This year’s UK Light Rail Conference visited Birmingham in late July, for two days of open debate and exhibition on the key issues facing the industry.
The 11th running of the UK Light Rail Conference took place in Birmingham on 27-28 July. It once again brought together around 250 speakers and delegates from around the world for two packed days of discussion on some of the most crucial topics currently facing the light and urban rail industry.
A range of 45 presentations and debates saw themes under discussion including the role of local and sub-regional devolution, regulation, passenger studies, technological innovation, and the importance of
pan-industry collaboration in the development of new schemes.
With representation from systems and the supply chain in both the UK and overseas, topics also included the importance of light rail’s image and design factors in attracting ridership; securing funding post ‘Brexit’; how technology is changing the way we think about urban transport; and updates on projects from around the world. As media partner again for the 2016 event, Tramways & Urban Transit rounds up some of the key discussion points.
No fatalities since 1959
David Keay, Deputy Chief Inspector of the UK’s Office of Rail and Road, explained that the country had had no fatalities on a tram since 1959. He went on to explain that there has been a recent trend of increases in road traffic collisions and of road vehicle incursions onto tramways. However, if these figures were normalised for the growth in the country’s light rail, the statistics in fact showed a decline. Nevertheless he suggested the industry consider possible measures that could be taken to reduce risk, such as the swinging barriers employed in Den Haag (the Netherlands) that demarcate the tramway for road users, yet can easily be pushed aside by trams.
Mr Keay also reassured delegates on the impacts of ‘Brexit’ from the European Union, explaining that “the vast majority of legislation applicable to tramways is home grown” and that there would therefore be no change “to pivotal legislation”. He also reminded the audience that both CEN (the European Committee for Standardisation) and CENELEC (the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardisation) are independent of the EU.
Helping drivers with cameras
Bombardier Transportation’s International LRV Sales Director, Manfred Albert, gave an update on his firm’s Obstacle Detection Assistance System (ODAS), contending that a collision with third parties is the most common tramway accident scenario. ODAS, his presentation said, is “making a breakthrough for collision prevention”.
ODAS was developed in conjunction with the Austrian Institute of Technology and is a camera-based warning system, with three forward-looking cameras and a processing system to detect obstacles and calculate whether braking performance is sufficient to avoid a collision. It includes different levels – from an audible/visual warning, up to automatically applying a vehicle’s brakes. Being camera-based, it is independent of other technologies such as GPS.
Test installation has now taken place in Berlin and Marseille, plus Cologne in the second quarter of 2016. However, it is in Frankfurt where the largest rollout is currently being experienced. The city’s Verkehrsgesellschaft Frankfurt am Main (VGF) transport operator was a research and development partner for the system; go-ahead for operational use was granted in 2015 and installation in 74 Flexity vehicles
is expected by the end of this year.
In a separate panel session, Bosch Engineering’s Rail Transport Product Manager Toni Scheschko explained how his company is developing driving awareness aids from its automotive system, utilising the economies of scale this is able to offer.
Joining NET and HS2
Almost a year on from the opening of Nottingham Express Transit’s Phase Two extensions – Nottingham was the venue for the 2014 and 2015 Conferences – the city and its regional partners are now considering where the tramway goes next.
Nottingham City Council NET Team Leader Steve Tough explained the thinking behind a number of options. Key to the deliberations is making best use of the High Speed 2 line when it arrives in the East Midlands as part of that scheme’s own second phase, projected to be in the 2030s. With the station expected to be at Toton, and a confirmation of this expected before the year’s end, this would require only a 1.6km (one-mile) connection from the current Toton Lane park-and-ride terminus of the new Chilwell line to allow a link to be made.
HS2 creates benefits for further suggested expansion that could include a westward route to Derby, and one connecting East Midlands Airport to the south in the neighbouring county of Leicestershire. Also possible are a number of other extensions such as to county locations such as Kimberley and Gedling, and even the development of a tram-train network that could connect locations on the Network Rail system as well. Tram-train development was dependent on the outcome of the UK’s long-overdue technology trial, he explained. Mr Tough concluded that next steps include discussions with HS2 as well as funding bids to allow development of potential options.
