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

Memorandum by Bristol Electric Railbus Limited (RT 06)



  1.1  The "Electric Railbus" is an innovative, flywheel-driven, zero-emission Ultra Light Rail vehicle. The system uses fixed, non-electric track and needs no overhead wires. The flywheel is charged at key stopping points via a low voltage electrical connection. It is designed to provide a low cost, passenger and pedestrian-friendly alternative to the polluting town bus, as part of an integrated transport network.

  1.2  Private funding, amounting to over £600,000, has already been put into the research and development of Bristol Ultra Light Rail. Bristol City Council and South Gloucester Council, as part of a European Union project (CENTAUR), commissioned a £30,000 feasibility study. This showed that Ultra Light Rail could provide significant modal shift from the private car to public transport. A pilot trial in Bristol, currently taking place using a prototype vehicle, has demonstrated the popularity of the scheme with over 40,000 people having ridden on it. The vehicle's safety record during this trial has been exemplary and patronage is increasing steadily.

  1.3  There is a need to now develop an improved vehicle and incorporate new, more energy-efficient technologies that are well proven, but have not so far been used in public transport. There is also a need to further develop the infrastructure in order to extend the route currently operated.

  1.4  Widespread interest has already been shown both in UK and overseas, indicating that there is a substantial market for Ultra Light Rail (ULR)—see the attached list of enquiries. It is essential now that the Company moves beyond mere demonstration and operates a fully viable public transport service that can prove the commercial feasibility of the concept. This can be done in Bristol, using mainly existing track with some new extensions at each end. To do this will require an investment of £3.4 million over a period of three years, mainly for infrastructure development but also for the development and manufacture of new vehicles.

  1.5  Financial forecasts show the Company becoming profitable, with a net profit in excess of £600,000 from sales of £976,000, in the financial year following completion of the planned infrastructure.

  1.6  The Bristol project is seen as the precursor of systems throughout the UK and worldwide. Bristol will provide not only a showcase for Ultra Light Rail, but also a test track for ULR vehicles and infrastructure. The improved rail tracks will demonstrate the smoothness and quietness of ride, as well as showing the advantages of mixed running in pedestrianised areas, segregated right of way and integration with other road traffic.


  Bristol Electric Railbus Ltd (BER) was formed to exploit the opportunities perceived in Ultra Light Rail and has been trading for some 18 months.

  ULR has been in the formative stage for around 8 years but had achieved no commercial applications from the age-old problem of who would be first to take the risk in investing in new technology albeit "low tec". The owner of BER, James Skinner (JS), purchased two ULR vehicles from Parry People Movers Ltd (PPM) in 1995-96 and was frustrated by PPM's inability to test them in public service. JS realised the only way to break into the market was to fund an independent operation himself in Bristol. This followed considerable interest in the idea in Bristol arising from a study that formed part of the European Union CENTAUR project in 1997.

  Using a single prototype ULR vehicle (the PPM No 10, now known as Bristol No 238), BER has operated a public service in Bristol, since May 1998, along the Harbourside from Prince Street Bridge to the SS Great Britain, a distance of some 700 metres using tracks owned by Bristol City Council. This vehicle, No 238, has now run for 10,000 kilometres, carrying some 40,000 passengers to date.

  This preliminary testing operation has been subsidised by the owner of BER and has so far involved an investment of over £100,000, excluding the capital cost of the vehicle. Welcome sponsorship from South Western Electricity plc (SWEB) has contributed a further £38,000 towards an overall cost. Previous investment by JS in developing and manufacturing vehicles and promoting ULR is in excess of £500,000.

  Bristol City Council has been very supportive of the operation and is keen to see the system expand. As part of this commitment, in addition to considerable officer time facilitating the project, the City Council has spent over £30,000 on feasibility studies as well as providing track and waiving access charges. Additionally, the Council has used its influence as a Planning Authority to secure funds totalling £50,000 for the project from two developers and is in negotiation with Rail Properties plc with a view to securing an extension to the existing route of the Railbus. The Council has invited BER to apply for a Revenue Support Grant and the application made by BER in May 1999 has resulted in a grant of £25,000 from the City to maintain the present operation until 31 March 2000. The Council has included ULR in its draft Local Transport Plan.


