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

Memorandum by Centro (the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive) and the West Midlands Passenger Transport Authority (RT 29)


  (a)  examples of rapid transit systems recently constructed both in this country and worldwide;

  (b)  the problems they have faced, both at the time of their construction and afterwards;

  (c)  what successes they have had, particularly in terms of removing traffic from roads and thus reducing congestion or restraining its growth; and

  (d)  whether it is appropriate, and if so what help can be given, to assist the growth of rapid transit schemes in the United Kingdom.


1.  Overview

  Centro and the West Midlands Passenger Transport Authority welcome the opportunity to contribute evidence to this inquiry and would welcome any help that can be given to assist the growth of rapid transit schemes in the United Kingdom, and in particular in the West Midlands conurbation.

2.  The West Midlands

  The West Midlands County comprises the Metropolitan Boroughs of the City of Birmingham, the City of Conventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton. The West Midlands Passenger Transport Authority is comprised of elected Councillors from the seven West Midlands local authorities and Centro is the Passenger Transport Executive that implements the transport policies set by the Authority. The West Midlands County is home to 2.63 million people and 2.1 million people are employed in the area. The conburbation combines traditional heavy industry, including car, van and train manufacture, with office-based employment in a number of sub-regional centres. Although the West Midlands is at the heart of the national motorway network, being served by the M5, M6 and M42 motorways, the roads in the region experience the highest levels of traffic congestion outside London. It is estimated by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) that traffic congestion in the region costs industry £2 billion a year. Environmental costs and poor air quality further compound the problems of traffic congestion for the local population. For many years, the West Midlands has been the largest conurbation in Europe without a light rapid transit system, and in the mid 1980s plans for a network of light rail lines began to be formulated.

3.  Midland Metro

  The concept of Midland Metro was developed by Centro and the West Midlands Passenger Transport Authority in response to an inceasing demand for higher quality public transport and the improved mobility that it brings. In 1987 the recently opened Grenoble tramway in France set new standards for light rail vehicles and high quality urban regeneration associated with the introduction of a light rail system. Many of these standards were incorporated into the West Midlands' aspirations for Midland Metro and the first private Bill was submitted to parliament in 1988, being enacted as the Midland Metro Act in 1989. Further Acts of Parliament were obtained in 1991, 1992 and 1993, providing enabling legislation for three light rail routes in the West Midlands to form the start of a conurbation-wide network. From the outset, it has been a key objective for Midland Metro to attract motorists out of their cars by providing a high quality, frequent and reliable form of public transport.

4.  Midland Metro Line 1

  4.1  Members of the Transport Sub-Committee are cordially invited to visit Midland Metro Line 1 and experience at first hand the newest light rapid transit system in the UK.

  4.2  Midland Metro Line 1 is a 20km light rapid transit route between Wolverhampton and Birmingham, with 23 fully accessible stops. A six-minute frequency is operated during the week between 7 am and 7 pm, with a ten-minute frequency outside those times. The line starts with 2km of street running tramway in Wolverhampton, before 18km of segregated operation using a former rail formation, the final 5km of which is parallel to an existing rail line and includes three shared light rail/heavy rail stops/stations.

  4.3  The Midland Metro Act 1989 provided the enabling legislation to compulsorily acquire land and to construct and operate the system. Economic evaluations were carried out and were reviewed by the then Department of Transport and the scheme's eligibility for Section 56 grant (1968 Transport Act) was confirmed. As part of the grant evaluation process alternative modes (such as heavy rail and guided bus) were assessed and light rail was selected as the most appropriate mode for the predicted patronage figures.

  4.4  An advertisement was placed in the European Community Official Journal in 1991 inviting consortia to pre-qualify for tendering for the project. In 1992 tenders were invited from a short list of three consortia and tenders returned in 1993 were subjected to rigorous assessment, which included an economic optimisation of the number of stops, service interval and number of trams required. Restrictions on the amount of section 56 grant available led to a delay in government funding being made available for the project. However, once the availability of government funding (in the form of grant and supplementary credit approval) was confirmed, a funding package of £145 million was completed with the help of the European Union, Passenger Transport Authority and local authority funds. The successful tenderer also made a £10 million financial contribution to the overall cost of the project in recognition of the value of the operating concession.

  4.5  In August 1995 a 23 year Concession was signed between Centro and Altram to Design, Build Operate and Maintain Midland Metro Line 1. A fixed price contract was agreed for virtually all the works. The "DBOM" form of contract provided for maximum risk transfer to the successful consortium and Centro was therefore protected from the majority of risks such as currency fluctuation, inflation, patronage levels, geotechnical/mining problems, planning risks and interface issues between consortium members.

