Green for go: the rebirth of light rail

tramby James Carson

When Edinburgh’s new tram system opens this week it will be three years overdue and millions of pounds over budget. But, in spite of the delays, spiralling costs and contractual difficulties, the Edinburgh system is joining a wider urban light rail renaissance.

Since the 1990s, municipalities around the world have been investing more in light rail transit systems:

  • In Canada, new light rail projects are planned or already under way in the cities of Ottawa, Calgary and Vancouver.
  • In China, eleven light rail projects are scheduled for completion by 2016, adding to the country’s seven existing systems.
  • The Danish government has committed to establishing a 28-stop light rail system in Copenhagen.
  • New lines are planned for tram systems in Antwerp, Helsinki, Vienna and Gothenburg.
  • Trams have seen a huge revival in France, with new lines opening in Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Nantes, Grenoble, Montpellier, St Etienne and Strasbourg and Bordeaux.
  • The success of Dublin’s Luas light rail system has driven forward plans for extensions to the service, as well as strong support for bringing trams to other Irish cities.

In the UK, there are now light rail / tramway systems operating in Croydon, London’s Docklands, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Tyne and Wear, Nottingham and Blackpool.

The main justifications given for light rail systems are that they provide rapid connectivity, decongest roads, deliver economic regeneration and produce lower carbon emissions.

Demonstrating the economic and social impact of trams appears to be difficult. However, there are some indications that tram systems can benefit their localities. Since opening in 2004, Nottingham’s light rail system is said to have had a significant impact on house prices and new businesses in the north of the city. A year after launch, Nottingham Express Transit (which runs the tram system) reported that over 30% of passengers had transferred from cars to trams.

Since the 1990s, UK governments have highlighted the positive impact of light rail systems on the attractiveness and quality of public transport in urban locations. In 2011, a report by the Department for Transport noted that, even in the midst of an economic downturn, the coalition government had demonstrated its belief in the benefits of light rail by committing financial support for several light rail projects in England.

However, the DfT report acknowledged the financial challenges of light rail systems:

“High capital costs have meant that, even where passenger forecasts may justify its consideration, light rail has often not been seen as an affordable option for local transport authorities to pursue.”

The report called for all parts of the light rail sector to work together on standardising design and procurement to drive down the cost of UK tram projects.

It’s clear that the coalition government wants UK Tram – the voice of the light rail industry – to take the lead. But industry commentators have observed that the process of choosing one tram scheme over all the others for future systems to emulate could take a long time. Analysts have also pointed to tension between the DfT’s call for standardisation and its support for low-cost alternatives to light rail, such as train-tram or streetcar systems, which may not easily conform to a standardised model.

In the meantime, the light rail landscape is changing, and pioneering transport authorities are experimenting with new approaches.

  • The light rail system in Rouen, France, is a mixture of conventional tramway and underground metro.
  • Extensions to Manchester’s Metrolink are changing the light rail system into a suburban rail network.
  • Cross-city projects such as London’s Crossrail and Madrid’s Cercanias are blurring the lines between light and heavy rail, carrying vehicles that were once restricted to longer-distance lines.
  • A system of tram-trains is to be piloted on local tram routes and Network Rail lines between Sheffield, Meadowhall and Rotherham.

Perhaps the most interesting insight into the impact of light rail systems comes from the United States. In the 1980s, five US cities (Buffalo, Portland, Sacramento, San Diego and San Jose) opened light rail systems that at the time promised regeneration and higher transit use.

But a recent report has found that, thirty years after construction, these five systems neither rescued their city centres nor resulted in greater use of public transport.

“In four of the five cities with new light rail lines, the share of regional workers choosing to ride transit to work declined, and the center city share of the urbanized area population declined, too.”

The report suggested that light rail’s disappointing impact in the US had a lot to do with conflicting policies:

“Increases in transit use are only possible when the low costs of driving and parking are addressed. None of the cities that built new light rail lines in the 1980s understood this reality sufficiently. Each region also built free highways during the period, and each continued to sprawl.”

The key lesson for Edinburgh, and for other cities jumping on board the trend for trams, appears to be that light rail systems must be considered within a wider strategy for urban development.

In short, spending on new lines is not enough.

Further reading:

Trams back in business (modernisation of Birmingham’s light rail system), IN New Civil Engineer, 27 Feb 2014, pp26-27

City on the move (Atlanta’s transportation systems), IN Planning (American Planning Association), Vol 80 No 1 Jan 2014, pp36-41

Global infrastructure: light rail, IN Building, No 37 20 Sep 2013, pp46-49

Extending Bergen’s light-rail network for future demand, IN Eurotransport, Vol 11 No 3 2013, pp17-19

Back in vogue: is light rail set for another golden age? (expansion of urban light rail systems), IN Surveyor, Vol 197 No 6220 Jul 2013, pp22-23

Light rail and tram statistics: England 2012/13

A meta-analysis of the impact of rail projects on land and property values, IN Transportation Research: Part A Policy and Practice, Vol 50A Apr 2013, pp158-170

Budget focused (Edinburgh trams project), IN New Civil Engineer, 14 Feb 2013, p24

Could UK Tram-Train Trial open new line in rail branch solutions?, IN New Transit, No 30 Jun 2012, pp26-27



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