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

Memorandum by Mike Smith, Esq (RT 39)


  There is much evidence that well planned light rail systems can be very successful in attracting people out of their cars, in a way that an equivalent bus-operated system could never do. This is due to a number of factors, including the improved ride quality possible from a vehicle running on a totally smooth (rail) surface, reduced noise due to electric propulsion and higher running speeds where vehicles run on a reserved right of way, avoiding delays due to traffic congestion. These, and other factors, make light rail travel more appealing to the car user than buses can ever be.

  These benefits have traditionally come at a high cost, the vehicles and infrastructure used in recent UK schemes being very expensive. In its transport White Paper, the Government was largely dismissive of Light Rail Schemes on the grounds that their high first costs are not sufficiently justified by the benefits they bring. Instead, the bus was put foward as the solution to the increasing problems of traffic congestion and environmental degradation in UK cities.


  Light rail vehicle construction largely ceased in the UK after the second world war, and so all recent UK schemes have had to rely on products imported from continental Europe. In these countries, cost has been less of an issue than in the UK, resulting in products, which although of high quality, also come at a high cost. Additionally, these vehicles tend to be built by companies which also build main-line railway rolling stock. Their light rail products are often therefore built along similar lines, resulting in vehicles which are not particularly light. For example, Siemens-built vehicles supplied to the Sheffield Supertram project weigh in the region of 52 tonnes—a weight comparable to that of a main-line multiple unit train of similar capacity. This means that the route infrastructure (track, bridges etc) has to be built accordingly, significantly raising construction costs. Heavier vehicles also require more power to move them, resulting in more expensive power supply equipment.


  The Roadliner was conceived as a low-cost UK-built light rail vehicle. The vehicle was developed by the TRAM Consortium—a consortium of small companies, each contributing a specialist skill required in the design and construction process.

  Instead of simply designing a new vehicle based on traditional and costly, rail industry-based techniques, the Consortium went back to first principles, looking at what essential characteristics the vehicle had to posess. They then set about producing a design which met these requirements.

  Key characteristics identified were:

    —  Low first cost;

    —  Low maintenance costs;

    —  Low weight;

    —  High quality passenger environment;

    —  High reliabilty;

    —  High levels of passenger safety.

  A strong and lightweight monocoque bodyshell was employed, as is common in the construction of modern buses. Many components, such as axles and final drives, were sourced from the automotive industry, since their high production volumes make their components far cheaper and more reliable than those of the relatively low-volume rail industry. Heavy-duty electric motors and modern electronic motor controllers, as used commonly in factory plant and equipment, were used for the vehicle's electric propulsion system, again because the high production volumes of such items make them extremely cheap and reliable when compared to traditional rail industry sources.

  The result was a vehicle costing far less than currently available products—around £0.75 million, compared to the more normal £1.5-2 million. Weight, at 22 tonnes for a two-car articulated vehicle, is comparable to that of two large single-deck buses with similar capacity. Passengers benefit from a well designed, accessible interior, whilst air suspension provides a very smooth ride. The vehicle has been designed for easy, low cost maintenance, competitive with that required for buses—the wheels can even be unbolted and replaced in a similar way to road vehicles. Being derived from mass-produced sources, spare parts are cheap and easy to come by.

  A prototype vehicle is currently undergoing testing on the tramway system operated by Blackpool Transport Services, Lancashire.


  The purpose of this submission is not to "sell" the Roadliner—a number of other organisations, both in the UK and abroad, are also actively developing similar low-cost, high quality vehicles—but to show what can be done. The Roadliner project has shown that the main stumbling block for light rail schemes in the UK, namely cost, can be overcome, allowing the benefits of light rail to be realised at a realistic price. Light rail as a mode of transport should not be dismissed purely because of the deficiencies of previously available products. Indeed, the Government might find it beneficial to encourage the development and adoption of such new technologies in the same way that it encourages and funds research and development into the improvement of road vehicles.

Mike Smith, Prototype Vehicle Development and Testing Engineer, Pullman TPL

20 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