The need for a UK-wide light rail strategy and a clear narrative around what it can deliver are “critical”. This is the view of the new Chair of UKTram.
George Lowder MBE has plenty of experience he can draw upon for his new role, as his ‘day job’ involves leading Transport for Edinburgh (TfE). TfE is the Arms Length Company responsible for enacting the mobility policies of the Scottish capital and its population of over half a million residents.
He is clearly enthusiastic for his own city’s prospects for sustainable growth and is a strong advocate for its overarching transport objectives, including, of course, expansion of the now-successful tramway.
“Edinburgh is growing by about 7500 new permanent residents per year,” he explains. “Our neighbouring authorities are growing apace, because it’s clearly easier to develop in the more open spaces given that the city is pretty well developed already.
“The city has an aspiration to put the tram network back in, probably not too dissimilar in size and scale to the system that came out in the mid-1950s. It still has to sit alongside other modes of course, but we’ve hung our hat on the fact that the tram is going to form the backbone of this integrated system.”
It’s this growth – and the similar challenges of moving people more effectively, more efficiently and more safely faced by regions across the country – that Mr Lowder sees replicated in other cities, and is a key driver of his decision to take over the leadership of UKTram in July 2019.
A highly-decorated military man with over 35 years’ service, he brings a similarly pragmatic approach to his new role: “There’s a solid strategy and a good high-level vision for Edinburgh, and these policies are being enacted to make it happen, along with adequate resource. Of course, you’d always like more resource as the more you have the faster you can do things or the more you can do. But clearly there’s difficulties in there for the nation, Scotland and the city.
“A lot of that is equally relevant across the UK. Cities are expanding, urbanisation is increasing, populations are both growing and ageing and the need for urban mobility has never been greater. We need to deliver against that. Everyone is thinking about all that in a context of sustainability and environmentally-friendly, clean, transport. The tram ticks all those boxes.”
The time is right for light rail
On the realism of developing a national strategy for light rail development, something many have argued toward for decades, Mr Lowder is very clear in how he feels the current imperatives are creating the right space for this to happen: “We may have been in dialogue around this for 20 years, but we didn’t have a proponent to draw all these strands together and be ‘the voice’, the one focal point. That’s changed with UKTram.”
The history of the trade body that represents tramways and light rail systems across the British Isles dates back to 2003. Its creation stems from concerns expressed by promoters that the ‘ad hoc’ nature of the implementation of new systems was escalating costs and increasing risk for operators, developers and investors.
These fears were crystalised in a 2004 report by the UK’s National Audit Office that concluded that while light rail systems were succeeding in getting people out of cars, costs were too high and a lack of integration wasn’t allowing them to reach their full potential. The report went on to recommend that the Department for Transport (DfT) should take the lead on reducing cost through greater standardisation and implement measures to increase timetable reliability to improve services further. Thus UKTram was born.
A decade on, another two systems had been built – both featuring delays and cost overruns – and the body was reconstituted with a wider mandate and, importantly, greater resources through DfT funding.
“Although a relatively new organisation [in its current form], it’s now bedded-in to a position where it can lift its head a bit and start to do what it was designed to do. We’re there or thereabouts now, so can focus on the deliverables.”
One of the ‘deliverables’ he describes is providing the support and guidance required for other cities to realise the benefits that light rail has brought – and continues to bring – to cities and city regions such as London, Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, Sheffield, Nottingham and Blackpool. But what are the key barriers to others who want to develop their own schemes?
“Funding is a tricky one,” Mr Lowder concedes. “Cities’ ambitions in general are only constrained by their resourcing, and I suppose the availability of service industries to do this stuff. But there are alternatives to central government finance.
“There’s the ‘build it and they will come’ mechanism, and bits of Copenhagen and others are really well vested in that approach as you see long stretches of new light rail lines going across reclaimed land or brownfield sites. Lo and behold, it’s not long until the developers arrive.
“There’s also land value capture, where the value of land around a potential route can be harnessed to help pay for the scheme. Local authorities often own a lot of land around old suburban railway lines, so that’s a very viable option that’s being used in the north-east of England, Canada and elsewhere as we speak. It may not pay for all of your new network, but it will certainly help.
“If you start to look at some of these options light rail can be affordable, we just need to give people the confidence to do it.
“We’re lucky to have Transport for Edinburgh which owns a successful bus company and a successful tram company and can leverage those assets to fund the tramway’s expansion. Currently, the rate of prudential borrowing for authorities is pretty low (about 1.3%). European funding is also presumably going to dry up at some point fairly soon, so yes, resourcing is important, but that shouldn’t be the major constraint in my mind.”
