Rochdale to Manchester every 12 minutes compared to 2 trains every hour when it was heavy rail. Rochdale still has 3 trains an hour via the Calderdale line.
    No the expansion was not to be paid for by the failed congestion charge – only the extensions to Oldham and Rochdale Town Centres. The rest of the money would have funded a whole range of public transport improvements throughout Greater Manchester.
    Yesterday’s summitt was positive and shows the industry ready to rise to the challenge to get costs down to those on the continent.

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