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The 12th UK Light Rail Conference

Manchester was the host city for the 12th Annual UK Light Rail Conference, in Metrolink’s 25th anniversary year. Neil Pulling

The 12th UK Light Rail Conference took place at the University of Manchester on 18-19 July, with over 260 delegates debating key issues on the future of the mode, and with presentations and panel debates on core strategic, technical and operational issues.

With an ever-growing international presence, the event is a showcase in the promotion of technology and public transport innovation. Delegates came from 12 countries to the event – supported by Transport for Greater Manchester, UKTram and the Department for Transport – that also featured exhibits from leading industry suppliers and service providers alongside a walking tour of the city’s Second City Crossing. Networking sessions were hosted by KeolisAmey Docklands, a drinks reception was held by Keolis and a summer barbecue event for all delegates was hosted by event organiser Mainspring.

The conference began with a keynote speech from Transport for Greater Manchester Chief Executive Dr Jon Lamonte who outlined the city’s 2040 vision. The region’s Metrolink network celebrated its 25th birthday two days before the event – it now stretches to over 90km (56 miles) with 120 high-floor trams.

Dr Lamonte said: “We want to be a top-flight world city by 2025. The region is experiencing a population explosion… we are experiencing some of the fastest growth outside London.”

“Our residents tell us they want access to jobs and opportunities, while businesses want access to new markets. The future generation, if we’re going to stop them disappearing off on HS2 to London, need to see a future here.”

The welcome was followed by TfGM’s new Head of Metrolink, Danny Vaughan, who took the opportunity to thank outgoing operator Metrolink RATP Dev and welcome the KeolisAmey Metrolink partnership that took over operations and maintenance of the light rail network just days before the event.

“Metrolink isn’t the easiest network to operate,” Vaughan told the audience, “it’s technically very complex with constraints all over the place. Growing capacity is going to be a key challenge, so we need to think about things like investing in even more vehicles or possibly extending vehicles.”

On the future, Vaughan was optimistic. “Will there be a Metrolink Phase Four? Probably. There are extensions such as continuing the Trafford Park line to Port Salford, that’s a very real possibility. A western loop would also complete the circle of the Airport line. We’re investigating orbital routes, tram-train routes – so we’re keen to see what happens in Sheffield. …if Manchester grows in accordance with the plans then we may be looking at underground solutions in the not too distant future.”

Peter Jones, Project Director of delivery consortium MPT (VolkerRail, Laing O’Rourke and Thales) gave delegates a guided tour of the 2CC project on the second day, and a presentation that outlined some of the construction techniques involved in delivering such a complex scheme: “The key challenge was between disruption to the service versus the most economic build option. The option chosen was phased works with two summer closures of two months each to build the lines quickly and effectively without causing too much disruption. This has been an excellent call as it hasn’t disrupted patronage.

International experience

Tranvía de Zaragoza’s line one is “the spine of the city”, explained Ana M. Moreno, General Manager. This Spanish city opened the 12.8km (eight-mile) route with 25 stops in 2013; with 100 000 users each day, Zaragoza’s trams carry more passengers than any other in the country.

A second 9.8km (6.1-mile) line expected to cost EUR200.5m will run east-west, connecting the railway station with the city centre.

Bernd Reuß from the ‘Light Rail Day’ event updated the conference on Scandinavian projects, including projects in Copenhagen, Aarhus, Odense and Lund.

The massive project to double the size of the Paris Metro from 200km (124 miles) to 400km outrivals all other French transport schemes, explained Elodie Hanen, SYSTRA’s Director of Group Transverse Development. The official start of the programme was marked in 2010 by the passing of the ‘Grand Paris’ law, enabling the creation of a dedicated public agency, Société du Grand Paris. The Société du Grand Paris has powers to act as a land developer around stations up to a radius of 400m. There are 21 such specific urban planning contracts.

There are to be 68 new stations, and 85% of the new network is to be underground. The first section should open in 2019.

Mark Walbrun from consultant Mott MacDonald travelled from Chicago to offer an inspiring presentation with John Krause of Chicago Streetcar Renaissance (CSR) on a plan to deliver six new green track light rail corridors across the US city. The LRT proposal envisages innovative changes to traffic management for a high-frequency, high-speed light rail service that would deliver ‘first-class last-mile links from commuter rail to job centres’, inspired by the modern French tramway. “The most important thing is that rather than going where’s there’s leftover road space, we’re going where it does the most good: where demand is highest and where the congestion is worst,” Krause explained.