With 30 000-plus jobs expected to be supported by HS2 in Manchester, and thousands more in Leeds, Birmingham and Sheffield, a message from HS2 Ltd Phase 2 Development Director Paul Griffiths is that the UK’s multi-billion pound project is far from being all about the country’s capital.
Some 24 600 construction and more than 3000 operations and maintenance jobs are expected to be generated by HS2, and it is expected that 60% of contract opportunities will go to small and medium-sized enterprises. A related benefit is the establishment of a National College of High Speed Rail, to be sited in Birmingham and Doncaster.
An even lighter revolution?
A lightweight, cost-effective rail vehicle has long been sought to help drive costs down – and a new innovative version is promised from the Revolution VLR consortium. Funded with GBP1.6m (EUR1.9m) from the Rail Safety and Standards Board, the consortium consists of Transport Design International, Unipart Rail, Prose, the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG), and the Catapult High Value Manufacturing scheme. By transferring automotive technology, it is hoped to bring both costs and weight down to under half that of a conventional light rail vehicle.
WMG’s Dr Nick Mallinson explained the concept behind the Very Light Rail vehicle, which includes self-powered bogies and weight reduced to one tonne per linear metre for the 18m railcar. Other innovations include zero emissions at key points, with the vehicle running on battery power in stations; the plan is to start construction of a prototype in October, with the vehicle complete by the end of 2017. It is thought the VLR could be ideal for routes such as rural branches like the UK’s Cirencester – Kemble line, which is proposed for reopening.
In his presentation, Dr Mallinson described the VLR concept as “key to the provision of sustainable short range public transport systems, both now and in the future.”
The potential for a light rail approach to under-utilised branch lines on the UK heavy rail network was highlighted by a talk on the ‘Stourbridge Shuttle’ by Philip Evans, MD and CEO of Pre Metro Operations. The 1.3km (0.8-mile) line connects both the railway and bus stations using a fleet of two Class 139 Parry People Movers. It has a single depot, which doubles as the maintenance workshop. The vehicles use a Ford LPG-fuelled engine with ‘regen’ flywheel hybrid ability. Running down the 1-in-67 gradient of the branch charges the flywheel and the energy is released for the return journey. Replacing the heavy rail Class 153 DMU has reduced the line’s carbon footprint by 66% – and costs are half that of a conventional rail operation.
Operations began in 2009 as part of the West Midlands Rail Franchise. Services run 18 hours Monday to Saturday and ten hours on Sundays with a 15-minute frequency raised to every ten minutes in the peaks. In 2015-16 the operation recorded 99.71% reliability. Passenger numbers are up 30% since operations began.
Consultant Roger Berrisford explained in some detail the problems of the Isle of Wight’s Island Line, which currently uses second-hand 1938 Stock from the London Underground – the oldest trains in regular public service in the country. He argued that the best future for the line would be light rail – and with major population centres on the island not served by the current route, that there is also a case for expansion.
A concept for a Swift future
Contributors to TAUT were well represented among the speakers, and these included Dr Nicholas Falk and Reg Harman who explained their Swift Rail concept that combines short routes with high-frequency services. Initially developed as a proposal for Oxford using existing rail lines, the argument is that the idea would be appropriate for around 30 towns and small/medium-sized cities in the UK. Examples include Cambridge, Gloucester, Colchester and the Derby/Nottingham/Leicester triangle.
Essentially, it was explained, the concept combines nine features: City station linked to suburbs in catchment region; city station as a hub for co-ordinated local transport; all stations located and designed as area focal points – fundamental; high standard signalling but simplified on pure Swift Rail sections; high frequency; integration with bus and local rail; multiple units featuring high acceleration/deceleration; high density with high quality interiors fitted for local needs; planned, funded and franchised; locally managed.
Jerusalem: Ten new lines?
Increasingly, the UK Light Rail Conference has welcomed international expertise and Simcha Ohrenstein, Chief Technical Officer of Jerusalem LRT, paid a repeat visit to the event, updating the audience on the
tramway in the historic city. From a difficult period of construction, the tramway is now considered one of Israel’s success stories and a key asset to the city.
This is Israel’s first LRT system, so there were no existing laws or regulations and no local experience to draw upon, although some ideas were influenced by current European thinking. In the public sector, there was no organisation or staff to begin with and the city’s topography provided its own challenges, with gradients of up to 9%. Archaeological finds brought their own delays. Terrorism is a constant threat, too; LRT is an open system by nature so it is difficult to protect.