  4.6  The Altram consortium is formed of John Laing; Ansaldo Trasporti of Italy; and Travel West Midlands, part of the National Express Group of companies. The design, construction and procurement of the infrastructure was carried out through Laing Civil Engineering and the electrical and mechanical works, including the provision of 16 low floor 750V dc trams and the overhead electrification system were sourced through Ansaldo Trasporti. Travel Midland Metro, a subsidiary company of Travel West Midlands, will operate and maintain the system for the remainder of the life of the concession. The involvement of Travel West Midlands, the region's major bus operator, has greatly facilitated integration of bus routes and ticketing with the metro system.

  4.7  It had been envisaged that the design and construction phases would last for three years, with the operational and maintenance phases lasting for 20 years. However, a ten month delay in the start of passenger carrying operation led to a corresponding reduction in the duration of the operational phase of the concession and the imposition of liquidated damages on the consortium. The form of contract therefore ensured that the costs of delay were borne by Altram and not the public purse.

  4.8  Centro's specifications for both the provision and operation of the system are in essence performance specifications based on passenger requirements. The attractiveness of the system to motorists throughout the life of the concession has been emphasised as a key theme in these documents. Centro's aim is for the Metro to match the convenience and design standards of the car. Attractive aesthetic design has been achieved by specifying the involvement of public artists in every facet of the system's visual appearance, from the system branding and livery and design of engineering structures through paving design to the extensive landscaping along the length of the route. Free-standing art commissions are also installed along the length of the route and range from the striking sculpture of the "Sleipnir" horse on a hill top overlooking the Wednesbury depot and control centre to community art projects to design school railings and roundels set in the ground at every stop. Centro's operational requirements also require the maintenance of these high standards of design by the rapid removal of litter and graffiti, replacement of broken fittings and glass and cleanliness of the stops and trams.

  4.9  The line was opened to the public on 31 May 1999 and evidence would suggest that the number of passengers carried is growing and that they generally find the system very appealing. Formal monitoring of the patronage levels is about to commence now that the school holidays are over and "novelty effect" for first time users is wearing off. Statistics collected will, as a matter of course, be forwarded to DETR officials in accordance with the conditions of the Section 56 grant. Preliminary results are likely to be available early in the year 2000.

5.  Problems Encountered

  5.1  Whilst the parliamentary Bill process has now been replaced by the Transport & Works Act order making procedure, the amount of time and effort necessary to obtain powers has not reduced appreciably. It would be helpful if some way of speeding up the process could be found and greater certainty brought to the duration of the decision making process.

  5.2  Completion of the funding package, due to the lack of availability of government funds, led to a delay of almost two years between the selection of the successful tenderer in 1993 and the award of the Concession in 1995. Lack of certainty over funding has resulted in a number of lost opportunities to capture developer contributions on Line 1 and other proposed lines.

  5.3  As the compulsory purchase powers conferred by the Act of Parliament were limited to five years, Centro was eventually forced to take the risk (that the project might not be funded) and acquire the land in advance of confirmation that a full funding package for the entire scheme could be completed.

  5.4  It was regrettable that powers to construct light rail routes known as Midland Metro Lines 2 and 3 had to be relinquished due to the expiry of land acquisition powers at a time when government funding was not available to underwrite the continued development of these routes. However, a strategy of LRT development that retains elements of these routes has now been embarked upon. The Midland Metro routes that will be prioritised are those where predicted usage will be heavy, concession value will be greatest and the costs to the public sector will be minimised as a result. This is to some extent contrary to the process in choosing Line 1 where the potential regeneration benefits to derelict industrial areas were as, if not more, important.

  5.5  The diversion of statutory undertakers' plant in the highway was ultimately the constraint that dictated the duration of the construction period for the entire project. The cost of diversionary works was the least quantifiable aspect of the project and Centro was unable to fully transfer this risk to the Concessionaire. The delay in awarding the concession gave a further two years to the utilities, most notably cable TV companies, to lay new plant which then needed to be diverted. Statutory undertakers responded in a wide range of ways to the metro proposals. Their approaches varied from very co-operative and helpful in minimising works, through inaccurate pricing and programming, to obstruction and over-reaction to perceived risks that may never materialise. The requirement for statutory undertakers to contribute 18 per cent to the cost of their works assisted in meeting the cost of the works and helping to minimise the amount of work proposed. It is a source of disappointment, and increased cost to future routes, that this contribution has recently been reduced by government regulations to 7.5 per cent, a decision which may affect the viability of future LRT schemes in the UK.

