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Reframing the light rail debate

The West Midlands Metro is tripling the size of its network, spreading the benefits of clean, green travel across the region in a massive expansion programme that has recently received further funding from central Government. But while existing systems are expanding and modernising, where are the new schemes? Image courtesy of Neil Pulling

It’s been a long and rocky road back for light rail in the UK since the rapid post-war phase out of the nation’s original tram networks. After World War Two, housing was a bigger priority for public investment than overhauling run-down tramways. As the main political parties competed over house-building targets (two million council houses were built between 1945 and 1960), with trams there was an alternative – let people sort out their own transport by buying a car, at the same time keeping the town hall bean-counters happy by giving free reign to the municipal bus operators.

Trams were also seen as part of the mean and sooty clutter left over from the previous century. Tatty Victoriana that had no place in a Britain that yearned, in a way never fully resolved, for urban forms that reflected both the clean lines and bountifulness of Scandinavian social democracy and at the same time American consumer capitalism. The post-war boom further exacerbated the 20th Century British trait for favouring idealised suburbs over the necessary evil of the city – and there is nothing that says ‘city’ more than a tram.

In short, the tram’s face did not fit in Britain and all were gone, bar Blackpool, before the 1960s had even got properly started.

The revival since the early 1990s has come about through the tenacity of transport authorities in riding out the sometimes wild mood swings (usually related to wider fiscal upturns and downturns) in Westminster about light rail. Mood swings that oscillate between ‘absolutely no way’ and ‘do it with buses instead’, and the occasional outbreak of realpolitik, devolutionary enthusiasm or flings with continental-style urbanism.

But as the decades have passed, bloody-minded persistence has meant that when the cyclical thinking in Whitehall is at the right point, authorities have been able to seize the moment to ‘ratchet up’ and expand their networks. Since then we have seen an evolution from single lines to European-style networks – without which the cities they serve would no longer be imaginable.

COVID and beyond

In the immediate pre-COVID period, light rail wasn’t really on Whitehall’s radar as either a particular problem or a major opportunity – and a ‘steady as she goes’ expansion was taking place. Then came COVID.

Before the pandemic, light rail had lived up to its promise in transforming the places it served, getting people out of their cars by offering fast and comfortable access to the heart of urban centres. During COVID the wheels of light rail kept turning so those who couldn’t work from home could get to where they needed to be. It got staff and patients to medical centres and to their vaccinations and, as restrictions have eased, it has supported the revival of town and city centres.

“In the immediate pre-COVID period, light rail wasn’t really on Whitehall’s radar as either a particular problem or as a major opportunity.”

With patronage decimated, keeping the wheels turning has required considerable Government support. As the body responsible for all the light rail systems in England (other than Blackpool), the Urban Transport Group has been the lead body negotiating to secure that funding. It’s been hard yards, with funding deals sometimes not being finalised until after the last tranche had run out. We met with the Department for Transport (DfT) on a weekly basis for most of the pandemic – sometimes with HM Treasury too. The current state of play is that we have funding in place until the end of this financial year, but the Treasury’s position is there will be nothing after that.

It’s also unclear at present whether there is enough in the current deal to get us through to the end of March 2022 if the DfT’s patronage projections prove too optimistic. This creates particular challenges when budgets have to be set well ahead of the start of the 2022-23 financial year, and especially where the financing of improvements and extensions were linked to projections that have been undermined.

There remains an immediate issue therefore in protecting our existing networks from the aftershocks of this far-reaching pandemic. There’s also an associated danger that the funding challenges created by COVID dull the enthusiasm for future expansion at both Whitehall and local levels.

From pariah to saviour?

When looking to the future of light rail, it’s worth exploring the wider context of how Government is looking at the other two key public transport modes.

Heavy rail is very much the Brahmin mode – it gets far more money and Government attention than the rest of public transport put together, despite its minority share of public transport journeys and tiny overall share in some areas. The media is obsessed with it and no expense is spared on consultants, lawyers or whatever else is needed for rail reform. Heavy rail has its own challenges though. It’s seen in Government as a mode where although money was no object, it has often disappointed in terms of the quality of what its users get, and in the delivery of the better network this money was supposed to buy.

The new hero in Government is the bus. Its stock is arguably riding higher than it ever has before, exemplified by a new National Bus Strategy whose ambition knows few bounds. It promises cheaper buses, greener buses, more frequent buses where there are buses already, and new services where there aren’t any.

Part of the reason for this return to vogue is that we have a Prime Minister who was London Mayor and an advisor in Andrew Gilligan who has followed him to Downing Street. They’ve seen what can be achieved by investing in bus services as the spearhead for the wider transformation of the capital’s public transport system in the period between the start of Ken Livingstone’s first mayoralty and the start of the pandemic. The bus is a way of showing intent through rapid, relatively low-cost and universal improvements. The PM and his transport advisor can testify to what the bus did for London and how it could do the same in other areas.

Reframing the debate

And then there’s light rail. The challenge it faces with Government is that unlike bus, it’s not a universal service. Not everywhere has a tram and even those places that do have them somewhere, don’t have them everywhere. Unlike rail and bus, the Government wasn’t subsidising light rail before. So the temptation is to see it as a series of local and particular funding problems and the result of local choices. You chose to build a light rail system – so you sort it out.

