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Where the UK went wrong

The first Metrolink study tour in 1983 ended in Zürich, where trams, trolleybuses and buses formed a fully-integrated network. Councillors from Manchester were impressed, asking ‘when can we have one?’ Image courtesy of Tony Young

The revival of the tramway in the later decades of the last century is well-documented, not least in the pages of TAUT and its predecessors. The movement began in the USA and Canada, closely followed by the Netherlands and France and eventually even in the UK. Now it is a worldwide phenomenon with new systems appearing in countries that never had first-generation tramways.

Those working in the tramway field have always been well aware of the wide benefits of this unique form of urban transport, the only mode that is equally at home on railway tracks, along the street, through pedestrian zones or on its own private right-of-way through parks – and even in tunnels. It is by far the least damaging mode to the environment, at the same time supporting and enhancing the local economy.

These obvious benefits should make it the number one choice to meet urban travel needs in this environmentally-challenged era. Most countries have recognised this and are taking action, but Britain is sadly missing out. Why?

In the 1970s and ’80s, planners and engineers were beginning to look at the tramway afresh. Memories of previous systems still haunted politicians and professionals so the new movement had to be clandestine, mainly in the backrooms of the newly-created Passenger Transport Executives (PTEs). The word ‘tram’ was taboo, so the term ‘light rail’ was adopted.

A ‘pre-feasibility study’ for a modern tramway for Bristol was published in June 2021, 33 years after the first light rail plans for the city. To have a chance of success it needs a sponsor and promoter to take it through the Transport and Works Act process and secure funding. Image courtesy of Mike Whelan / Trams for Bristol

The Tyneside Metro (later Tyne and Wear Metro) was the first to break through in 1980, but it took another 12 years before Manchester crossed the street-running divide in 1992. That sparked a deluge of schemes across the country – everybody saw the benefits and wanted a system of their own. The big cities of Sheffield, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Bristol were next in the queue, with the London Borough of Croydon not far behind. Sheffield, Birmingham and Croydon eventually got their trams… but Liverpool, Leeds and Bristol are still waiting.

There was a long list of smaller towns and cities where the tram was seen as a valuable part of the transport mix. Many were the subject of feasibility studies during the 1990s, but only two more projects were successful: Nottingham and Edinburgh. Most of the successful schemes were promoted by PTEs, with Nottingham the only one in England to be promoted by a city and county without such a body. Interestingly, Nottingham and Edinburgh are amongst the handful of authorities that still feature municipally-owned bus operators, making integration a practical proposition.

What lessons can we take from failure?

The success of Greater Manchester Metrolink, South Yorkshire Supertram, West Midlands Metro, Croydon (now London) Tramlink, and Nottingham Express Transit is well-known. But why are Leeds, Liverpool, Bristol and several more not up there with them? And what can we learn from their failure?

The reasons are many and complex. There can be little doubt that the actions of then-Secretary of State for Transport Alistair Darling in cancelling the plans for Leeds, Liverpool and South Hampshire in 2005 – and all the Manchester Metrolink extensions – had a devasting effect on all the other potential tramway promoters. His strings may well have been pulled by Her Majesty’s Treasury (as has always been the case in Britain), but the result damaged urban public transport in major cities for generations.

If popular, well-developed tramway projects – which had been approved by the Government at every stage, and were ready to go out to tender – were to be scrapped, then there was no chance for any other scheme. Many millions had been spent by promoting authorities and bidding contractors on design and approvals, including obtaining the necessary Parliamentary Powers – all money down the drain. The pain was felt deeply in both public and private sector pockets.

While Leeds, Liverpool and South Hampshire begrudgingly accepted Darling’s ruling, Great Manchester fought back. Metrolink was already running and proving popular with passengers and the public at large. A massive campaign was led by the media and local authorities demanding that the planned expansion of Metrolink be given approval. Eventually the Government had to give in. All the extensions are now carrying passengers, while Leeds and South Hampshire are left to rely on buses.

At least Liverpool has its Merseyrail network, but the proposed tram routes would have served parts of the conurbation which the trains don’t reach. Leeds is now renowned as the largest conurbation in Europe without a metro, underground, light rail or tramway. Acres of former Ministry of Defence land in the Gosport peninsular could have been profitably developed with improved access from a tramway; the ‘replacement’ busway can only offer a fraction of the service and does not provide the much-needed link
into Portsmouth.

Increased costs were undoubtedly a major cause of the failure of these light rail projects. In reality, however, while the costs of all the cancelled schemes had indeed increased, they were no more than many highway projects – in fact far less than some. Yet no highway schemes were cancelled. It is an inescapable fact that capital costs of major infrastructure schemes increase with time, as evidenced by the Thameslink, Crossrail and HS2 heavy rail projects. But such situations give politicians a cast iron excuse to get rid of projects they don’t like.

Is there an in-built bias?

There is still an innate dislike of tramways in Britain that goes back to the Royal Commission on Transport in 1929. This encouraged their abandonment and replacement with buses, noting that trams ‘if not an obsolete form of transport, are at all events in a state of obsolescence and cause much unnecessary congestion and considerable danger to the public’.

Ambitious plans to upgrade the tramways in Liverpool, Leeds and Glasgow to light rail standards in the post-war years were all thrown out. Even the serious plans of English Electric to build a British PCC car came to nought. That would have been a real game-changer.

