Professor Lewis Lesley of Trampower explains the programme to deliver England’s first new tram scheme for over a decade.
Designated city status in 2002, Preston (UK) suffered a considerable economic setback following the 2008 banking crisis with a major casualty being the GBP700m (EUR826m) Tithebarn regeneration project that would have seen 13ha (32 acres) of the city redeveloped with retail, residential and leisure complexes and a new bus station.
Situated on the major M6 road corridor in the county of Lancashire, between Blackburn and Blackpool, the city’s population of over 140 000 is currently heavily automobile dependent, with nearly 70% of trips made
by private car. Buses carry 6%, with walking and cycling making up the rest. The city’s first-generation tramway closed in 1934.
As a result, Preston suffers severe road congestion and associated emissions and exceeds the EU recommended safe levels of air pollution; the treatment of related illnesses costs the NHS an estimated GBP100m/annum in England’s north-west.
Regional transport authority Lancashire County Council has plans to build more roads to accommodate traffic growth, after which bus priorities may be introduced, while Preston City Council has a Transport Plan covering the period 2012-26 in which a tramway scheme is seen as a way to reduce car journeys. Trampower is helping to deliver this vision.
NAO report and the funding shortfall
The UK’s National Audit Office (NAO) 2004 report Improving public transport in England through light rail1 questioned why English tramway schemes cost twice that of other EU countries on a like-for-like basis and why legal costs should be greater than those for engineering design. The report also examined how each scheme delivered to that point was procured through a unique contract, how procedures attempted to offload risk onto the private sector, and it criticised over-optimistic patronage forecasts and outturn costs higher than budget.
A consequence of this report was that then Transport Secretary Alistair Darling cancelled UK government funding for three planned schemes: Leeds, Liverpool and South Hampshire. Despite expansion on existing systems, no new town or city has since embarked on a new tramway project and this led to soul searching about the future of new systems in Britain as reliance on central government funding as a key component imposes a number of major restrictions.
In September 2011 the Department for Transport published its Green light for Light Rail review and while its tone was upbeat, the underlying message reinforced that of the NAO report: “The Department would not expect any funding to be provided for any light rail system unless it follows a more standard and uniform core design taking advantage of lower cost specifications.”
We have since developed a software package that allows a large number of potential routes to be evaluated for financial viability. Developing a robust business case that covers operating costs is critical, but it must also consider asset depreciation and recovery of initial investment.
New schemes can therefore be self-funding, using commercial finance on a partnership basis with construction contractors, reducing the risks of multi-million pound bid costs for publicly-backed schemes that may lead to nothing. Using open book negotiated contracts provides an incentive to reduce costs further, as these savings are shared.
Trampower has been in discussion with a number of commercial funders to provide the GBP25m (approx. EUR30m) required to establish the Guild line in Preston. Until the revenue-generating tramway is ‘spade ready’ these monies cannot be drawn down so the initial works have been financed through the Preston team’s own funds at its own risk, until the commercial finance is released.
Cost reduction through innovation
With the Preston Trampower scheme, a number of technical innovations are planned to develop a framework for reducing both capital and operational costs.
Probably the most intractable challenge for any new tramway is street track. Current convention uses a concrete track slab of around 500mm thickness. Girder rails are fixed to the slab and the road surface is built up to the rail head. For such tracks up to 25% of scheme cost relates to the relocation of utilities inaccessible through the track slab. The low-impact LR55 track was developed to avoid this street disruption as it uses the exiting strength of roads, without the need to relocate utilities.
LR55 uses prefabricated concrete ground beams glued into the road surface and low-profile rails that are glued into the beams. As heavy road vehicles are proven to be the worst enemy of embedded tram tracks, part of the proving programme included a length of LR55 installed at Rotherham bus station. Facing over 2.5m buses each year, data from the installation was analysed and from this a section of Sheffield Supertram track was replaced by LR55 in March 1996. It has since needed no maintenance, has not corrugated, and at present wear rates should be good until 2026.
LR55 uses the existing strength of roads. Separate rails allow utilities to be left in place and being laid one rail at a time means at least 100m per week of track can be installed without closing roads. The track costs are less than half those with conventional foundation slabs and girder rails, and LR55 is quicker to install, needing about 5% of the excavation. Several Chinese steel mills advertise LR55 rails in their product range.