Now though, the tramway can demonstrate 140 000 daily trips, a 15% switch from car traffic, quicker journeys into the city centre, and a remarkable drop of 85% in city centre pollution. The 13.8km (8.6-mile) Red line has a safety record showing five years without any fatalities and in 2015 70% of passengers registered a high level of satisfaction; ridership last year was an impressive 36 million. The city’s planning extends to a ten-line network, two of which are already at an advanced design stage with approval given this year for the future Blue and Green lines.
North American perspectives
A number of perspectives came from North America, reflecting the resurgence of light rail across the continent. Siemens Mobility North America Project Manager Will Marshall explained the history that
included thousands of streetcars being scrapped in the 1960s (before closure in that decade there were 900 operators, and 18 000km/11 000 miles of track).
America’s West Coast population has trebled since 1950 and resultant planning has led to significant urban spread. There is a renewed desire for urban proximity and to maintain a quality of life there is also a desire for a comprehensive transit system. Originally a mix of traditional streetcar and interurban rail, now it has become a hybrid of both in the form of LRT.
In the 1980s a few start-up systems in the west were followed by more in central areas. Key attractions of LRT to the public are that it is clean, green, fast, efficient and civilised – and it is also perceived as an important economic driver. Today the US has 38 cities with tram/LRT systems. The first and second waves of the new networks were typical of their European counterparts at the time, the more recent third wave are generally 70% low-floor.
Siemens’ factory is the largest such facility in North America. Some 1300 of the company’s S70 vehicles have now been sold to 17 cities; Calgary has placed nine consecutive orders.
Toronto Transit Commission CEO Andy Byford explained how customer satisfaction has reached 80% after a five-year plan to rebuild public perception and stakeholder confidence. Previously, the third-largest transit system in North America (after New York City and Mexico City) had a poor reputation and Mr Byford continued that it had been his ambition since arriving in the Toronto to find a ‘squalid’ transport network to reinvigorate the corporate culture and instil pride in TTC staff.
Toronto’s public transportation comprises buses in the outer area, subway in the centre and streetcars in between, with 12 lines and 250 high-floor vehicles. Toronto’s extreme hot-cold climate also makes for difficult operating conditions. A new streetcar fleet of 204 Bombardier Flexity low-floor trams has been ordered although so far only 21 have gone into service due to well-publicised issues with quality and delivery.
Sustainability and environmental challenges were the topic of TriMet Director of Project Development Dave Unsworth, who joined the conference via a satellite link from the US. Portland, which has a population of 600 000, saw the opening of the 11.7km (7.3-mile) Orange line in September 2015 and it is already known as the ‘green’ Orange line.
Wildlife and environmental considerations have been incorporated throughout the project, with grass track that filters water, and diversion of the route for wildlife. Renewable energy and extensive use of LEDs add to durable materials for longevity. The riverside was regenerated during construction with a sizeable new bridge (the Tilikum Crossing) accommodating a cycleway and a walkway, and remodelling has taken place for wildlife. There are 16 new solar arrays on the route. What’s more, Portland’s well-documented storm waters are dealt with and cleaned before being allowed into the river, and eight of the system’s buildings have a ‘green’ roof that assists in the cleaning process.
Edinburgh, and changing markets
Delegates also heard the latest developments from the UK’s newest tramway, in Edinburgh. The original business plan had profitable operation after five years – but the line is on track to be in profit by the end of its third year. And despite the public outcry over the project’s delivery, customer satisfaction is now at 97% – showing year-on-year growth.
A 16th stop is to open by the end of 2016, a ‘red eye’ airport service has been trialled and is now running, and five-minute headways are to be introduced at peak times. Cycles and mobility scooters are now allowed on trams.
Edinburgh came up in a different way in a presentation by UKTram Managing Director Colin Robey that gave some perspective on the second-hand vehicle market. Over the years there has been a tradition of rolling stock cascading from west to east as replacement by newer vehicles takes place, he explained. This trade has become more complicated as new countries joining the EU have had their cashflow improved with finance becoming available to buy new rather than secondhand. The emergence of new, smaller, manufacturers has added to this complexity with smaller orders for, say, five or ten vehicles now becoming more affordable and more easily achievable.