Prudential borrowing allows local authorities to borrow money for capital projects from the UK’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB), a statutory body that issues loans from the National Loans Fund within a policy framework set by HM Treasury. Low, fixed interest rates are linked to the gilt-edged market. As well as financing major projects, this form of borrowing has seen authorities across the country embark on a spree of large commercial property purchases in recent years. The revenues from these investments are helping to plug the gap in delivering services left by a fall in central government subsidies.
Proponents argue that this has enabled investments that support regeneration that may not have been possible otherwise. Critics have suggested it creates the potential for a ‘risky credit bubble’, with councils becoming – at least in balance sheet terms – property companies first and local service providers second.
It is worth noting that these rates rose by one percentage point in November 2019.
The need for a national ‘narrative’
Once an overarching policy is agreed, the next step is clear communication: “The resourcing issue would be resolved if there was a clear national strategy for light rail,” Mr Lowder argues. “But first we need the members of UKTram to agree what that is. After that we need a clear narrative and Ministers need to approve it, adopt it, endorse it and celebrate it. Until we’re in that place, we’re still going
to have that conundrum where people are doing ‘bottom-up’ projects without the necessary ‘top-down’ champions.”
“The other aspect is that if, say, Bristol or other cities were trying to build tramways at the same time, have we got enough expertise to go around? There’s a question mark around that because there are always other major infrastructure projects in and around any city. That may bring potential constraints around the availability of industry partners to do this. Then we’ve got this European uncertainty and the whole issue of Brexit that certainly isn’t helping anybody…”
Of course, it’s not just vocal advocates at a national level that are required. Light rail schemes are very much locally-driven initiatives and much of the success of the UK’s existing systems is down to identifying and harnessing strong local proponents. Indeed, one of the lessons we can take from the renaissance of light rail around the world over the past 30 years is that it has been driven to a large extent by prominent local political or business leaders – light rail and tramway evangelists if you will.
Mr Lowder argues that giving appropriate powers to cities is also vital: “A properly-empowered local transport body or regional transport partnership can help enable all this and facilitate integration. Nottingham is a good example with its Workplace Parking Levy. That generates revenue that’s going back into transport and helping to build the tramway. Nottingham’s tramway also includes things like big park-and-ride sites at the ends of the lines – that’s smart joined-up thinking.
“The joining it up piece is still a challenge, but you have to have a mechanism whereby that thinking can happen. That could be through ‘Directors of Place’, a visionary mayor, or even a council that really ‘gets it’. The cities who think like that, and who behave like that, will probably succeed [in their light rail aspirations] first. There’s plenty of cities who are starting to think like that and really deliver in that space.”
Identifying these local champions and giving them the evidence to make soundly-based decisions is where Mr Lowder sees UKTram’s role – starting now: “Once we have a national strategy and build a strong narrative around that, we can then get out there and start saying to folks ‘if you agree then can you champion it and do all you can do to impart this wisdom’. We need to be more sophisticated in that influence campaign to hit the right people, but you can’t have an influence and communications campaign until you’ve got a strategy and a narrative.”
Influence through unity
The UK Government has long advocated having a ‘single voice’ for light rail – and Mr Lowder argues that UKTram is now ready to be that conduit: “We’ve got to get the members, and others, to collaborate and to have a common view of the world. Within that there may well be compromise, but generally speaking I think there is a broad consensus about where we’re all headed – for the greater good and mutual benefit of all those who are contributing. You will always have a few naysayers who may say “you can’t do it like that,” but that’s life.
“Generally, most people are in the same place and I don’t detect lots of divergent views. Maybe all those actors are looking for someone to bring it all together, someone to lead and act as the catalyst. I think UKTram can do that. It comes back to coming of age and having the right resource and the right people to actually deliver against our aims and objectives.
“There’s significant pressure at all levels – strategic, national, local – to deliver solutions to people’s concerns about the environment and the need for better transport. Everybody’s got a target and, while some often feel like they’re moving targets, it would be good to have a bit of coherence amongst them. Those are the sort of conversations we need to be having with government.”
The logical ‘one-stop’ shop
Mr Lowder goes on to elaborate how he sees the body as a ‘one-stop shop’ for advice and guidance, from the early stages of consultations and creating the business case, through to construction and operations.
“I can see it being quite daunting for a city to come to the table and say ‘right, my folks have said they want a tramway, but I have no experience of this and we’ve got no legacy knowledge. We’ve not got
some transport planners in the back office who did this ten years ago’ – that could be a real challenge.
“So instead of every city, regional or transport authority doing everything for itself, wouldn’t it be helpful if there were a set of templates where UKTram can say: ‘This authority have just done this, here’s what they did and how they went about it. This went well, that might help you work through this issue faster etc. That would certainly improve timelines and the faster delivery of new tramways.”