  The basic idea behind the ULR initiative is the adaptation of bus technology to create a low-cost, light-weight, energy-efficient, zero-emission, popular rail vehicle, using energy storage technology in its power drive system. Segregation from other vehicles, such as cars, is not necessary, but is desirable where congestion can cause delays. The Railbus is designed specifically to be suitable for operation in pedestrianised zones and shopping malls where it can mix with pedestrian traffic without causing alarm. ULR conforms with Government's policy to encourage and give preference to buses. The Railbus is itself simply a new kind of improved and up-dated bus, with zero pollution and enhanced potential for achieving modal transfer. The Railbus is designed to be especially accessible to disabled passengers, since the entrance is level with the ramped station platforms and there is plenty of flat space for buggies and wheelchairs. The ride itself, because it runs on rails, is much smoother than that possible on a conventional bus. Acceleration and braking of the Railbus is smooth and quiet, again ensuring a safe and comfortable ride.

  ULR has been approved by Her Majesty's Railway Inspectorate as being capable of operating safely in conjunction with pedestrians and other transport modes. The vehicle, because of its small size, and relatively low speeds, is particularly suited for operating in pedestrian environments. The trial currently operating along the Harbourside is in an area of mixed transport modes with a preponderance of pedestrians but also some cars. The trial has operated very successfully in this respect.

  ULR is environmentally friendly in terms of noise, emissions and visual impact. Propulsion is by energy stored within the vehicle, either in batteries or in an onboard flywheel, topped up by electricity at Railbus stops. Electricity for the current demonstration is supplied by SWEB under their Green Electron scheme for renewable energy. This scheme, in return for paying higher standing charges, guarantees to purchase at least an equivalent amount of energy from fully renewable generators (eg Hydro, landfill methane). The existing ULR demonstration thus has zero emissions not only at the point of delivery, but also throughout the electricity generation process.

  Steel wheels on steel rails have been chosen to minimise energy use and energy is recovered during the braking process. No intrusive overhead lines are necessary and there is no need to encase and insulate the track to prevent stray electric currents. The flywheel or battery energy storage system is charged via a short length of low voltage (70V) touch safe electric rail at key stops, which is switched off when the vehicle is not at the station.

  In 1997, Bristol City Council and South Gloucester Council commissioned Turner and Townsend to carry out a feasibility study looking at the economic viability of a ULR scheme in Bristol as part of the European Union funded CENTAUR initiative. The Project Working Group included representatives from the two City Councils, First Group, Waterhouse and Sons, with advice from Triodos Bank and transport consultants, Transport and Travel Research Ltd.

  The study showed that, if the vehicle were to be operated along a route between Harbourside and Bristol City Centre, charging fares comparable to those charged by existing bus services in the city, it would offer a commercial proposition generating an operating surplus.

  Further work, including a business case, has since been undertaken by BER and AEA Technology Rail that substantially confirms these findings.

  At present Railbuses are being designed to carry 30-40 passengers since this is the most popular size of town centre bus. It is intended that the design will be modular so that vehicles may be strung together to create larger capacity vehicles, where these are required. The emphasis will be on frequent service by small vehicles rather than larger vehicles running at longer intervals, since the public does not respond well to long waits at bus stops. ULR is thus ideally suited to act as a feeder system to the national rail network and "conventional" light rail.

  The Railbus has already been approved by Her Majesty's Railway Inspectorate. The need for planning permission and approval under the Transport and Works Act have been thoroughly explored both as part of the feasibility study and in BER's operation in Bristol. The DETR have indicated that they will cooperate in finding a low-cost, fast track solution for ULR, since they appreciate that the T and WA was designed to regulate conventional light rail, before ULR appeared on the scene. ULR track does not interfere with services under the road, which simplifies its installation and greatly reduces infrastructure costs.

  Fifteen months of operation in Bristol have proved the concept of ULR. It is now essential to develop a more technically sophisticated and professionally built new vehicles to replace the prototype vehicle used in the trial. This has led BER, in conjunction with Multimodal Finance Ltd (MMF), to commission further work on the design and manufacture of improved Railbuses. The guiding principle is that the new vehicles will use well-proven technology, adapted for use in the particular circumstances required. The energy efficiency of future Railbuses will be enhanced to allow greater distances between stops, faster charging times and reduced electricity consumption.


  The initial selection of Bristol for the first public trial of ULR was on the basis that track was in place which replicated street running, as well as open "reserved" track, a selection of points and crossings and a supportive local authority that owned some of these assets.

  Since the commencement of the daily service in Bristol, interest in ULR has moved forward both in the UK and overseas. Bristol is fortunate that a major portion of new route opportunities exist in the form of a disused rail right of way, with track in position. Extensions are possible at either end of the existing right of way to take Railbuses into the centre of the city, at one end, and to a major Park-and-Ride facility at the other.

