Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by David Holt, Esq (RT 04)


  I understand that you are chairing a sub-committee to investigate light rapid transit, and that an invitation has been made for submissions.

  I am particularly grateful for this opportunity to offer my input because in 1984 and 1985 I conceived the extension of Manchester Metrolink into Salford Quays and Trafford Park. No other notion of these schemes pre-dates my original submissions.

  One of the resulting projects (Salford Quays/Eccles) is nearing completion and the other (Trafford Park/Dumplington) has Parliamentary approval and awaits funding. I therefore claim that for a considerable number of years I have had a useful understanding of light rail.

  The dawning of the new Millennium will, in only a few weeks' time, stimulate some profound re-thinking about the future. Transport in particular will be a focal point for debate, so it is essential that decision-makers have a full understanding of light rail as the finest symbol of the effective integrated urban public transport system.

  Light rail's strongest asset—its shiny steel track placed under people's noses in public places—is unique to it. All alternative modes suffer from not having this feature, so are comparatively less fit for their purpose. This is the root cause of the bus's lack of appeal and its inability to make any real impact. It does not have light rail's shiny rails, which are attractive and subliminally reassuring like silverware, jewellery or coins, and at the same time give people and businesses confidence in a community which has the self-assurance and common sense to invest in itself rather than being content with random buses.

  Light rail does not have to go everywhere. It has an essential job to do as the carefully-designed core and flagship of integrated public transport systems emulating those serving cities like San Francisco and Amsterdam.

  The capital cost of light rail is high, but transport-system quality is too vital to be dismissed cheaply. It is important to fully evaluate all of light rail's benefits, which can, totally, be more valuable than the bare transport function.

  A visibly fixed transit system gives inflexible guarantees of labour force mobility, enabling an employer's recruitment net to be flung more widely and at the same time encouraging job-seekers to expand their horizons.

  Light rail's infrastructure, uniquely, functions as an orientation aid in town and city centres. The words "follow the tram tracks", "turn left when you've crossed the tramway" and so on are commonly used to direct strangers within central Manchester. The value of this feature to businesses and individuals is significant.

  Light rail systems become symbolic of the cities and regions they serve, and are associated with developed countries having stable political systems.

  Tram tracks installed in-street provide a smooth and roadworks-free path for other vehicles. Manchester's Mosley Street is an example, where trams share an alignment with buses and taxis. Yet the bus and taxi operators contributed nothing to the cost of track installation and surfacing, the removal of gullies or the diversion of plant. All the costs of these improvements were borne by the "expensive" tramway.

  It should not be forgotten that heavily-loaded tram-replacing buses wrecked the Victorian sewer systems under our city streets in the 1950s and 1960s, causing disruptive and costly replacement works twenty or so years later. Steel tram rails in bus wheel paths prevent that sort of subterranean damage. So perhaps tramways aren't so expensive after all when you take a wider view.

  There is, though, scope for reducing costs by increasing professional and political knowledge and understanding about light rail. In particular, a body such as the Transport and Road Research Laboratory should set up common engineering and environmental standards and methods of construction and operation for new light rail schemes, drawing heavily on past worldwide experience. This would give Public Inquiry inspectors and others a template to which to refer. Ignorance and a degree of professional arrogance have contributed to some abuses of public trust in the recent past, particularly in terms of safety and environmental standards. Shortage of knowledge has been compounded by questionable, occasionally almost whimsical, judgements made by the Railway Inspector, whose precise light rail role and powers have never been properly defined or understood.

  Commercial vested interests, pride, arrogance and misguidedness have often overridden the competence of the small number of well-motivated professional light rail people and politicians. Light rail champions and experts tend by nature to be unaggressive, and this can weaken their influence in key quarters when they are ranked against less gentlemanly or mild-mannered protagonists.

  Manchester Metrolink provides a good (or very bad) example. During the 1980s, the public-sector promoters of Metrolink undertook a series of study tours to gather information and knowledge about overseas light rail systems. The rational course of action thereafter would have been for the light rail promoter (GMPTE) to fully specify the new system and to force contractors to deliver a product closely engineered and scaled to GMPTE's objectives. But that is not what happened.

  The design and specification of Metrolink were thrown over to an inexperienced private sector enjoying the support of the same misguided politicians and public servants who privatised our buses. Metrolink's contractors had not been studying light rail like the public sector promoters during the conceptual and promotional stages of the system. They had been busy with nuclear power stations, tunnels, roads, heavy railways and so on. At the contractual stage, tramway expertise was shoved aside. Even the word "tram" was ludicrously avoided, and still is to some extent. So it isn't surprising that mistakes were made, which are still being paid for today.

  It is particularly sad that one of the greatest mistakes caused by misguidedness and warping of objectives during, and since, the implementation of Metrolink—the system's capacity shortfall—has well and truly taken root and looks likely to persist through successive extensions.