  5.6  Another risk which Centro was unable to fully transfer to the Concessionaire was the risk associated with Railtrack. The interface with Railtrack throughout the design, construction and commissioning period presented a number of difficulties for the project. Gaps in Railtrack's knowledge of its signalling infrastructure and its train operating companies' rolling stock led to delays in the design and installation of Railtrack's signalling immunisation works. This also created programming and design difficulties for the Concessionaire. Legal delays with the then untried network change procedures and the station change procedures arising from the 1993 Railways Act also compromised Centro's ability to deliver vacant possession of the land to the Concessionaire in a timely manner. The costs of Railtrack's involvement exceeded their estimates significantly and there was a reluctance to finally issue a letter of no objection to the operation of the metro line adjacent to the Railtrack infrastructure, leading to delays in the Concessionaire's driver training programme.

  5.7  The introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act Rail Vehicle Regulations resulted in the need to make modifications to the light rail vehicles following their delivery. Although the modifications were of a relatively minor nature, due to the Passenger Transport Authority's already high standards in the specification, this further delayed the opening date whilst modifications were made or exemptions sought.

  5.8  Many obstacles were overcome by both Centro and Altram, individually and in partnership, throughout the course of construction. In operation, there are ongoing problems with vandalism of the stops, theft (primarily of CCTV cameras) and difficulties in ensuring that the ticket machines are fully operative at all times.

  5.9  In conclusion, the problems encountered have either been solved, or are clearly understood by those responsible for solving them.

6.  Traffic De-congestion

  6.1  It is too early to report actual figures that would support or contradict a view on the success of Metro Line 1 in removing traffic from the roads in the West Midlands. However, all three of the local authorities along the length of the line (Wolverhampton MBC, Sandwell MBC and Birmingham City Council) have introduced a series of complementary measures to introduce traffic restraint along the Metro Line 1 corridor. These measures, which were a condition of Government funding, have included the downgrading of the A41, the introduction of mini-roundabouts and cycle lanes, and pedestrian improvements entailing the widening of footways and the provision of new pelican crossings. A number of local shopping centres situated along the parallel roads will benefit from the resultant environmental improvements.

  6.2  A park and ride facility is available at one of the shared Metro/heavy rail stations (Hawthorns) and is signposted from the adjacent M5 junction 1. Since the opening of Metro Line 1 park and ride has started to develop informally at a number of the stops, a clear indication of modal transfer from the car. Two new park and ride sites are to be constructed during the current financial year in response to this demand. Further sites will be developed where land constraints permit, with funding to be sought through the LTP bidding process.

7.  Future Routes

  7.1  Centro and the West Midlands Passenger Transport Authority have consulted widely on meeting the future public transport needs of the West Midlands. Across the region, there is very strong business support for the expansion of Midland Metro.

  7.2  Centro and the WMPTA have prepared a 20 Year Strategy that envisages the expansion of Midland Metro Line 1 into a network of up to 12 lines. Lines from Wednesbury to the Merry Hill shopping centre and Birmingham Snow Hill through the city centre to Five Ways are planned to be operational by 2005. Formal submissions for these two extensions will be submitted to government in 2000. A further nine high volume public transport corridors will be assessed and appropriate transport modes for these corridors will be developed. It is anticipated that a number of these corridors will be found to merit a light rapid transit (light rail) solution and further routes will therefore be brought forward for implementation.

  7.3  In response to the 20 Year Strategy objectives and the early experience gained from operating Metro Line 1 Centro is confidently taking forward two early extensions to Line 1 in partnership with Birmingham City, Sandwell and Dudley Councils, Railtrack and private sector developers. Chelsfield, the largest of the developers and the owners of the Merry Hill shopping centre have offered to contribute £25 million to the cost of the route that is planned to serve Merry Hill. Centro has been working in partnership with Birmingham City Council to utilise its planning powers to secure developer contributions for Midland Metro through Section 106 of the 1990 Town and Country Planning Act. The two schemes are also included in the current Local Transport Plan (LTP) bid for future funding.

  7.4  Government acknowledgement that light rail will have a strong role to play in meeting the public transport needs of the West Midlands would greatly facilitate the achievement of Centro's 20 Year Strategy objectives. Present uncertainties regarding future sources of funding can have the effect of dictating procurement and ownership regimes that may not fit well with an overall long term strategy. If Centro is given the freedom to plan and implement a long term strategy this will also assist the private sector by providing greater certainty over the length of operating concessions and protection from early termination of operating concessions as the network expands. Fiancing solutions could then be optimised and this will also be in the public's best interest.

