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Making tramway delivery quicker and more cost-efficient

Colin Robey describes the current and future work of the UKTram Centre of Excellence – the ‘one-stop-shop’ for future tramway scheme promoters.

Since its formation in response to the 2012 UK Government consultation Green Light for Light Rail, UKTram’s Centre of Excellence has delivered expert advice to potential scheme sponsors on the best way to develop their business case. Initially responsible for receiving and approving the business case for new projects prior to bidding for Department of Transport funding, since then the body has evolved in line with the sector it supports to reflect changes in the way that tramway schemes in the UK are planned and financed.

A greater focus is now placed on local government through the introduction of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), however with the current flurry of promised central Government funding both for regional development and meeting environmental targets, the position is again somewhat muddied. As a result, the industry needs to be in a strong position to take advantage of any funding that does become available, working to ensure that schemes with strong business cases move forward, while at the same time attempting to remove some of the negative costs charged to tramway schemes.

From the outset, UKTram was identified as the lead organisation in dealing with the Department for Transport (DfT) in matters relating to light rail, such as the ownership and maintenance of all guidance and standards documentation – including those previously produced by the Office of Road and Rail (ORR). Memorandum of Understanding documents were agreed between the two organisations, but it soon became clear that to achieve all the requirements set out in the Green Light for Light Rail paper that UKTram had to undergo a complete transformation.

Background and reconstitution

Set up in 2005 as a vehicle to help drive the expansion of light rail in the UK, and to help obtain funding for the three major potential schemes bidding for government funding at that time (Leeds, South Hampshire and extensions to the London tram network), the membership of UKTram at that time comprised:

  The Passenger Transport Executive Group (PTEG) – representing the scheme sponsor groups

  The Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) – whose ‘Fixed Track’ group represented the system operators

  The Light Rapid Transit Forum (LRTF) – representing a broad church of the industry, including consultants, tram builders, legal experts and numerous support/action groups

  Transport for London (TfL) – initially managing and administering the work of UKTram through then-Chairman Phil Hewitt.

A year on from the Green Paper’s publication, UKTram evolved from its original form into an individual member organisation to better meet its new responsibilities. It subsequently set up its own, initially small, management team in Birmingham under new Chairman, Geoff Inskip. A number of member working groups were formed to get the required processes up and running, and to report back through the newly-formed executive to the Board of Directors. The Centre of Excellence was one of these new groups.

Since then members of the Centre of Excellence have met with a number of potential scheme sponsors in Cardiff and the Valleys, Cambridge, Isle of Wight and Bath Spa along with other schemes in Devon, Somerset and Surrey.

The Centre has also worked closely with the Rail Safety Standards Board (RSSB) and the Department for Transport (DfT) to find a suitable trial site for an Ultra-Light Rail (ULR) scheme, while also collaborating with Network Rail and RSSB in producing sponsor guidance for the development of tram-train schemes. As part of this it continues to work with Network Rail in delivering the learning outcomes from the South Yorkshire Tram-Train project; the DfT also requested a peer review of the South Yorkshire scheme, making a number of recommendations regarding any future projects.

Expanding the expertise base

In 2018, preparation for the introduction of the Light Rail Safety Standards Board (LRSSB) saw the ownership and maintenance of all guidance and standards transferred to the new body. As part of a wider review, changes were introduced to the role of the Centre of Excellence – a move that sees it become more proactive in light of the changes to the planning and funding of tramway schemes.

To help achieve this, the Centre’s membership has been greatly expanded to cover all aspects of tramway planning, building and operations. This includes further expertise on highway issues, guidance and standards, transport planning, safety verification and Transport and Works Act production.

Alongside this, we are currently working with Network Rail to form the basis of a Cross-Industry Light Rail Working Group. This is a major step forward and will give the industry a sharper focus, particularly in light of the potential tram-train schemes under consideration.

There are a number of issues that the Centre will be working on in the immediate term, with the following main themes under the consideration of three individual working groups:

  A common approval process for new vehicle acceptance

  A concise but complete route map for potential scheme sponsors

  Development of a ‘bow tie’ style database to store lessons learned and produce recommended ways forward as an output.

At the same time, the group will continue to support new schemes, prioritising each based on its business case. With the group’s new cross-industry representation we can better consider the merits of potential suitable modes, be they tram, tram-train, Very/Ultra Light Rail or any other guided transport system.

The Centre has recently committed to supporting the initial work of a group looking at a light rail scheme for Hereford, as well as supporting Cambridge and Bath with their project development.

If election pledges are delivered, the UK tramway industry can look forward to a busy time. The work of the Centre of Excellence will prove invaluable in making the delivery of tramway systems smoother, easing traffic management and contributing to pollution reduction –  not just in the major conurbations that have traditionally been seen as potential tramway centres but, as in continental Europe, any urban situation that can sustain them.

Article appeared originally in TAUT 988 (April 2020)