Many UK tramways have overhead line power systems more akin to main line railways; our solution (in place at the Carnforth Railway Centre since 2004, where it has survived severe gales and all manner of extreme weather scenarios) centres around a main principle of an elastic suspension with a single wire. The contact wire suspension element of this solution has been adopted on the Ashton line of the Metrolink network.
For rolling stock, we propose the City Class tram originally developed as a solution to the rising cost of vehicles due to a lack of mass production. With a comparatively small marketplace of tram builders, economies of scale are impossible compared to buses, for example, that benefit from technologies from the truck market, sharing engines, axles, gearboxes, brakes and suspension components etc. Using existing components off the shelf (COTS) from other industries, the smart bit of the City Class programme was designing and testing the interfaces between these components in a rail environment.
A 10m mock-up was built to promote tramways in many cities in the British Isles. A low-impact bogie and drive were built and fitted to a redundant 1930 Blackpool tram that ran for two years. From this testing, a full-size 29m-long prototype was built. It is designed to go around 15m curves and up 10% gradients and has operated in Birkenhead and Blackpool. It is the only 100% flat floor tram with entrances 300mm above the rail head.
These infrastructure and rolling stock innovations have been put together for the Preston tramway demonstrator.
Building a network
Ten potential lines in the city were analysed, from which four showed promise. The one that offered the best Internal Rate of Return (IRR) was chosen for development; the 6km (3.75-mile) Guild line has around 80% of its total length on the Longridge railway formation that closed to traffic in 1967. We estimate that an end-to-end time of around 15 minutes is possible, even with 12 tramstops, some being request stops.
The full line will serve a park-and-ride at Junction 31A on the M6 motorway, a major retail park, a large leisure complex, the Preston North End football ground, the city centre and Preston railway station, which presently serves eight million passengers each year but is expected to increase to ten million by 2020.
The first stage of building the line was achieving the appropriate permissions from the local council; an application for planning permission was made and granted in 2010 for a short ‘demonstrator’ section but sadly no agreement could be reached on depot location and the permission lapsed in 2013. Work on the scheme continued however and on 10 November 2016 the Preston City Council Planning Committee unanimously approved the application to use and adapt existing rail tracks, construct a depot at a former coal yard off Deepdale Mill Street and build a model tramstop as part of a pilot programme.
This pilot will use around 1km (0.6 miles) of extant rail track, mostly double-track.
It is well over 20 years since a train last ran on these rails and the line has become overgrown with vegetation and dumped rubbish. Walking the tracks indicates that some refurbishment will be needed, as well as replacing missing fishplates and bonding the rails for electrical continuity and current return. This pilot scheme will allow driver and maintenance staff training, as well as public familiarisation with a modern tramway.
Considerable discussions with funders and other stakeholders have included canvassing over 5000 households within walking distance of the tramway. Nearly 2000 responded and 80% of residents are in favour. The Lancashire Evening Post also ran an online poll on future transport for the city and 78% voted for trams, with only 22% for ‘better buses’. All businesses that will be served by the tramway in the city centre were also canvassed, with an overwhelming majority supporting the Guild tramway scheme.
There is a validated planning application that covers the section between the end of the pilot line through the city centre to the railway station and an application will shortly be lodged for the section along the Longridge railway alignment to the M6 motorway. The track has been removed on this section and is now used as a footpath/cycleway. This will be extended towards the city centre when tram tracks are installed on the former railway easement. This has the support of both Lancashire County Council and Preston City Council and some s106 funding has been offered in assistance.
The expectation is that these further applications could be granted during 2017, so that during 2018 it could be possible to have nearly the whole line open, with a tram every six minutes to serve the 18 000 people who live in the Brookfield and Deepdale areas. The expected travel time from the M6 to the city’s railway station is 15 minutes, requiring six new trams; the existing demonstrator will be used as a live spare and to augment the service on occasions such as match days to carry supporters to the Preston North End football ground, a short walk from the proposed new tramstop at Skeffington Road.
So with nearly everything in place for this first phase, the Trampower team is optimistic that work will start on the pilot scheme early in 2017 and the first City Class tram will soon be running again, with six more to follow. This will allow a six-minute service level and an initial forecast for 1.8 million passengers each year over the full line.
About 35% of those are anticipated to be car drivers attracted away from using their own vehicles for short journeys in and around the conurbation with the promise of a new efficient, congestion-free and environmentally-conscious travel alternative; as such we envisage that the Guild line provides a model for how costs can be reduced and shows a less cumbersome form of implementation.