It is in this context that our case needs to be remade. As part of this, we worked with consultant Steer to summarise the mode’s benefits and to show how they have been delivered by the systems the UK already has. The ‘Leading Light’ report does this by systematically examining how light rail positively contributes to the economic, social and environmental objectives of both national and city region governments.

Light rail supports growth in employment and economic activity in town and city centres in a way that minimises the negative impacts that growth in car traffic would bring, facilitating redevelopment, regeneration and an improved public realm. One study featured in the report found that the Tyne and Wear Metro contributed an impressive GBP290m (EUR345m) to the Gross Value Added (GVA) of the North East economy in 2015.

From a social perspective, light rail can contribute to the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda and help ‘left behind’ town and city centres by providing access to jobs, education and training for those in deprived areas.

For example, in an Ipsos MORI study into the impact of a new Manchester Metrolink line on Wythenshawe, 84% of people said the tram contributed most to giving them access to a wider range of places with job opportunities. And 67% of Tyne and Wear Metro journeys pre-COVID were made by people who did not have access to a car, emphasising how reliant some regions are on their systems for essential travel.

“You need facts and figures, case studies, human interest examples. You can’t wage an effective campaign without having your armoury in place.”

Environmentally, light rail can reduce emissions and contribute to cleaner air in cities. This is because it is one of the least polluting transport modes (with zero emissions at the point of use). Manchester Metrolink and Nottingham’s NET are powered exclusively by renewable energy. South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive estimates that Sheffield Supertram helps to save over 2000 tonnes of CO2 per year.

Moving forward

But the report doesn’t just look back at our successes. It also examines light rail’s role in the short-term as the nation exits from the COVID pandemic, as well as in the longer-term as we move to a ‘net zero’ carbon future. A key finding is that there is a need to maintain the connectivity provided as the economies of the towns and cities that light rail serves recover from the pandemic.

As Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Parliament earlier this year: “Light rail is a lifeline for many communities across the UK.” Retaining this connectivity will require the maintenance and renewal of existing systems as assets become life-expired, also recognising that this renewal will potentially enhance the benefits that light rail already delivers.

The report concludes by stating that a stable Government policy and funding environment is needed to help promoters come forward with projects to expand existing systems or bring new schemes to urban areas that currently do not benefit from one. It hopefully provides a repository of evidence, case studies and arguments that can support wider advocacy.

But we can’t rest there. The majority of TAUT readers care passionately about the mode; sadly most people don’t share this enthusiasm per se – certainly not those who are making the decisions on funding. They care about what the tram can do for people and places. What the tram does, not what it is. To make that case you need the ammunition to do it: the facts and figures, the case studies, the human interest examples. You need all this because you can’t wage an effective campaign without having your armoury in place.

Transport policy used to be all about getting people from A to B as fast and as easily as possible. But transport also changes the nature of both A and B for better or for worse. It can make A and B more or less polluted, more or less attractive to work in, to live in, to visit, to invest in. Indeed, what we are now witnessing is the triumph of place over movement. It’s not so much the planners who decide what happens to transport in city centres, it’s the place-makers.

Play to your strengths

The tram’s ability to go hand-in-hand with wider urban realm improvements is a strength, but it is a strength that needs to be exploited to the full. The face of the tram needs to fit with how cities want to look and feel. It needs to be a facilitator of that improved urban environment. Integral to it. By doing so it brings with it a whole coterie of new supporters and reasons to fund it.

There’s also how we organise ourselves to make an effective case. We are a body that brings together the majority of local transport authority promoters, but our members are also investing in bus, in BRT, in rail, in walking and cycling. We are multi-modal, but light rail can still be central for us given it’s the mode we are most responsible, and financially liable, for.

UKTram is exclusively there for the tram and has a technical remit which we don’t (and wouldn’t want to) have. UKTram and UTG also have different memberships. Neither of us covers all the major UK tram and light rail systems, although between us we do. But between us we need to ensure that the case for the funding and expansion of rail systems is made effectively. A good example of this is the way that our recent work on the evidence base for light rail can support the strategy that UKTram is rightly leading on (see TAUT 1007). And just as light rail needs to be championed outside Government, it also needs championing within.

It was therefore encouraging at the end of October to see three of our largest urban areas – Greater Manchester, South Yorkshire and the West Midlands – receive allocations from the City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements which will be used (in part) for expansion and renewals of the systems in those regions.

Light rail may be experiencing choppy waters, but I am optimistic about its future as its fundamentals remain as strong as ever. The biggest fundamental is that public transport remains key to the aims that national, regional and local government have for decarbonisation, for improving access to opportunity, for cleaner air and for supporting wider plans for housing and for economic development.

Summing up the attitude of a misguided era, the Alderman in charge of transport in Leeds told the young reporter Keith Waterhouse: ‘Tha sees yon trams lad? We’re getting shot o’the buggars’. I am confident we are going to continue to make good the mistake that was made then – and bring back the tram to the streets of more of our towns and cities.

Article appeared originally in TAUT 1008 (December 2021)


Jonathan Bray has been the Director of the Urban Transport Group since 2008. He is also a Visiting Senior Fellow at LSE Cities and a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Highways and Transportation.

The Urban Transport Group brings together the transport authorities for the UK’s largest urban areas. Read the report in full and find out more at