  Our proposal deals with the phased re-opening of this route allowing Bristol to gradually reap the benefits of a steadily improving, viable transport mode which can offer an attractive alternative to the motorist, whilst at the same time contributing to the reduction of emissions in the city centre area.

  The proposed funding will allow both the development of new vehicles and for physical progress in providing the City with a valuable infrastructure. With a large proportion of the infrastructure in place it will be relatively easy for the project to deliver its proposed outcomes. At the same time the route will be available for testing out new vehicles suitable for ULR operation. The complete route will provide a working demonstration of a new form of zero emission public transport, available at an affordable cost. This will lead to replication of the system elsewhere in the UK as well as stimulating important levels of exports overseas.

  BER has attracted considerable interest both with private enterprise partners and Local Government; some £600,000 from the private sector, including £38,000 from SWEB. £31,500 has come from public bodies, including Bristol City Council, South Gloucester Council and the European Union. Further contributions through the planning process, as part of permissions for development, amount to £50,000.


  Presently the Railbus route is from Prince Street Bridge to the SS Great Britain using a single track along the Harbourside with platforms at either end and at the Industrial Museum. The Railbus is presently temporarily housed in the Museum's workshop.

  This project aims to extend the route of the demonstration towards a viable public transport proposition and to provide the required infrastructure. This includes additional track and signalling, a new vehicle depot, charging points, platforms and improved vehicles.

(a)  Route and Infrastructure

  The extension to the route can be presented in sections (see route plan below).

The Buttery to CREATE Centre—1,300 Metres

  The Buttery lies midway between the Industrial Museum and the SS Great Britain. A parallel rail track diverges at this point and provides a route to the CREATE Centre, a former tobacco warehouse owned by the Council, which is being progressively renovated to provide office accommodation. The City is relocating Council employees to this site but there is a shortage of space for parking facilities. The extension of the Railbus service to the CREATE Centre will mitigate demand for parking and thus contribute to a reduction in car traffic. The track exists but requires upgrading for regular use.

  An intermediate platform at Vauxhall Bridge is needed to serve growing Harbourside housing development, again taking pressure away from the need to create more car-parking spaces.

Connection to link the CREATE line with the SS Great Britain line at The Buttery

  This connection would enable the Railbus to continue to the more useful destination of Prince Street Bridge and operate to the CREATE Centre during the morning, lunch and evening peaks on this route and to the SS Great Britain at other times of the day. The Railbus could also continue to operate to the CREATE Centre when the quayside route is required for steam train operations.

  During this stage we see the preparatory work for a separate Railbus depot enabing the fleet to grow, with purpose built maintenance facilities. This stage would deal with the track installation, pit facilities and security fencing.

CREATE Centre to Ashton Gate—700 Metres

  Again existing track is in place but requiring upgrading. This expansion of the service moves us beyond the CREATE Centre to a Bowling Alley, a further potential Park-and-Ride site, an industrial estate and Bristol City football ground. The proposal includes rehabilitation of a derelict area along the rail tracks.

  This brings the service up to a Railtrack line, presently unused, between Bristol and Portishead. North Somerset District Council have commissioned a study to evaluate this route in conjunction with reopening the line for freight to Royal Portbury Docks and a Railbus extension in this direction is one of the options being evaluated. During this stage futher work would be undertaken on the Railbus depot.

  Signalling will be introduced at this stage to control the single line sections between The Buttery and CREATE Centre and the bridge across the New Cut (Ashton Avenue Swing Bridge) between the CREATE Centre and Ashton Gate.

The Buttery to Prince Street Bridge—500 Metres

  The current Railbus demonstration is displaced periodically during the Industrial Museum's operation of its steam train along the Harbourside track—(roughly every other weekend between March and October). This stage deals with the separation of the Railbus service from the steam train operations of the Industrial Museum and of double track construction to maximise service frequency. During this stage the depot accommodation would be completed. This separation is required to enable BER to provide a 7-day a week public service without interruption from the leisure-orientated steam services.

Prince Street Bridge to the Tramways Centre—700 Metres

  This particularly essential stage brings the Railbus service to the City Centre. Until this is completed services will require an operational subsidy (see attached patronage predictions). This is scheduled for the final year of the scheme, to take account of the Transport and Works Act requirements and likely timescale.

  This would be the first true application of ULR in a street running situatin and will provide further valuable experience in this area.

  Signalling will be provided to control the single line section between the Arnolfini contemporary arts centre and Tramways Centre.