On the subject of timelines, new systems have a reputation amongst some for being overly-expensive, disruptive and not the most cost-efficient way of spending ever more constrained local public finances. How is UKTram altering that perception?
“A fair point, but look at the situation here in Edinburgh. After a difficult genesis, the tram is now, mostly, well-regarded by the citizens of the city. It is also very highly-regarded by our visitors, of which we have around 4.5 million each year. So we have a peculiarity in this city, but I think we’ve got over that.
“An awful lot of people travel widely now and will have experienced a fast, clean light rail connection from their port of arrival – most likely the airport or railway station. You don’t have to go very far to hear people telling you how good the transport systems are in other parts of the world, and often citing the tram as part of that.
“I think it’s very much a truism that customers recognise the tram as a ‘clean’ and environmentally-friendly way to travel and I think people are increasingly considering that in their modal choice.
“We obviously need to be careful not to patronise local authorities, who will be conducting their own wide-ranging public consultations on various transport options. But they will need a vision and a visionary, a chief proponent or champion, and then the broad backing of the population. If any
guidance of conducting such consultations is needed, then UKTram is there to help them do that too.”
Complement vs competition
For light rail to have the greatest effect in driving modal shift it cannot operate in isolation, and Mr Lowder has clear views on its role within overall local transport strategies. He also stresses the importance of having an even playing field when authorities look at their options.
“There’s no point writing a light rail strategy in isolation, or delivering it in isolation. So, in creating this national policy you’ve got to have the right conversations with other modes and other providers to understand how you integrate and how you interoperate.
“I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by how much co-operation and collaboration I’ve seen here in Edinburgh. Transport operators in general are very amenable to working with one another, particularly where there is an agreed, recognised need and where there’s enough demand to meet a number of aspirations. Of course organisations are commercially sensitive, and rightly so, and there’s competition law which we must all be cogniscent of, but I have been very, very pleasantly surprised with the level of collaboration that exists.
“Take something like Uber, for example. Every bus, tram or rail journey is going to end somewhere. There’s a destination, but that will unlikely be the ultimate destination of the customer. But as long as they have safe, efficient, sustainable options to get to where they’re going then that’s fine by me. We can help stitch together that complementarity and I think light rail has a major part to play in heavily-built cities where other options, such as heavy rail, are not going to work… or where you don’t want to just keep putting more buses onto the already struggling and congested road network.
“Some of the new technologies out there have got a little way to go before they are legislated for and before we fully benefit from them. Some are going to be disruptors along the way. They are coming, but are they all coming at once? Probably not. So we need to be mindful of them – it’s a question of when, not if they arrive – but we’ve got enough time to properly consider their implications and how we integrate them into wider transport strategies.”
“Some may never come to fruition, because they either don’t make economic sense, they don’t move people fast enough for people’s desires, or 101 other reasons where they don’t fit as part of the solution. But we shouldn’t close our mind to them, we just need to be in the business of reminding people of the success of the reality.”
Supporting that reality
Concluding our discussion, we pose the million-dollar question: How many schemes does the new Chair of UKTram think we may realistically see get off the ground in the next ten years?
With a smile, he replies: “That’s another tricky one and I don’t want anybody to hold me to this! I think it depends on the appetite of local authorities to really drive this kind of change. When finances are tight, are they going to prioritise public transport over another public service? It all depends on the local circumstances and I think we need to recognise that cities have their own juggling acts around priorities. What we can do is support the logic trail that sits behind those decisions.
“We can help with the evidence that allows them to make informed decisions and highlight that link between public transport, development, place-making, employment, social benefit and then getting on a positive upward spiral of economic improvement, prosperity and growth.
“We can help make sure that any local authority that’s thinking about light rail really understands the impact and that the case for transport investment has been well-made. If they take the bold step to build a new tramway, they will also know there’s support and expertise backing it up to help them deliver it.
“One size is never going to fit all for the UK given the diversity of our cities and regions, and we should never close our minds to innovation. If there’s a good idea out there that’s going to add value then these things should always be considered. However, against that you have thriving tram networks that are continuing to expand and grow and move more people year-on-year, so there’s also a reality that we need to support – which could be perceived as light rail not getting the recognition and support it deserves.
“Once we recognise that regions are important, as cities are becoming full and people might want or have to live a bit further afield, then regional is the way we’re all going. If that is a truism, and I think it is, then we have to properly empower the right bodies to join all this stuff up. But that conversation will change in different parts of the country.
“I think we can help, and if you can help someone they are generally receptive to your ideas.”
Find out more about the work of UKTram at www.uktram.com
Article appeared originally in TAUT 985 (January 2020).