There are well-documented cases of surplus trams remaining unsold, he reported – such as the Alstom Citadis in Jaén (Spain), Midland Metro’s surplus Ansaldo T69 vehicles and the excess vehicles acquired by Edinburgh due to the completed line being shorter than first planned (and therefore needing only 18 of the 27 CAF trams at any one time).
In a new segment for 2016, delegates had the opportunity to explore a range of innovations funded under UKTram’s Low Impact Light Rail competition. These included modular, lightweight pre-cast slab track designs, cost-effective methods for the in situ weld restoration of worn embedded grooved rail and lightweight vehicle components.
Synchronisation equals efficiency
Nottingham Trams’ Head of Engineering Lindsay Murphy argued that synchronisation equals efficiency in her presentation on how cities can best restructure transport networks around new high-capacity services such as tramways. Examples given included maximisation of assets and the ability, where possible, to afford seamless connections to minimise interconnection time. Ticketing needs to be multimodal and timetable synchronisation is essential, she added.
The 1985 Transport Act in the UK brought about upheaval in the country’s bus market and while the country’s local transport is still around 80% bus, some of the major operators have interests in light rail too. In contrast, under the French model all modes of a given city are tendered together as one, on five-year contracts. Orléans is a good example of this; transport is subsidised by a local business tax and fares are set by the local transport authority. The timetable is designed at the tender stage and the revenue risk is borne by the companies who bid – renegotiation can take place at an annual review. Strong environmental targets are built in and fare evasion is specifically targeted. France’s approach appears to offer a ‘better deal’ but is subsidised by a tax at source. The UK promotes open competition, therefore keeping pricing keen, and encouraging restructuring and efficiency.
Nottingham’s city centre emissions area has dramatically reduced pollution as well as driving timetable efficiency, with shared time displays at tram/bus hubs. Connections to neighbouring Derby are important and will form a significant part of near-future NET plans, while the multimodal Robin Hood Card is crucial to the knitting together of the whole tram/bus network; the alternative is the Mango Card, a collaboration between NET and Trent Barton. The tramway is also part of the national Plus Bus ticketing option.
Rob Groves of property developer Argent explained the importance of light rail in sustainable regeneration with an overview of Argent’s role in the redevelopment of central Birmingham. Moving from a car-focused development model – “the highway engineers in the 1960s really ripped the heart out of Birmingham” – the new shared public realm that will be delivered over the coming years will “break down the concrete barriers”.
He explained: “I couldn’t believe when we met with the city in 2010 that they wanted 2000 car parking spaces within a two-minute walk of New Street station for our new development – not a maximum, minimum.”
The original alternative to the Midland Metro extending in the city centre was for a central area only rubber-tyred tram, funded by a PPP as a deliverable alternative. “We fully backed Centro’s plans for the Metro system… we didn’t want 2000 car parking spaces, we wanted a higher-quality transport offering.”
“Two-thirds of our presentations to potential clients are about selling the city in question – and this is all about connectivity.”
Collaborative working was covered by a detailed look at the Transport for London/Keolis Amey Docklands relationship for the Docklands Light Railway, emphasising the importance of “ganging up on the problem, not on each other,” while a panel session considered the new Midland Metro Alliance, established to deliver expansion of the West Midlands light rail network over the next decade. Although drawing its staff from different organisations – Auctus Management Group, Barhale, Colas Rail, Colas, Egis, Pell Frischmann, Thomas Vale Construction, Tony Gee and the West Midlands Combined Authority are all part of the alliance – its members are co-located, and the public face of the Alliance is a unified one.
Lively panel debates once again featured and a major discussion, ‘Selling light rail’, brought together a number of high-profile speakers to give their views on how to get the message about light rail across – and to whom.
UKTram Promotions Group Chair (and LRTA Chairman) Andrew Braddock argued that the industry group’s task is to convince powerful bodies that light rail, ultra light rail and personal rapid transit are viable alternatives to the car – and that in this respect the UK needed to be more like Continental countries. He cited France as an excellent example of a country that had been able to “take space back from the car” (releasing valuable room for attractive new development) and reduce pollution: “Why in Angers, but not in Aberdeen? Dijon, but not Derby? Rouen, but not Reading? Tiny little Le Havre, but not Liverpool.”
