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UK barriers to progress

Edinburgh was the last British city to open a new city tramway; opening day at the Gyle Centre, 31 May 2014. Image credit: V. Simons

How often have you heard that it is too difficult to build a tramway in Great Britain? This is the country that invented both railways and street tramways, yet these days it seems to take forever to get a new project started, whereas they just get on with it in France and Germany. You only have to look at how many have been built in Europe since the 1960s, adding to those first-generation networks that were never lost – yet the UK has only seven tram systems and two light metros.

Another ‘fact’ bandied around is that it is much more expensive to build a tramway or light rail scheme in the UK. Edinburgh and the recent extensions in Nottingham are cited as  examples, said by some to be two to three times the price of a system built in mainland Europe. However a study undertaken for UKTram has demonstrated that this is not the case and that most British costs are on a par with the European norms when you compare apples with pommes und äpfel.

Compared with our European colleagues, there are differences in the way the UK plans and approves new infrastructure and manages the impacts on the local population. This article will look at the choices available for new transport systems, as well as the essential processes that need to be completed before a new system can be brought into service.

Scoping a new transport service

The most important question, and one that is all too often overlooked, is ‘what is the transport need?’ This is what should determine the most appropriate transport mode for any given scenario. This may sound elementary, but so many times this is brushed under the carpet because an enthusiast says, ‘We NEED a tram on this route’. In this scenario, ‘we need’ is actually ‘I want’, without much study or justification. Fortunately, such fantasies are usually ignored and only those with a real transport case proceed.

Where a transport problem can be demonstrated or an opportunity created through residential or commercial developments, it is time to undertake a study. Experience shows that where a development is planned alongside a new transport link both can succeed; just look at London’s Docklands area.

Having identified a potential need, it is time to gauge demand to select the most appropriate transport mode. Modelling techniques give a prediction of demand and growth over time. Modest flows may only justify an infrequent bus service, whereas for 3000 passengers per hour per direction you may be able to present a good case for a tramway. As we approach 10 000 passengers/hour/direction you are likely to be looking at a segregated metro.

The transport case forms the basis of the overall business case, which looks at the financial and wider economic benefits against the installation and running costs. Where fare revenue covers operating costs and also services the construction debt, there is a financial case and this could be left to market investors to provide. Often though, the operational costs can be covered by fares but the debt cannot, and this is where the wider economic case is required to justify the investment of public money and any ongoing subsidy.

Planning a new tramway

A commercial developer with a good financial case could propose to build and operate a tramway without public subsidy. If the land required can be purchased or leased by private treaty and any interference with rights of way is agreed with the appropriate authorities, then planning permission may be considered adequate, particularly for a tourist service with limited opening times.

This method is rarely followed for a commercial service however, as there are many reasons to pursue an Order under the Transport and Works Act 1992 (TWAO) to gain authority to build and operate such a tramway (in Scotland these powers are gained via the passing of a ‘Scottish Act’ through the Holyrood Parliament).

If public money is required, a TWAO would be required for the protection of public investment. A TWAO can grant powers such as compulsory land purchase, the creation of byelaws, blocking or interrupting public and private rights of way, interference with utilities, and a statutory defence against ‘Actions in Nuisance’ as it would give the tramway Statutory Undertaker Status.

Before applying for a TWAO, or indeed planning permission, a considerable number of ‘processes’ need to be completed, documents prepared and consultations undertaken. Both routes are likely to lead to a planning inquiry as, except for the smallest of projects, objections can be expected which are unlikely to be resolved without a public hearing.

These processes are often considered to be barriers, as they can take a considerable time to work through and cost substantial amounts of money, with an uncertain outcome. The preparation for a TWAO will involve the management of most matters considered as a ‘barrier’.

To ask the question then – are there really barriers preventing British cities or city regions from building a tramway? Merseyside and South Hampshire would say ‘yes’ after the then-Transport Secretary Alistair Darling cancelled both schemes (in 2005). That was in a climate of rising prices and fiscal restraint. Since then, only Edinburgh’s tramway has been built from scratch and some existing systems have been extended or refurbished. The real success of these projects, and demonstrable love the travelling public show their trams, should show politicians that where ridership levels are right, tramways should be considered a prime option as part of an integrated transport plan, rather than an expensive and unaffordable luxury.

Finding a ‘champion’

To get a new tramway off the starting blocks it is important to have a ‘champion’ who can negotiate their way through local and central government scepticism and process. This champion will need to have forethought and perseverance to succeed, and history shows it takes many years to gain agreement to even start the processes. The champion will need to guide the proposal through hoops and over hurdles, and stop it becoming bogged down in the waiting bureaucracy.

