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


Memorandum by the Railway Development Society (RT 07)

INQUIRY INTO LIGHT RAPID TRANSIT SYSTEMS

  I refer to your request for memoranda on the above subject.

  The Railway Development Society exists to promote the use and development of rail transport in all its forms, for both passenger and freight traffic. We recognise that light rail (and other forms of transit) have a vital role to play in the totality of sustainable transport. In the spirit of the Integrated Transport White Paper, we wish to see as much integration as possible between all systems.

  As a general rule we see LRT systems as offering the means to bring the benefits of rapid transit to areas not reached (and not capable of being reached) by conventional rail (as in Sheffield). It follows that we take a wary view of proposals to convert existing (or disused) rail routes into light railways (or busways). Nevertheless we recognise that there can be benefits to be gained from conversions, in the form of better penetration of city centres, or linking of otherwise disconnected sections of rail formation. Most of the existing UK systems (Tyne-Wear, Manchester, West Midlands, Croydon) illustrate these benefits to varying degrees.

  One major drawback to light rail is that it cannot cater for freight traffic. Obviously this is not a problem on unsegregated or partially segregated street-based schemes. But when existing rail formations are utilised, there is a danger that rail freight flows may be sacrificed. Compromise solutions, such as parallel single-track working, or moving freight at night, limit capacity and produce operating problems. Willingness to lift restrictions on mixed operation of light and heavy passenger services in the UK at long last (for the Sunderland metro extension) is welcome. Such shared working has been routine in Karlsruhe for many years without mishap, and the scope thus created for through running greatly increases the value of the light rail system. Perhaps in due course the same flexibility will be extended to include freight. Meantime, where rail formations are used, care must be taken to ensure that existing rail freight traffic is not displaced, and that the track and structure gauge required for conventional rail operation is safeguarded to allow for future upgrading or through working.

  Where conversions do take place, or where LRT links otherwise unconnected parts of the heavy rail network, it is essential as we see it, to ensure that the benefits of integration with the "mainline" rail network are retained, including through fares and ticketing, information availability out of area, and so on. Ideally we would wish to see this extended to all LRT systems (zonal fares systems in the conurbations concerned, and computerised journey planners, will facilitate this). But in the meantime any converted route must remain just as much part of the railway network as any other franchised service. Equally, LRT has to be fully integrated with the bus system. Where this has not been done, and premium fares charged, this had tended to result in lower patronage and financial problems.

  Much has been made in several quarters including the government, of the high cost of light rail/LRT in comparison to investment in buses. Yes of course, any fixed track system is relatively expensive, and is only appropriate in locations where patronage will merit it, but it is misleading simply to compare the cost of trams, say, with that of buses. It is widely recognised that the higher quality the transit system, the more people are prepared to forsake private cars for public transport, and experience in Continental Europe bears this out. In general, trains and trams perform best, followed by guided buses or trolleybuses, with ordinary buses least successful. The question to ask is not "how many buses can be bought for the price of an LRT system?" but rather "how many car journeys are prevented per pound spent on each type of transit system?"

  Account also needs to be taken of the environmental benefits, especially in polluted city centres, of electrically powered transit systems, whether tram, trolleybus or electric rail, compared to diesel trains and buses or petrol driven cars. The present management and financial structures, especially of the rail industry make this difficult.

  Finally, we note that LRT and tram systems are widespread in European and North American cities. Many different types of system have proven track records in different circumstances appropriate to their several characteristics. By contrast in the UK, all such systems seem to be regarded as unproven new technology, to be treated with kid gloves and installed warily in only one location at a time! This is misguided, frustrating, and contrary to the spirit of the Integrated Transport White Paper.

M G Crowhurst,
Policy Adviser and National Executive member

October 1999


 
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