  7.5  In planning for the introduction of further light rail routes within the West Midlands, serious consideration is being given to the possibility of track sharing with heavy rail. The proposed Wednesbury to Merry Hill light rail route is being developed on this basis and will enable a closed railway route to be re-opened for both passenger and freight services. A West Midlands rail capacity study will also include a review of light rail's contribution to solving heavy rail problems within the conurbation and in the adjoining travel-to-work area.

  7.6  Although developers are requested to contribute to the costs of light rail routes when appropriate, many existing land owners are able to benefit from the construction of light rail schemes without contributing specifically to the costs of those schemes. The sub-committee may wish to give consideration to developing a means of light rail promoters being able to capture developer gain or increases in land values that result from a scheme.

  7.7  If medium to long term funding can be confirmed by the government for the development of Centro's (and other large conurbations') light rail networks on the basis of a rolling programme then it will become easier for industry to respond, leading to improved efficiency and economies of scale. It may even become possible for Britain to develop a competitive tram building and maintenance industry once again.

  7.8  A positive government attitude to light rail in general and Midland Metro in particular will be an important factor in the success of future routes. The government is therefore urged to move forward from a previously stated view that light rail is "not a priority". LRT has a proven ability to get motorists out of their cars in a way that buses have not. This is particularly thought to be the case where it forms part of a network that allows people to have confidence that public transport will be able to meet all their foreseeable transport needs on a particular day, such as on the London Underground. This would suggest concentrating investment on building such networks in major conurbations, rather than single lines in stand-alone towns and cities. LRT is also what the general public and the West Midlands business community are clearly keen on seeing developed. The costs are not excessive compared to allowing main centres to choke to death with traffic congestion.

8.  Conclusions

  8.1  Light rapid transit as a mode has a number of distinct advantages, implicit in its name.

  8.2  The "light" nature of the mode enables most of the benefits of heavy rail to be made more widely available at a lower cost than conventional heavy rail, on key radial routes where the potential demand is the greatest. It is important that appropriate safety standards are rigorously applied. However, it is also important that the economies associated with light rail can continue to be realised within the light rail sphere. Well-intentioned regulations or requirements should not be introduced if the effect would be that light rail systems are gradually loaded up with the safety systems, crashworthiness and other requirements more applicable to heavy rail. This issue is of particular concern when comparable standards are not applied to alternative modes, such as car travel.

  8.3  The "rapid" nature of the mode is attributable to the high-performance acceleration and braking characteristics of modern trams and is very attractive to road users. The existing bus route that parallels Midland Metro Line 1 is typically timed to take 79 minutes from its Wolverhampton terminus to the Birmingham terminus. As both termini are in the immediate vicinity of the respective Metro termini, this journey time is directly comparable with the 35 minute journey time reliably achieved by the trams. It would not be possible to reliably achieve a 35 minute journey time by car along this corridor, giving the rapid transit mode a clear advantage.

  8.4  LRT is increasingly able to provide the best levels of urban penetration of any mode of transport. As city centres are progressively pedestrianised buses are increasingly being restricted from environmentally sensitive areas. Light rail offers a "zero pollution at point of use" mode that can offer maximum convenience and attractiveness to those wishing to travel into and around the urban centres of the West Midlands. Full accessibility also enables the mobility impaired to enjoy the benefits of light rail.

  8.5  LRT has a proven ability (in mainland Europe, or Manchester for example), to attract motorists out of their cars in a way that other modes do not.

  8.6  Centro and the West Midlands PTA are keen to improve public transport accessibility across the whole of the West Midlands conurbation. All public transport modes have a role to play and with the support of funding partners Centro has been able to procure an impressive range of public transport improvements in the recent past. Significant investment in heavy rail and bus showcase routes is now complemented by investment in light rail on Midland Metro Line 1. Centro and the West Midlands PTA consider that the development of light rail is an essential ingredient in the delivery of a modern, integrated and environmentally friendly public transport system for the region.

  8.7  It is hoped that the Government will be able to offer appropriate support that will enable Centro to continue to deliver a network of light rail lines, giving the population of the West Midlands the high quality public transport system that they demand and deserve.

Richard Worrall,

West Midlands Passenger Transport Authority

Rob Donald,
Director General


October 1999

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