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A strategy for the future of light rail in the UK

James Hammett, Managing Director of UKTrams speaking at the 16th UK Light Rail Conference in 2022

James Hammett, UKTram Managing Director, discusses his views on how a sector-wide strategy could boost sustainability. N. Pulling / Mainspring

Light rail, like many other public-facing sectors, has faced a challenging two years. The COVID-19 pandemic saw passenger numbers, and revenues, plummet. Yet now, as we move forward again, I can say without doubt that the future is looking bright. Why? Because in so many ways, light rail provides answers to some of our cities’ most pressing problems – enhancing connectivity, driving inward investment, reducing congestion, and improving air quality, to name but a few.

At UKTram, we are proud to have published A Light Rail Strategy for the UK, drawing on expertise from across the sector to build a compelling case for tramways and similar transit systems. The blueprint, launched with support from Transport Ministers Grant Shapps and Baroness Vere [both of which have since left their transport roles in the UK’s Department for Transport], highlights something that operators and users have known for some time – the benefits of putting tramways at the heart of future integrated urban transport networks are many, sizeable, and long-lasting.

Convincing messages

The strategy forms a coherent and convincing argument for expansion – a rallying call and a bold vision for the future. It also explains how, with closer collaboration to drive innovation and best practice, that vision can become reality, setting out a clear programme of initiatives that will help to reduce the cost and complexity of projects whilst driving cross-sector partnerships.

Make no mistake, there is no problem with popularity. Light rail patronage has increased steadily over the past 20 years; pre-pandemic, 282m journeys were made in the year to March 2019. With little reason not to expect those numbers to return in time, it’s worth asking why those millions of journeys were made.

The answer is clear: compared to the alternative – bus, car, potentially giving up and staying at home – the tram offers a solution. That may have been for reasons of speed, convenience, accessibility, or safety – possibly a combination of all four.

In England, for example, 83% of the population live in urban areas. Nationally, 64% of all journeys take place within urban environments, with the total amount of urban miles travelled expected to increase significantly in future.

It is important to also recognise that light rail is a green solution. Figures from Public Health England show that up to 36 000 deaths a year are attributable to human-made air pollution. Road traffic is one of the most significant sources of poor air quality, brought about by the use of fossil fuels and brake and tyre-based particulates. Additionally, light rail providers are increasingly adopting green energy supplies. Manchester Metrolink, for example, powers all of its trams and stops using renewable sources.

Driving development

Integrate light rail into an overall urban development strategy and the transformation can be dramatic. Unlock previously hard to reach locations and inward investment often follows. London’s Docklands, largely derelict from the mid-1960s until the 1980s, was described as recently as 1990 as being more inaccessible by public transport than any comparable area of London. Salford’s Lowry Centre, forerunner to the vast Media City complex, home to around 250 businesses employing around 7000 people, could never have happened without light rail investment.

And don’t forget the systems themselves. The Tyne and Wear Metro employs more than 800 people, Manchester Metrolink around 900, and South Yorkshire Supertram in the region of 350.

There is often talk of ‘left behind’ towns; in these areas light rail can be a catalyst for change, bolstering day and night economies and allowing access to a greater range of opportunities, education centres, leisure providers and essential services.

Creating confidence

There are few better ways for a local authority to send a message that it is committed to improving an area’s economy, and environment, and building customer and investor confidence, than by working towards the development of light rail. Yet developing and promoting schemes can be a time-consuming and resource hungry process. This is why we are working closely with the Department for Transport to give confidence to those investigating the viability of light rail. Recent changes to HM Treasury’s business case guidance also stress that appropriate weight should be given to the strategic case for investment, supporting societal and environmental objectives. This is a major step forward.

E-commerce is another case in point. At present, most freight is carried by road, yet light rail offers excellent opportunities to connect e-commerce distribution centres with collection hubs, again reducing emissions and road congestion.

Assistance and expertise

Of course, the sector is ever-changing and we need to keep up. While frequencies are nearing ‘turn up and go’ levels, UKTram is working with European partners to explore the future of urban transport autonomy, potentially including driverless trams and those able to recognise obstacles and respond to signals.

Over the next three years, as well as continued support for our members, we will be targeting key areas for expansion. That means reviewing proposed new schemes and planned extensions for viability – and assisting in their implementation – as well as helping operators adapt to new, post-pandemic travel patterns.

At the same time we will be supporting the Light Rail Safety and Standards Board, working towards reducing our industry’s carbon footprint, increasing career pathways, and improving diversity and inclusion across the sector.

Our pledge, as ever, is to be dynamic, agile, and responsive. We are constantly reviewing and prioritising everything that concerns our stakeholders as, together, we rise to our challenges and deliver successful and long-standing outcomes.

This article originally appeared in TAUT edition 1018. James Hammett was addressing Mainspring’s 16th Annual UK Light Rail Conference in Gateshead, July 2022 – the only dedicated UK LRT conference.  

The full document of A Light Rail Strategy for the UK can be found at