  GMPTE once declared that the Phase One system (Bury-Altrincham) would need 37 vehicles, and the project was "sold" to a trusting public on that basis. But Metrolink opened with only 26 vehicles, and suffers from nasty overcrowding at peak times. Consequently, Metrolink cannot yet be said to be wholly successful. But greater success could be attained simply and in a relatively short time, by ordering those missing 11 vehicles, and then by ensuring that, in future, capacity always stays in front of demand. Off-peak fares should at the same time be lowered, and travel stimuli introduced, until the extra capacity outside the peaks is filled.

  Instead, the reverse is being allowed to happen. Insufficient vehicles have been ordered coincident with the Eccles extension, and no allowance has been made for growth in existing patronage due to new transfer opportunities. This is a recipe for increased overcrowding and unreliability. If you can't get on one overflowing tram after another, for example at an interchange point, those trams might just as well have been cancelled as far as your journey to or from work is concerned.

  If further extensions are implemented with perpetuated shortfalls in capacity, the effects will be compounded. The more comprehensive the network becomes (like the London Underground), the greater will be the amount of traffic generated by new transfer opportunities. Overcrowding and consequent fare evasion and statistical distortion will increase exponentially, making the system less and less successful at peak times as it expands.

  If light rail is the ultimate public transport "carrot", capable of luring commuters out of their cars, then it surely needs to be a fat, juicy carrot and not the underdeveloped, scrawny but thinly proliferating specimen represented by today's Manchester Metrolink.

  Light rail suffers in the UK from other handicaps.

  There is no professional body representing the light rail "industry". Buses, railways, proprietary systems (monorails and other "Thunderbirds" modes, and "guided light transit" systems) all have their own well-funded promotional bodies, watchdogs or marketing initiatives. Light rail has none of that, simply because it is so multi-disciplinary, loosely-defined and diversified. But that does not make it any less effective as a transport solution. What it does mean is that, if we are to benefit from light rail we must compensate for the known lack of light rail championship.

  The tram has suffered from dreadfully unfair publicity in the UK. British cities threw away comprehensive and efficient tramway systems that were the last word in urban transit. Many reasons have been put forward for their wholesale abandonment. The real root causes of their loss—downright laziness on the part of transport providers, and greed on the part of bus, rubber and oil industries—are seldom recognised.

  Transport managers and local politicians just couldn't be bothered with trams. They were too "difficult to do". Decision-makers had to worry not only about the vehicles themselves, but also the tracks, the power supply systems and the depots, not to mention Parliamentary powers, property acquisition, civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering, roadworks, traffic signalling, services diversions, planning consents and so on. With buses, you just took delivery of the vehicles, trained the drivers and hit the road. For the lazy, tired transport providers of the 1950s and 1960s, this was the soft option. But it wasn't right. For one thing, it substantially increased our dependence on foreign oil supplies, severely distorting international diplomacy.

  The public, who actually liked trams, wouldn't swallow municipal laziness and industrial greed as transport policy driving-forces. That is why the newspapers were filled with such a lot of humbug about trams being old-fashioned, inflexible and in the way of motorists. An interesting relic of old anti-tram attitudes has lingered on editorially in the "Sheffield Star" newspaper. Mud sticks, and other traces of the stigma hung on trams forty and more years ago can be detected today, not least within the light rail "industry" itself.

  This stigmatisation of trams contributed to the dreadful scarcity of light rail awareness and knowledge prevailing within British professional and political quarters throughout the 1960s and 70s. It wasn't cool to be seen to know about trams. Some politicians, academics, commentators and members of pressure groups and the professions scorned and ignored trams, so that the lessons of history failed to be properly applied. A unique "expertise gap" exists between the demise of the first-generation tramway systems and the slow emergence of new systems, and there has been far too much re-invention of the wheel at considerable cost in terms of contract time, money and quality. It is for this one reason alone fortunate that the emergence of new light rail systems in the UK has been so slow—otherwise it would have disastrously outstripped the painfully slow growth of professional and political knowledge about this powerful and permanent solution to our urban mobility problems.


  light rail is uniquely effective as a transport solution because of its shiny steel rails prominently embedded in publicly accessible places;

  light rail suffers in the UK from a lack of promotional championship;

  when carefully planned and expertly implemented, light rail is far more cost-effective than it is made out to be;

  light rail is not yet fully understood in the UK; there has been lingering stigmatisation of, and consequent ignorance about, light rail technology;

  Manchester Metrolink suffers from severe overcrowding which will worsen exponentially unless remedied by fleet expansion on existing routes;

  light rail works best as the core and flagship of an integrated urban public transport system, and is symbolic of attractive cities in developed countries;

  light rail can help reduce politically expensive dependency on oil supplies.

September 1999

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