He added that we also need to be more creative about what we mean by ‘light rail’ and highlighted the place of operations like the Stourbridge Shuttle as a superb example of what can be done. He stated that regions such as South Wales, the East Midlands and Bath – Bristol were all ideal for regional light rail or light metro networks and further underscored the importance of tram-train – particularly pointing out its ability to free up capacity at rail hubs.
Bircham Dyson Bell’s Head of Public Affairs Stuart Thomson argued that “tram systems have to be socially, economically and environmentally important” – and with little government cash around, warned against ignoring the cost. “Government expects creativity around scheme funding through partnerships with the private sector and local and business contributions. But don’t expect any consistency or policy in the area of light rail in the light of Brexit.”
He considered that Edinburgh’s protracted tramway project had tainted the public view of light rail schemes (the final turnout cost of over GBP50m/km far exceeds most surface tramway developments); Brexit could cause change through alterations in access to the European Investment Bank and revised economic forecasting; and that projected population growth and climate change were also important drivers for new urban passenger transport solutions.
Tramlink Nottingham Chairman and Chair of the D2N2 (Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham, Nottinghamshire) Local Enterprise Partnership Peter Richardson contended that we will see “a jigsaw of local decision-making [in the future] that may be quite different” and that “it is how you get the messages through to government and also other investors that there is something worth investing in.” He said too that he believed the UK Government was committed to the Local Enterprise Partnerships now in place.
Meanwhile PriestmanGoode Director Paul Priestman argued: “Design is absolutely key. Light rail faces ever increasing competition.”
Separately, Mr Priestman gave a presentation on his work, including the design of the ‘New Tube for London’ – as well as an ‘edge of space’ balloon, demonstrating that good transport has to be something that can immediately be identified with and grab the imagination of intending passengers.
A further panel debate considered the argument that ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ when it comes to transport projects. Consultant Scott McIntosh argued that LRT is going in the wrong direction for ‘second level’ towns and cities, calling for simplification and greater imagination – “It’s important to rememeber what we’re trying to achieve.”
Although a niche market, Mr McIntosh said the rubber-tyred Translohr (now NTL) system was an option for tighter bends and steep gradients, and added that buses also have a valuable place in intermodal networks. When asked if sub-surface alignments were a reasonable option, Mr McIntosh argued not. “Undergrounding for light rail schemes costs between ten and 40 times as much per route kilometre as a surface tramway does and the stops are likely to cost at least GBP200m each, which means they will be at least 1.5km apart and fewer people will use them.
“Good public transport is about putting people where they should be, in the street, looking out of the windows where they can see the shopfronts – not in a hole in the ground.”
He later added: “We need something better than a bus. That could be a better bus, but more often it needs to be something better than a better bus.”
SYSTRA’s Hervé Mazzoni used the example of Besançon as evidence that systems can be built within a reasonable budget and that we must be careful not to over-specify future lines and networks (for more on Besançon’s tramway, see our Systems Factfile on page 352). Referencing the Dubai tramway that opened in 2014, he contended that while this is a magnificent example of what can be done when money is no object, automatic and 100% catenary-free operation is not something that many cities could afford, or is strictly necessary for street-running light rail. Importantly, he contended, “however, we need to make sure that low-cost does not mean low quality.”
One of the elements drawing the conference to a close was a panel discussion on where LRT goes next in the UK. Panellists discussed likely funding changes post the UK’s decision on Brexit, but also the opportunity to save significant sums through streamlining processes such as the country’s Transport and Works Act Orders and procurement strategies.
The need for a strong pipeline of projects is key to retaining expertise, the panel agreed, but also discussed was the impact of changing technology and lifestyles on mass public transport – with Mainspring Managing Director Matt Johnston arguing that rather than being seen purely as challenges, such developments also brought opportunities to re-evaluate light rail’s role as more than just a transport mode.
Manchester Metrolink Director Peter Cushing rounded off the final panel with a key message that could be applied across the industry: “Innovation doesn’t necessarily mean the latest new technology; it’s about taking something that may already exist and making it better.”
In summarising the event, UKTram’s Geoff Inksip and Colin Robey summed up the current mood of the industry well: “We’re beyond the doom and gloom of a few years ago. The only constraint on light rail in the UK now is the lack of ambition on the part of local authorities.”