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Select Committee on Transport Tenth Report

2  Horses for courses?

6. The 2000 report on Light Rapid Transit Systems recognised that light rail or tram systems were not the only options for authorities which wished to invest in speedy, high-quality public transport. It noted that busways, guided light transit and ultra light rail might each have a part to play. Our current inquiry is more strongly focused on light rail and tram systems, but we agree that: "Light Rapid Transit cannot provide an appropriate solution for all urban transport problems" .[6] Even when Light Rapid Transit is appropriate, a full light rail system may not always be the best option: other modes such as guided busways or even ultra light rail may be more suitable in particular cases. But that should not prevent light rail being adopted when it is the most suitable mode for the area concerned.

The Advantages of Light Rail

7. The NAO was concerned that the light rail schemes it investigated had had limited impacts on congestion, pollution and social exclusion, and that their impact on regeneration and social exclusion was not clear. Nonetheless the evidence we received, and, indeed, much of the NAO report itself, indicates that there is a reasonable body of evidence about the advantages of light rail and modern tram systems in general. Much of this evidence has been gathered together in What Light Rail Can Do For Cities, a report commissioned by pteg, the Passenger Transport Executive Group.[7]


8. We agree with the NAO that "light rail cannot by itself reduce congestion significantly over the long term" and that "other complementary measures are needed to discourage car use".[8] Nonetheless, it is important to remember that a system which reduced congestion in the centre of the city simply by reducing the number of people travelling into that city could do more economic harm than good. The great advantage of light rail is that it can increase the number of people coming into a centre without increasing congestion.

9. Light rail and tram systems typically can carry loads of over 3,000 passengers per hour, in vehicles containing up to 350 people. Not only does this enable many people to be carried quickly, it can minimise disruption to other road users, by limiting the number of vehicles needed. Not only do 10 or 12 trams an hour take less road space than the buses required to carry the same numbers, it is practicable to make them attractive to users by giving them priority over other traffic, while it would not be possible to do the same for thirty double decker buses.[9] Nottingham chose a tram scheme because its constrained city centre meant that it could not get the number of buses it needed into the heart of the city.[10]

10. It is difficult to be precise about light rail's effect on congestion: traffic flows do not remain stable, and people may make new journeys by car if road space is freed by the introduction of the tram. A light rail scheme may result in more people travelling along a particular corridor, rather than an overall reduction in traffic. Nonetheless, the report for pteg by Steer Davies Gleave provides a startling comparison of traffic flows in Croydon, served by the tram, and in nearby Kingston, which is not. As the table shows, variations in flow around each area in the five years before the Tramlink opened were within 3% of each other, but traffic in Croydon dropped dramatically once the light rail system opened in 2000 while traffic in Kingston grew.Table 1: .Changes in average daily flow for Central Croydon and Kingston (1994 -2000) (% change on previous year)
1995 19961997 1998 1999 2000
Croydon -1%-3% +1%+2% -3%-14%
Kingston -2%-1% -2%0 -1%+2%

Source: What Light Rail Can Do for Cities


11. Light rail is relatively quick; it is usually reliable and has a good ride quality. As is well documented, people will leave their cars to take the tram or metro.[11] While bus journeys in England have reduced by 14% since 1982 and, outside London, bus use has tended to fall, light rail journeys have more than tripled.[12] While this is a reflection of the fact that the number of light rail systems has increased, Transport Statistics Great Britain 2004 shows that patronage has risen on the Docklands Light Railway, the Manchester Metrolink, the Sheffield Supertram, and the Croydon Tramlink, even when the systems were not being extended.[13]

12. It is possible to use bus priority measures or bus guideways to encourage modal shift from cars. The Fastway guided bus link between Crawley and Gatwick has reportedly had passenger growth far higher than expectations.[14] New developments, such as the f-t-r, a bus which has been designed to have the tram's advantages of accessibility and capacity and which the manufacturers will only make available to authorities which implement priority measures, may increase that shift.[15] Nonetheless, they are as yet unproven. Currently, only light rail or tram can offer results like those documented in Croydon. Professor Richard Knowles, the leading researcher on the Metrolink Impact Study, told us that "The Metrolink Impact Study research identified a clear, substantial and unforecast modal shift from car to light rail of 2.6 million passengers per year."[16] Manchester Airport Group told us "Metrolink will bring the most significant step change in public transport accessibility to Manchester Airport since the opening of the heavy rail link in 1993" and that it would be hard to reduce the number of trips to the airport made by car without it.[17]