The fundamental problem with creating a new system in a city where none currently exists is that it will be seen as unaffordable; and it will be argued that the same quality of service can be provided by road transport, which seemingly can achieve the required outcome at a  fraction of the price. Thus, the first barrier is in finding funds for an initial feasibility study with an outline transport and business case. The UK’s Department for Transport (DfT) provides guidance in these areas called WebTAG, and this is used to gauge the Value for Money of the options studied. Many tram supporters argue that WebTAG favours road transport and underestimates the value of non-cash sustainability benefits however.

Funding is another barrier that used to be simple to overcome: persuade the DfT, find some local matching finance and away you go. Since 2015 the DfT’s cash for local transport schemes has been given to Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), which have the role of deciding how public money should be spent according to local priorities. If the LEP does not support your proposal you have a lot of persuading to do; if it does you will still need approval from the DfT and HM Treasury.

Assuming you have the finance secured (or at least enough to develop your proposals), the next step is to apply for the Order under the TWAO. These powers used to be granted through a Private Act of Parliament; however Parliament became tired of considering these proposals and created the TWAO process instead, which is similar to that required for major road schemes.

A series of documents need to be prepared, many of which are virtually incomprehensible to the uninitiated – with one exception, the Environmental Statement. This must be written in clear English and accompanied by a ‘Non-Technical Summary’ that considers and describes all impacts of the proposal and where they can be mitigated.

Anybody can support a TWAO application, and anyone can object. If objectors cannot be satisfied, there is usually a public inquiry. A consultation period takes place before the inquiry where the promoter should discuss the reasons for the proposals with all objectors, and perhaps come to some agreement (financial, if appropriate). While many promoters see this compensation as a major cost, it may be cheaper in the long term than fighting objections and potentially losing at significant further expense.

The granting of a TWAO and Statutory Undertaker Status will in time be financially and legally beneficial. In particular, the ability to make byelaws, approved by the Secretary of State, can make such things as fare dodging a criminal offence rather than a matter for the civil courts. The Statutory Defence against ‘Actions in Nuisance’ can prevent individuals gaining injunctions preventing services from operating because, say, the noise or lights from trams disturbs the sleep of an adjacent resident. It should be noted that ‘nuisance’ does not extend to matters of safety, and this defence is not appropriate against – for example – rails making the road more slippery.

Typical objectors

Public utility companies affected by the new tramway are almost certain to object until their interests are satisfied. Utilities have a protected right to be in the street under the terms of the New Roads and Streetworks Act. Section 82 of that Act requires the utility undertaker
to compensate the transport authority for losses resulting from its street works or emergency works. Consequently, it is not in the utility company’s interests to allow apparatus to remain in a position where access could be affected by tramway operations in the future, without a suitable agreement being in place.

A promoter agreeing to ‘stopping the trams and allowing access’ may seem advantageous at an early stage, but as ever with shortcuts, the sting comes later. When access is required many organisations will require compensation. The utility may require compensation for added access difficulties, particularly if the trackbed has to be lifted or broken up. The tramway concessionaire will want compensation for loss of business and the additional costs of offering bus alternatives.

Of course, anyone’s business that is significantly affected by the tramway works should have the opportunity to object and (usually) come to some mutually acceptable agreement. Likewise, this should apply to individuals who may have their access disrupted and who are subject to noise during construction and future operation. This is the only time such individuals have the opportunity to complain as once the order is made, the clauses protecting against actions in nuisance comes into play. This is why the TWAO process can seem tortuous to the promoter and unfathomable to the individual objector.

Also, how often is it said that Britain follows all regulations to the letter and that its regulations are too prescriptive? From my experience of Europe, particularly France and Germany, this is not the case. UK Health and Safety Legislation is generally less prescriptive and more risk-based than that of its European counterparts. The Office of Rail and Road expects risks to be assessed, reasonable mitigations to be applied, and that final risks are ‘as low as reasonably practicable’ and at a ‘tolerable’ level. In other words, think before you act and work out the safe way to do it.

I travelled on a demonstration tram along a new route between Valenciennes and a town near the Belgian border during a workshop for the EU SINTROPHER project. The French Regulator had charged the project EUR50 000 for the safety certificate for that trip, making it by far the most expensive tram ride I have ever undertaken. A few months later at the UK Light Rail Conference in Nottingham I was on a demonstration tram travelling over an as-yet-unopened section of that city’s new extension; I asked the railway inspector on the ride if the ORR had charged and he said no, it was the responsibility of the operator to verify it was safe to run.

Design and construction standards

Another oft-heard criticism is that British tramways are built to heavy rail standards – but with my heavy rail background, I see little evidence of this. I agree that there is a lack of standards for light rail in the UK, and in due time the Light Rail Safety & Standards Board (LRSSB) will be looking to address this. It seems true that every system in the UK works to different standards, but if you visit just a few tramways around Europe you will find the same, with each being developed to suit the particular needs of the municipality they serve.