Can public transport be free?

Allan Alaküla, Head of the EU Office from Tallinn, gave an update on his city’s strategy to offer free round-the-clock travel to all registered residents.

The “pricetag for the policy is EUR12m”, he explained, mainly through lost fare revenue. “The main objective was social urgency,” Alaküla said. “After the 2008-09 global economic crisis, the major hit to passenger spending power arrived in 2010 and 2011 and our public services satisfaction survey showed that price for public transportation became the major barrier to travel.

“The second reason was the wider economy, we believed we could stimulate this by encouraging people to buy more local goods, go out more in the evenings and weekends and have better access to jobs.

The policy has proved so successful that the new government is rolling it out to regional bus lines nationwide from autumn 2018.

UK outlook ‘generally positive’

Turning back to UK systems, project and operational updates were heard from Blackpool Tramway, Docklands Light Railway, Midland Metro, Sheffield Supertram and the Tyne and Wear Metro.

Obtaining vehicles is the looming challenge for the Tyne and Wear Metro, which still uses the original Metro-Cammell-built trains dating back to the system’s 1980 opening. The estimated cost of replacing the 90-strong Metrocar roster is GBP435.5m (EUR487m), explained Tobyn Hughes from the North East Combined Authority. Fleet replacement would effectively complete a package of Metro modernisation.

Politicians want ‘quick wins’

Transport development is inevitably linked to complicated political factors. Politicians want quick wins and to spend money on more quick and easy schemes than large ones like light rail, warned Greg Mulholland. Formerly the UK’s Member of Parliament for Leeds North West, Mr Mulholland explained “the political reality as I see it for light rail.”

Serving as an MP from 2005-17, Mr Mulholland campaigned strongly – albeit ultimately unsuccessfully – for light rail in Leeds; most recent expansion in the UK, he said, had been on the basis of growing existing schemes rather than building new ones. He reported that in political circles light rail is still seen as disruptive and expensive to install, and that there was a lack of understanding of the actual scheme costs and of building-in the risks.

Technology: Lessons and warnings

With a local authority calling for innovation, France’s Grenoble tramway maintains a dedicated programme, explained Caroline Villien, Marketing and Commercial Director of transport operator SEMITAG.

‘Lemon’ (the Laboratoire d’experimentation des mobilites de l’Agglomeration Grenobles) runs around ten projects at any time – one of which is the measurement of city pollution levels through sensors fitted to trams and at fixed points.

Running five tramlines, Grenoble is surrounded by mountains, creating an environment in which air pollution can build up; on ‘alert’ days when pollution is above a certain level, restrictions are placed on the use of older motor vehicles in the city.

Further presentations were seen on trackform innovation, catenary-free operation, traction energy optimisation and the use of sophisticated modelling systems to help mitigate risk, safety and passenger systems. For the more technically-minded, Dr Paul Colegrove of Cranfield University discussed some of the benefits of 3D printing and the latest ‘Wire & Arc Manufacturing’ for creating large and complex components from metal. He explained: “With WAM we can produce very large objects with very small amounts of defects. You can achieve considerable cost-savings as you’re reducing the amount of material required for the final component. The second big benefit is lead time. Compared to forging, for example, the lead time for some components can be anything up to a year, with WAM that be reduced to a month or two.”

Amongst a fascinating session of presentations on traction power supplies, Dr Rob Armstrong from York EMC demonstrated that removing overhead wires doesn’t remove the challenges of electromagnetic conflicts between light rail and its neighbours.

“The fundamental issue is there is no space in the urban environment,” he suggested. “What about electric vehicles? What effect would they have if driving over a track circuit? One of the things we’re looking at at the moment is what effect 16 Teslas nose-to-tail in the outside lane of a smart motorway would have on the cabling that underpins the system. Fundamentally, 16 Teslas wouldn’t be that different to a battery-powered light rail vehicle.”

Kevin Bell from legal firm Bond Dickinson gave a more sobering view of IT and cloud-based systems in his talk on cyber security and the responsibilities placed upon those who collect data and use cloud-based technologies in the operation and maintenance of transport systems. EU-wide GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) rules from May 2018 will see increased penalties for data protection breaches. Fines of up to 4% of global annual turnover or EUR20m – whichever is higher – can be imposed. The changes reflect the seriousness with which data protection is being treated in an interconnected world.

The UK Light Rail Conference is organised by Mainspring –


For a more detailed report of the event, see TAUT 957.