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

Memorandum by the Association of London Borough Planning Officers (RT 37)


  I am making representations to you on this subject on behalf of the Association of London Borough Planning Officers. The Association represents the heads of the town planning service in all 33 Boroughs in London, and believes it is well placed to comment upon the contribution light rapid transit systems can make to the Government's integrated transport proposals and the general problems of planning and transport in the capital. A number of the Association's members have been closely involved in the development of these systems in London in recent years and almost all have participated in studies aimed at assessing the more widespread potential of light rapid transit systems across London as a whole.

  Firstly, I would point out that the Association is not only acquainted with developments in London, but is aware of the contribution of light rapid transit systems to planning and transport problems abroad. In Germany, we are aware that the rebuilding and extension of pre-war tramway systems has resulted in greater public transport patronage and lower levels of car use despite higher levels of car ownership than in the UK. We are also aware that in France and the United States, light rail systems are extensively used as a catalyst for urban ranaissance and the improvement of town and city centres, aimed also at reducing car dependency. Closer to home we have noted with interest the contribution which light rail is planned to make in Dublin, and are of course aware of the systems which have been introduced in other English conurbations where they have fulfilled a transport role which is intermediate between heavy rail and bus services.

  Within London, the only light rapid transit system operational to date is the Docklands Light Railway which operates adequately (apart from initial parsimony in the construction of the first part) and is suitable for new development areas like Docklands where new off-street alignments area feasible. However, future light rail projects in London are more likely to be combinations of street running tramways and off-street routes chiefly taking advantage of former railway alignments.

  The Association is aware that the Government is currently concentrating on short term improvements to bus services as a way of meeting its transport objectives as soon as possible, rather than relying on substantial capital investment in public transport, and would support this general approach. However, it is recognised that the process of introducing and enforcing bus lanes in London's heavy congested road network will present many difficulties and it may never be possible to achieve the necessary degree of continuity which would result in the step change improvement to services which is envisaged.

  Looking at the wider context of public transport provision, it is apparent that the process of introducing new heavy rail services and stations is both much more expensive and much more difficult in the fragmented railway structure which exists to-day. There is hence less immediate prospect of improvements to the heavy rail system making an additional contribution to London's transport needs.

  As a result of the difficulties in achieving significant short term improvements to the bus and heavy rail networks, and because of their intrinsic advantages, the Association has concluded that there is scope for a significant expansion in the role of light rapid transit systems in meeting London's transport needs. It is recognised that patterns of movement across London are being increasingly dispersed due to the relocation of employment, leisure and health facilities, and this dispersed pattern is difficult to serve by conventional forms of high quality public transport. The Croydon Tramlink network is attempting to provide a quality public transport solution to this type of problem, and the concept could be successfully extended elsewhere, both by building on the Croydon Tramlink network and developing similar networks elsewhere in outer London.

  Street running tramways could also make a major contribution to the traffic reduction targets for London (recently agreed by LPAC) by re-allocating roadspace away from general traffic to tram use.

  The additional potential for light rail in London is seen to be in four main areas:—

    (1)  Distributing passengers around central or inner London where tube lines are inconvenient through alignment or depth to meet substantial passenger desire lines.

    (2)  Providing more reliable on-street services on busy radial routes, e.g. Uxbridge Road in West London.

    (3)  Providing the impetus to regeneration, anticipating future heavy transport flows, and counteracting what might otherwise be heavy reliance on car use in regeneration areas, eg Greenwich Waterfront, Park Royal, parts of Docklands not well service by DLR.

    (4)  Making orbital transport links which are other wise difficult to achieve by heavy rail, tube or bus services, eg extensions to Croydon Tramlink, links from Heathrow to the North and South.

  Some of these proposals, particularly in the latter two categories, could not only use disused railway alignments but could also take over existing under-used rail routes avoiding the need for re-equipment and providing a more attractive service.

  If this desire to see the potential of light rail in London is to be fully realised, then the transport arrangements for London need to make available specific capital funding streams. These would then be used to establish the necessary partnerships to build and extend light rail routes and systems. This funding will need to be separate from the massive additional funding requirements of the London Underground, and mechanisms will need to be in place to ensure that not all the expenditure available for public transport in London is absorbed by the Underground's needs.

  In order to successfully pursue an expansion in the role of light rail in London, there are a number of procedural and technical obstacles which need to be overcome. Firstly, the Transport and Works Act procedure which was originally intended to simplify the process of approval of light rail and other transport projects has turned out to be just a slow, costly and bureaucratic as the former private bill procedure. This now acts as a significant constraint in progressing light rail schemes, particularly as the minimum cost of progressing an Order is so large. This means that it is not cost effective to pursue small schemes or small additions to existing schemes. Hence either the procedures need to be amended, or specific funding needs to be allocated to defray the excessive costs of pursuing a submission. In relation to the revisions to procedures the (former) Chartered Institute of Transport has carried out an investigation and has made recommendations for improving the procedures.

  A major item of expenditure in light rail schemes which have sections of street running tramway is the cost of the diversion of underground utility services. The Government has recently increased the proportion of the costs of these diversions which is borne by the light rail scheme, so that virtually all the costs of the provision of new infrastructure for utilities is now funded by the transport scheme. This seems to be an unfair burden, and could be reduced either by reinstating a higher contribution from utlities or pursuing new methods of light rail construction which avoid the need to divert services.

  Another item of expenditure in light rail schemes which appears to be very high is the cost of the vehicles themselves. In the British context this appears to be a reflection of the small production runs for the typical 15-25 trains required, and the complexities of producing a new design for each scheme. The Government could have a role in defining a standard vehicle, or at least a standard for London, which could reduce the costs of redesign and, if based on the Croydon vehicles, could ensure a lower unit cost for follow on orders.

  Lastly, the requirement for schemes to be both self-funding in revenue terms and to be able to make a contribution to capital costs is a particular disincentive to schemes which are not currently located in high volume transport corridors. Many of the regeneration and urban renaissance schemes being pursued abroad do not even cover their running costs, but the subsidy is considered worthwhile when set against the other advantages of the scheme. Such an approach would also seem to be appropriate in this country, particularly where emerging development patterns may mean that patronage levels will take some time to reach the ultimate capacity of the scheme.

  In summary, these factors can lead to a scheme which whilst meeting onerous financial burdens may skimp on the environmental aspects, such as the design of overhead line supports or the type of trackway within streets or parks. A balance needs to be struck between the potential improvements to town and street-scape offered by light rail schemes and the technical and financial requirements imposed elsewhere.

  In conclusion, the Association believe that light rapid transit schemes have the potential to make a greater contribution to the transport needs of London, but for this potential to be realised, the financial and technical arrangements for scheme implementation need to be overhauled with a view to simplifying and shortening the process of approval.

  I trust you have found these representations of interest, but if you have any further queries, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Steve Clark, Chair Development Plans Committee

October 1999

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