British tramways have always had to follow the ORR RSP2, now Tramway Principles and Guidance, a document the LRSSB will be taking over management responsibility for from UKTram. As there are few tramway standards, designers and contractors have tended to design afresh for each system and they may use certain heavy rail practices as a guide. I have observed the new Cross City line being constructed in Dublin, the extension from Snow Hill to New Street in Birmingham, the extensions in Nottingham, and repairs to the extensive tramway in Brussels, and they are all different. Brussels was the lightest by far, but I could not see its methods being considered acceptable within the UK environment.

Disruption and approvals

The disruption expected during construction in streets has a considerable impact on residents and businesses. Those affected who do not perceive an overall future benefit may object against the project and look for compensation. Objectors’ fears can be allayed with good planning and early consultation and ongoing engagement. Extended roadworks are seen as a major issue, but I have yet to see a realistic option to reduce disruption significantly. The best way is to plan any roadworks and utility diversions upfront, with the roadworks contractor co-ordinating access for utility contractors.

The outcome of the Edinburgh Tram Inquiry by Lord Hardie may give guidance to reduce the impact and cost of utility diversions as part of the construction process.

The lack of general standards for tram vehicles is seen as a barrier to progress because it makes products from the various manufacturers incompatible and adds difficulty for the operator to specify fairly. Conversely, tram manufacturers all produce a series of vehicle types that can be adapted in small ways to suit the city or operator. Normally about 20% of the tram can be easily modified to suit the operator’s visual and seating layout preferences, as well as the country’s legal requirements for road vehicles. There are some European Standards applicable for structural strength and crashworthiness according to the type of tram; these standards have and will continue to be adopted as British Standards, which ensures comparability between suppliers and suitability for the UK market.

However, there are differences between national standards, and in particular the way the UK enforces its Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations (RVAR), which are subtly different to those in other countries and in places quite prescriptive.

The approvals process is decreed by the Railways and Other Guided Transport Systems (Safety) Regulations 2006 and requires the operator to undertake safety verification and have it confirmed by an independent and competent person. The ORR enforces both safety and compliance with RVAR, but does not give any approvals itself. This puts the onus on the operator to ensure safety rather than relying on ORR diktats.

With the introduction of the new tram-train service running over both Sheffield Supertram and Network Rail tracks in South Yorkshire, interoperability becomes a matter to be considered. This pilot scheme has not been easy and was never going to be; neither was it easy when the concept was first introduced in Karlsruhe (Germany). Safety and compatibility between different networks using a different set of standards and operating under a different legal basis was never going to be straightforward.

The trams need to be compatible with mainline track, signalling, electrification and communications systems; the mainline might need changes to mitigate incompatibilities including flange width, platform height and vehicle shape or gauge; and drivers need to be trained to operate under two distinct practices, line of sight and fully signalled, and there are human factor issues at the changeover point.


Are there really so many more barriers to the introduction of new tramways in Britain compared with Western Europe?

I think there are barriers, but they are more political and to do with funding, project appraisal and planning rather than cost, standards and utilities. Where there is political will and strong leadership, a tramway scheme has a chance, but the road to delivering it will be more difficult than in a country where trams are recognised as an essential mode and environmentally superior to other forms of urban transport.

Planning rules throughout Europe require that individual rights are protected, but with differences in how that is achieved. In Britain the legal system is based on an adversarial approach rather than the inquisitorial approach common in Europe, which can lead to extended proceedings and greater costs.

The most difficult barrier to overcome is the business case, against which different transport schemes are judged when it comes to allocation of central government funds. The current system using WebTAG can make it difficult to incorporate the full benefits that a tramway has over other forms of public road transport; for example it does not allow for the allocation of monetary equivalents for the many environmental and social economic benefits.

The use of discounted cashflows to determine the present-day value of the project (Net Present Value) means that early infrastructure costs are included in full and operational costs reduce with time. A bus-based operation has the cost of new vehicles, but the more frequent replacement costs are reduced or discounted as they are future costs. This means that the cashflow profile for a new tramway project is more heavily loaded with early costs than a bus-based scheme, which can lead to affordability constraints.

With the devolution of local transport spending, LEPs may select a tramway as a local priority, but any funds allocated need to be confirmed by the DfT and the Treasury, which will use WebTAG to judge if funds should be released.

Past under-estimations of cost and time have given tramways a bad name in government circles, and the implementation timescale means that any such project will span the tenure of several ministers and senior officials, whereas other options can be achieved in a much shorter time. The minister or councillor who cuts the ribbon is the one remembered.

We must remember that it wasn’t Jo Johnson MP (a transport minister in 2018 who has since resigned) who started the tram-train pilot; where were the other five or more former ministers who have helped it along the way? Long forgotten. This is typical, and does not help get long-term infrastructure projects started. 

All images courtesy of Neil Pulling unless otherwise stated.

Article originally appeared in TAUT 973 (January 2019).