Ashton Gate to Long Ashton Park and Ride—1,000 Metres

  This stage extends the Railbus route to join the Railtrack line to cross a level crossing and immediately diverge on a new double track formation to a significant Park and Ride facility. This is presently not used to its capacity as the associated bus services to the City are enmeshed with general traffic congestion. This extension would make a very significant contribution to encouraging people to leave their cars out of town, thereby improving air quality in Bristol. Signalling will be provided to deal with the interface with Railtrack and control a single line section.

(b)  Vehicles

  As outlined previously there is a pressing need for a new vehicle to replace the prototype. The next stage vehicle needs to address the prototype's shortcomings, build on new technologies and have very strict quality control. Further tests are now being carried out on an improved flywheel system incorporating a permanent magnet brushless DC motor-generator developed in conjuction with Airscrew Howden and the University of East London. Work is also under way to produce a vehicle using alternative technology making use of the latest developments in rapid recharge batteries. In both cases the technology is well established and in general use so that standard parts can be used and maximum reliability achieved in adapting it for a new category of public transport.

  As the Bristol routes expand there will be a steady need for further vehicles to meet demand. In order for the project to come to fruition, it is necessary to commission and build four new vehicles. It is expected that the prototype vehicle now in use will be taken out of service when the new Railbuses come on stream to be upgraded and converted to the same standard.


Places which have made enquiries for potential systems

United Kingdom
AberystwythAshford (Kent) Barking
Birmingham AirportBlackpool Bournemouth
EastbourneEdinburgh Epping-Ongar
HartlepoolHastingsHemel Hempstead
High WycombeIlkeston Isle of Wight
London Oxford StreetLondon Regent Street* London Royal Docks*
Luton-DunstableMilton Keynes* Norwich
SandwellScarborough Southend*
Thanet*Tunbridge Wells West Midlands
Weymouth*Wolverhampton Yeovil
United States
Grand CanyonLas Vegas Portland
New Zealand
Port Louis*

  *Places where feasibility studies have been completed.



  This bill was enacted before ULR was conceived and is far too cumbersome and expensive to permit the wide scale use of ULR. For example, it is calculated that the legal fees to enable our proposed 600-metre extension to the City Centre in Bristol will exceed the capital costs!

  This area of legislation needs to be revisited to make the installation of ULR comparable with street furniture and merely be part of the planning process.

2.  Health and Safety Executive—The Railway Inspectorate (HMRI)

  In our experience the HMRI have been unfailingly helpful and provided much advice and guidance to the embryonic ULR. Proposals to impose charges for their services will greatly affect low cost ULR schemes. The other significant effect on ULR will be to lessen the consultation with HMRI leading to costly last minute revisions to meet their requirements.

3.  The Shadow Strategic Rail Authority

  The SRA, as inheritors of BRB property, are in the process of debating the sale of the track bed in Bristol that forms the backbone of our proposed ULR system. The SRA has a licence with Bristol Industrial Museum to permit occasional steam trains to operate on this track bed. Despite many requests Bristol Electric Railbus is frustrated from using this line pending the outcome of sale negotiations.

  There are other disused track beds in many locations still in the ownership of the SRA. These should be more readily made available to transport operators.

  The SRA also look after the Rail Passenger Partnership scheme that seems tailor made for the Bristol project. They are only allowed to disburse money through Train Operating Companies and we would need to find a TOC to act as a conduit for the transmission of funds!

4.  The DETR

  We had been lead to believe DETR would assist the testing and implementation of ULR schemes by pump priming the initial Bristol scheme. Despite long discussions and document preparation Bristol Electric Railbus was refused funding by the DETR. The irony is that the bulk of the funding applied for would have been used to upgrade infrastructure that became the property of Bristol City Council.

  The Government has, to date, been long on words of encouragement but short on positive action.

5.  The DTI

  Again the Government have made encouraging noises by recognising ULR has export potential but have failed to do anything to help.

6.  The Department of Health

  25,000 deaths a year from the effect of toxic road traffic fumes fail to interest anyone in zero emission transport. Again the problems are recognised but no one seems interested in practical solutions.


  We have, through Bristol Electric Railbus Limited, attempted to demonstrate that Ultra Light Rail has a viable and successful future. The total costs of the one single scheme in Bristol are of the order of £3.5 million and achievable in a short time scale.

  The barriers to achievement are all public sector organisations; DETR, DTI, DoH, SRA and HSE, all of whom profess to wish to see cleaner, healthier, attractive and popular forms of public transport.

Martin S Miller,

Chief Executive

1 October 1999

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2000
Prepared 8 June 2000