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

Memorandum by David T Catling, Esq (RT 21)


  I wish to offer the following observations to the Sub-Committee, based on over 50 years' experience in urban passenger transport, working for London Transport in all aspects of Underground train and bus engineering, and then as an independent Consultant. I have specialised in LRT for the last 20 years, and was involved in all aspects of the early planning and building of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) and then as its first Engineering Manager. Latterly I have advised on many of the current UK conventional and novel proposed LRT schemes, also in Colombia, Malaysia and, more recently, the new Stockholm LRT system.

  As a long serving member of the International Union of Public Transport (UITP) Light Rail Committee, I am able to compare UK and Continental experience at first-hand. However I certainly do not regard LRT as a panacea for all urban transit problems, but always urge that it should only be selected for a particular project if an objective analysis of all possible transit modes shows LRT to be the most cost-effective and appropriate solution.


  The term LRT covers a very broad spectrum of so-called "intermediate capacity" systems, from the simple "ultralight" Parry Peoplemover up to semi or fully automated, segregated systems, e.g. airport shuttles, the DLR, the VAL system in Lille and elsewhere. However I assume the Sub-Committee's main interest is in the roundly 400 world-wide manually driven conventional LRT systems, with a great diversity of roles, capacity, speed, route segregation, and I will confine my observations to these.


  I understand that the Committee intends to investigate:

    —  examples of recent LRT systems in UK and abroad;

    —  the problems faced during construction and afterwards;

    —  their success in removing traffic from roads; and

    —  if appropriate, what help might be given to assist growth of LRT schemes in UK.


  I would suggest that the non UK examples should be taken from France, which, like the UK, virtually completely abandoned its former tram systems, and then began to introduce new LRT systems in the 1980s, rather than say Germany, Austria or Switzerland, which all kept and progressively modernised them. (I suggested France rather than USA for logistical and cultural reasons.) I also suggest choosing one established and one new system, and the following should provide enough material between them to cover your main issues:

    —  Manchester (1992): inordinately long planning and authorisation process, in contrast to the short time for construction under the UK's first Design, Build, Operate and Maintain (DBOM) Contract; uncertain role definition—profit or public service?; extra costs burden on latest extension from reduced Statutory Utilities' contribution to diversion works;

    —  Croydon Tramlink (1999): inordinately long timescale; full PFI DBOM and leasing for 99 years, followed by hasty construction; Tramlink commendably chose proven conventional low floor vehicle to provide access for the mobility impaired;

    —  Nantes (1985): first scheme in French LRT revival; initial approval delayed by conflicting views of successive powerful Mayors; excellent overall design; integration of bus and light rail operation and maintenance; recent purchase of special light rail vehicles (LRVs) to provide partial disabled access;

    —  Paris, Val-de-Seine (1997): RATP's second LRT Line, both are orbital, and both use the same French "standard" low floor LRV, as Grenoble and Rouen. The first line (Bobigny-St Denis) is on street, Val-de-Seine uses a former SNCF alignment. Extensions are now being developed.


5.1  Timescale

  The timescale and associated high costs of obtaining financial and legal approval in UK for even a simple scheme are unreasonably excessive. I made the first Croydon route survey for London Transport in 1979, and Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham could tell a similar story. By contrast, in the last 15 years France has opened eight new or completely modernised LRT systems, often using the LRT introduction as a trigger for a major re-modelling of the City centre's roads, further pedestrianisation and reshaping bus and other transport services (eg in Grenoble, Strasbourg). Lessons could be learned from a study of the French processes of planning, approving, funding and ownership, which follow a common pattern in several cities.

5.2  Costs

  Successive UK Governments have criticised the high initial capital cost of LRT schemes, often in terms of how many buses could be bought for the same amount, but without considering that a light rail unit can have three times the life of a bus and three times the passenger capacity.

  The Paper "Making Light Rail Affordable and Attractive"[4] shows how hard the light rail indusry is trying to reduce total costs and increas revenues, but the UK Government could also help in the following ways, in addition to simplifying the cost and complication of obtaining approval mentioned in 5.1. above:

    —  taking full account of total life cycle costs (not merely paying lip service) in assessing proposed new LRT systems. Pressure to reduce the initial capital costs of Sheffield Supertram and more recently Croydon Tramlink let to "Descoping" (sic!) to the detriment of design, operation quality and costs;

    —  reviewing whether the present complex PFI agreements and contracts necessarily achieve the optimum life cycle cost and overall design and performance;

    —  reviewing the extra burden imposed on new schemes by the recent reduction in the contribution required of statutory utilities (from 18 to 7.5 per cent) towards the cost of diverting their services for new street running LRT schemes;

    —  reviewing HSE safety and operational requirements for new LRT schemes to ensure that they do not impose an unduly onerous burden on light rail compared with buses;

    —  providing more generous R&D funding for novel ultra light low cost schemes, such as the Parry Peoplemover.

5.3  Conclusion

  While there is at last a slow increase in the number of LRT UK schemes, one is left with the feeling that it shouldn't all have to be quite so slow, costly and difficult. I suggest that the above considerations could lead to a more balanced and speedy approval of worthwhile schemes wherever they could demonstrably provide the most cost-effective and appropriate solution, plus the long-term community benefits derived from a fixed permanently installed LRT system, compared with the inevitably more transitory nature of a bus service.

September 1999

4   David T Catling and Trevor Griffin presented at Institution of Mechanical Engineers Conference, RAILTECH 98, Birmingham, 24-26 November 1998. Back

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