13. The pteg report suggested that "in a peak hour, a typical system operating at, say, six [trams per hour] would have resulted in c240 cars per hour removed from the road network" but that "at an overall level of service of, say, 30 [buses per hour] then c40 cars per hour would be removed from the road network."[18]


14. It is generally assumed that light rail is a "green" form of transport, although two witnesses claimed that trams were less fuel efficient than buses.[19] Trams generally run on electricity, and so the greenhouse gases produced will depend on the form of generation used.[20] In principle, it would be possible to power a tram without greenhouse emissions, just as it would be possible to produce hydrogen to power fuel cell vehicles without such emissions. However, as we noted in our inquiry into the Cars of the Future,[21] that may be some way off. The conventional engine is itself a source of CO2, and whilst figures vary, estimates made for Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive suggest that cars produced 30% more CO2 per passenger kilometre than trams, while buses produced about 17% more.[22]

15. Unlike cars or buses, electrically powered light rail vehicles will not produce exhaust emissions, and so can be expected to have beneficial effects on urban air pollution.[23] The Greater Manchester Air Quality Strategy notes that Metrolink is expected to produce two thirds less particulates per passenger km than a car.[24] The precise effects will depend both on the cleanliness of the vehicle itself, and on the extent to which it reduces both the volume of other vehicles on the road, and congestion (freely flowing traffic produces lower emissions than stop-start driving), but we can be confident that light rail should improve air quality.


16. Light rail is extremely safe. There were three fatal accidents in 2002-03, no major injury accidents and only seven minor injury accidents.[25] It is the mode with the lowest comparative accident rate per billion passenger kilometres travelled.

Table 2: Comparative Accident rates in UK for different transport modes (per billion pax km travelled, 2001)
Mode Killed Killed and injured
Motorcycle 112 5,549
Cycling 33 4,525
Walking 48 2,335
Private car 3 337
Bus or Coach0.1 196
Heavy Rail 0.1 13
Light Rail0.00002 0.00007

Source: What Light Rail Can do for Cities, Table 7.3


17. One of our witnesses spoke lyrically about the allure of "shiny steel rails"[26] in attracting investment to areas served by high quality, permanent local transport. The pteg report from Steer Davies Gleave notes:

    There is a lot of literature on the economic impact of tram schemes, although surprisingly little formal and consistent monitoring of the effects of individual schemes.[27]

Similarly, the NAO recommended:

    In conjunction with promoters, the Department should commission a comprehensive evaluation of the costs and benefits of every light rail scheme it has funded after it has opened to assess whether the expected number of vehicles and other infrastructure has been put in place, the frequency and speed of services are as expected, and systems are delivering the other expected benefits to passengers and local communities. Costs should be reviewed after one year; benefits, including services, and patronage and economic and social impacts should be evaluated after three to five years.[28]

We were surprised to learn that there had been no consistent evaluation of the regeneration effects of light rail schemes; we were equally surprised by Mr Rowlands's suggestion to the Committee on Public Accounts that such an evaluation could cost between £10 and £15 million.[29] Our witnesses from the NAO declined to comment on whether this was reasonable, but conceded that "at first glance £10 million to £15 million seems a great deal of money to evaluate a light rail system".[30] When we took evidence from the Minister, Mr McNulty told us that the Department did intend to commission a comprehensive before and after evaluation of a suitable scheme, such as the Manchester Metrolink extension.[31]

18. Evaluation is difficult given the long times involved, and the many factors involved in such regeneration.[32] Nonetheless, there is already sufficient evidence, both from the United Kingdom and from other countries, to demonstrate that light rail systems have significant regeneration potential, although a long term evaluation can be expected to give a clearer view of when light rail is most effective in securing regeneration, and what can be done to achieve the greatest benefits. We acknowledge that schemes will not all be equally successful in achieving their regeneration objectives. Nevertheless, it is clear that some schemes, such as the Docklands Light Railway or Manchester Metrolink, have had significant regeneration benefits,[33] and that this perceived regeneration effect is the aspect of light rail that is most attractive to promoters, and to local authorities which hope their area will benefit from a light rail scheme.[34]

19. Merseytravel noted that:

    The fact that the capital costs are high provides longevity and certainty for both the infrastructure and the service which it will provide. Businesses and communities know that light rail systems, once constructed, will remain in operation over the long-term in order to get a return on the initial capital costs. They will not easily be withdrawn, therefore. This permanence enables other investments to be made along the route of light rail systems, which bring major associated social and regeneration benefits. Light rail is a key driver for economic and social regeneration.[35]

Several witnesses considered that far too little emphasis was placed on regeneration when schemes were evaluated.[36] Councillor Richard Leese, the Deputy Chairman of the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities,[37] drew our attention to a report published by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in January 2005 which noted:

    The most persistent concern expressed … is the failure of transport policies to contribute sufficiently to urban renaissance and sustainable communities. The concerns are myriad, ranging from the separation of Transport from Environment, through the unwillingness to recognise the significance of transport to urban economic competitiveness, to the failure of government departments to speak with the same voice, as in the Manchester Metro case. There are concerns that the failure to invest in and support transport projects significantly restricts urban, regional and hence national economic performance.[38]

20. It is clear that light rail attracts investors. For example Merseytravel told us that Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council had been able to use the prospect of Merseytram Line 1 to attract retail investment to Kirkby town centre; similarly, the New East Manchester urban development company noted that a new Fujitsu headquarters building had been attracted to their area because of "the fast, efficient and reliable public transport connections which Metrolink offers".[39] Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council noted that:

    Major companies including AMEC, Ask Developments and Watkins Jones have expressly stated that the likelihood of a light rail system being introduced into the area was a strong material factor in influencing their recent decisions to invest in the area. Their proposed investment alone on only three sites will result in over 5,000 new jobs. Confirmation of the light rail system will unlock additional investment.[40]

The Nottingham Express Transit also appears to be attracting investment to the area.[41]

21. The very pattern of settlement in modern London, which has been strongly influenced by the existence of the London Underground, and even driven by it, supports the contention that high quality permanent public transport systems themselves attract investment. We also note the pteg finding that "there is clear empirical evidence of the positive effects that light rail has had on the cities where it has been implemented in the UK."[42]

22. Regeneration depends on planning and transport authorities working together. As the NAO points out, one reason why the Sheffield Supertram failed to attract the number of passengers originally expected was that much of the high density housing on its route was actually removed between the system being planned and starting operating.[43] The number of submissions from local authorities and other groups in the Greater Manchester Area, and from other areas with light rail schemes, suggests that local authorities are now working together to ensure the transport infrastructure is used effectively.[44]


23. For all its advantages, light rail requires expensive infrastructure. The precise costs depend on the nature of the scheme: a light rail system using the tracks of a former heavy rail route is far cheaper than an on-street scheme. The NAO reported that the cost per kilometre of existing schemes had varied between £5.4m for the Sunderland extension to the Tyne and Wear Metro to £21.2m for Phase 2 of the Manchester Metrolink.[45]

24. In contrast, bus services are cheaper to improve, although their cost advantages can be exaggerated. We also note that there are very few examples of high-quality guided bus schemes in operation. Some of us were able to visit the Adelaide guided bus with the previous Committee. But there are few other examples. Mr Ambrose of AEA Technology (Rail) told us that there "have been a number of guided bus experiments, most of which are dropping by the wayside at the moment, some through unreliability and some really because they had been found to be unsuitable".[46]

25. We are disappointed that so little appears to have been done to ensure that real comparisons can be made between bus and tram. In 2000 our precursors recommended Government assist in the development of extensive guided bus networks to allow the viability of the guided bus to be properly assessed.[47] Yet in March 2005, the Minister told us that the Department had not made any direct comparison of the success of guided buses compared with light rail "because there is not a lot, yet, of guided buses in place and working in any substantive fashion."[48] This is not for lack of opportunity: Greater Manchester has had proposals for a guided bus way which have been in existence for some 6 years without departmental approval.[49]

26. Most of our evidence was clear that although bus based systems cost less, the potential benefits were lower.[50] The cost of bus improvements varies widely; the "more tram-like the bus system, the more tram-like the costs".[51] As the Institution of Highways and Transportation noted, "The only effective alternative to light rail to obtain consistency of regularity and reliability would be some form of fixed track bus rapid transit."[52] What Light Rail Can Do For Cities reports that "high-end" bus based systems with segregated lines, high-quality stops and electric power through overhead lines can cost 80% of the light rail system. Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive (GMPTE) has worked out the comparative costs of bus and light rail on the routes of Phase 3 of the Metrolink. Although bus schemes would cost about 69% of the cost of the tram systems, and carry 74% of their passenger numbers, they would were likely to remove from the network only 36% of the cars that a tram could.[53]Table 3: Light Rail and Bus Comparisons, Metrolink Phase 3
Metrolink Phase 3 All Bus
Operational Commencement 2009/102012/13
Capital Cost£764m £527m
Annual Revenues pa 20.015.4
Operating Costs pa 17.116.1
Passenger Journeys p.a. 18.0m13.4m
Car Journeys Removed p.a. 5.6m2m

Source: LR 83

27. In addition, as Mr Christopher Mulligan, the Chief Executive of GMPTE, pointed out, although the capital costs of light rail were higher than bus improvements, light rail was forecast to more than cover its operating cost, while bus services would require continuing subsidy from the local authorities.[54] It should not be forgotten that bus services already receive a subsidy from the Bus Service Operators' Grant - which is estimated at £365 million for this financial year.[55] Transport for London said although operating costs per bus kilometre were lower than the equivalent operating costs for light rail, the costs per passenger could be lower because of the greater capacity of light rail, particularly on heavily congested routes.Table 4: Bus and Light Rail: comparative operating costs
ModeOperating cost per vehicle km Operating cost per passenger place km
Bus£3-£7 3.5p-6.5p
Light Rail (Tramlink) £5.12.4
Light Metro (DLR)£5.2, £10.3* 2.4
Underground£24.9 * 2.8p

Source: LR 77  * cost per train km.

Not only can light rail be cheaper to operate than bus systems; if passenger volumes are high enough, the total costs of a light rail system can be lower than those of an equivalent bus system.[56]


28. Light rail will not meet every transport need. It is best suited to heavily used urban corridors, where flows are over 2,000 people per hour, or are expected to reach that level in the near future. If passenger flows justify the expense, we consider that there is ample evidence light rail offers high quality, accessible,[57] urban transport that is comparable in whole system costs to high quality bus systems and is more likely to achieve modal shift from cars, reduce congestion and assist regeneration than any other urban mass transit system currently available.

6   HC (1999-2000) 518, para 56 Back

7   What Light Rail Can Do For Cities: A Review of the Evidence, prepared for pteg by Steer Davies Gleave, January 2005 Back

8   HC (2003-04) 518, para 2.30 Back

9   See LR 16 Back

10   Q 182 Back

11   LR 46 Back

12   Transport Trends, 2004 edition, National Statistics, DfT, nd, page 23, see also LR 33 Back

13   Transport Statistics Great Britain, 2004 Edition, Department for Transport, Scottish Executive and Welsh Assembly, October 2004, Tables 6.11, 6.13, 6.15, 6.17 Back

14   Transport Briefing, 28 February 2005 Back

15   LR 66 Back

16   LR 74 Back

17   LR 67 Back

18   What Light Rail Can Do For Cities: A Review of the Evidence, para 4.37 Back

19   LR 29, LR 94 Back

20   L 52, LR 54, LR 60 Back

21   Seventeenth Report of Session 2003-04, HC 319-I Back

22   see also LR 46, LR 92 Back

23   LR 46, LR 68 Back

24   LR 98 Back

25   What Light Rail Can Do For Cities, Table 7.2 Back

26   LR 49 Back

27   What Light Rail Can do for Cities: A Review of the Evidence, para 5.14 Back

28   HC (2003-04) 518, para 17, (emphasis added) Back

29   PAC: Oral Evidence on Improving Public Transport in England through Light Rail, 10 November 2004, to be published as HC 1258-I, QQ 77-79 Back

30   Qq 33-35 Back

31   Q 267 Back

32   Q 41 Back

33   LR 87 Back

34   See, for example, LR 90, LR 91, LR 98 Back

35   LR 78 Back

36   Q 319, LR 50, LR 56 Back

37   and Leader of Manchester City Council Back

38   State of the Cities: A Progress Report to the Delivering Sustainable Communities Summit, Professor Michael Parkinson, Mary Hutchins, European Institute of Urban Affairs, Liverpool John Moores University; Professor Tony Champion, Professor Mike Coombes, University of Newcastle; Professor Danny Dorling, University of Sheffield; Alison Parks, National Centre for Social Research; Professor James Simmie, Oxford Brookes University; Professor Ivan Turok, University of Glasgow,January 2005, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: London, see Q346 Back

39   LR 90 Back

40   LR 98 Back

41   LR 27 Back

42   What Light Rail Can Do for Cities, para 5.17 Back

43   HC (2003-04) 518, para 2.37 Back

44   See, for example, LR 51, LR 75, LR 86, LR 98 Back

45   HC (2003-04) 518, Table 3 Back

46   Q 172, see also LR 50, LR 87 Back

47   HC(1999-2000)153, para 60 Back

48   Q 286 Back

49   Q 345 Back

50   LR 25, LR 33, LR 35, LR 36, LR 46, LR 56, LR 79 Back

51   LR 55, see also Qq 175-6 Back

52   LR 50 Back

53   LR 83, see also LR 46 Back

54   Q 333, see also LR 33 Back

55   Q 301 Back

56   What Light Rail Can Do For Cities, Figure 3.1, see also LR51, LR 52, LR 60,LR 91 Back

57   LR 20 Back

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