Promoters of second-generation schemes in Britain had a hard time getting them accepted by the Department of Transport, who could only see them as far too expensive and unnecessary when you can have buses. The enormous potential benefits of trams over buses were never understood in Marsham Street. It is only when they started carrying passengers that attitudes did a rapid about-turn, as residents of Manchester, Nottingham and Edinburgh can verify.

Why are we afraid to learn from our neighbours?

When Manchester’s Metrolink was in its early planning stages, the Transportation Committee Chair realised that getting approval from the County Council for such an innovative plan would require changes of approach. Many councillors did not understand what a modern tramway looked like. To this end, he initiated a series of study tours to European tramways to see first-hand what could be achieved. Political representatives included key committee chairs, officers came from County and City, and there were engineers and planners with representatives from Greater Manchester’s PTE and British Rail.

The last city visited was Zürich. In the 1960s, it too faced similar pressures to its counterparts in Britain, namely increasing car use and congestion. We had the Buchanan Report which advocated full car ownership and residual public transport. A plan to build urban motorways and underground railways to replace the trams in Zürich was defeated by referendum, the legal process required in Switzerland. It was sold by the authorities as a ‘balanced approach’ but the people of Zürich saw it differently. Transport planning was in limbo for a decade. A new plan for a more extensive metro network was also defeated in 1973. Zürchers love their trams.

A radical plan prepared by a grass-roots ‘peoples initiative’ to upgrade the tramway and trolleybus networks and give them priority over car traffic was approved in 1977. The City Engineer still wanted a car-based plan, but that was defeated. The results were spectacular. Public transport patronage skyrocketed while car commuting declined. Annual trips per capita in Zürich are now more than three times the figure for major British cities.

The aim of the study tour was to show Manchester councillors and officers what a tram system looked like. The reaction on returning to England was an almost unanimous, ‘when can we have one?’. Such initiatives are what we need to convince our Government ministers.

Any radical infrastructure plan needs both a political and a technical champion. Both must be fully committed to a politically achievable project with sound engineering and planning credentials. Maintaining both cross-party and cross-district support is essential, as is robust consultation with a wide group of interests, public and private. Perhaps most of all, close links with the relevant government departments must be maintained throughout the planning process, although, as we have seen, that is no guarantee of success…

We have the expertise and experience

There is no shortage of expertise, experience or enthusiasm in the light rail industry in this country. This is repeatedly demonstrated at the annual UK Light Rail Conference, the copious documents produced by UKTram and its Centre of Excellence, the resources of the Urban Transport Group and the new Light Rail Safety and Standards Board, and the mass of light rail documents produced by the All-Party Parliamentary Light Rail Group.

Many other documents have been produced, for example TramForward’s contribution to COP26. Yet tramways hardly got a mention in Glasgow, even given their close fit with environmental objectives.

Despite the seemingly impossible task of getting tram schemes approved by our Government, there are several promising projects in embryo. Perhaps best-known is the Very Light Rail (VLR) scheme for Coventry which envisages a four-line loop network to link all parts of the city with the centre, rail station, university and hospitals. Although not conventional light rail, this is an attempt to produce a much cheaper rail-based system with a lighter trackform and a lightweight shuttle. A prototype vehicle has been constructed and a research centre is being completed in Dudley.

The proposed KenEx tramway would link Bluewater and Lakeside with a tunnel under the Thames.
It would be much more environmentally-sound than the planned Lower Thames Crossing, but can it be realised?

Another imaginative project is the KenEx Tramway to connect the counties of Kent and Essex from Bluewater to Lakeside with a tube tunnel under the River Thames. This makes much greater environmental sense than the planned Lower Thames Crossing and yet has not been given much prominence. The road tunnel is bound to increase car traffic, and hence pollution and congestion. The tram alternative would attract car users to public transport, a key objective of transport policy.

The conurbations around Bristol and Leeds are still unlikely to achieve their light rail ambitions for at least a decade. Neither have firm plans or any Transport and Work Act powers. The shame is that both had powers in the 1990s. Bristol has suffered over the years from disagreements between its various local government bodies, not helped by the abandonment of Avon County Council which was developing sound light rail plans. An early private sector proposal was ill thought-out and had no chance of being realised.

A local pressure group in Bath which sees trams as the saviour of that historic city has turned its attention to Bristol and appears to be having some success in persuading the regional authority to at least consider the possible role of light rail. Until recently the car and bus lobbies have won the arguments, but perhaps things are changing.

Leeds is the city most in need of a light rail network, and has nearly realised those plans on a number of occasions since the far-sighted tram subway plans of 1945. After a number of failed attempts, it finally received Royal Assent for a tramway in 1993. Another decade later and it was all scrapped. Government response has been: ‘trams are too expensive, get some better buses’. Yet despite investment in new buses, and even some bits of guided busway, patronage has continued its downward trend and current expectations to dramatically increase bus use seem doomed to failure.

The Government’s recent publication of its Integrated Rail Plan, scrapping HS2 to Leeds and abandoning the Northern Powerhouse Rail plan, has caused anger and disbelief across the North and Midlands.

West Yorkshire Combined Authority has published its ‘Mass Transit Vision 2040’. Trams are only one option and potential routes are notional. Leeds is the only conurbation in Europe with no metro, light rail or tram system, despite decades of trying. Will it ever get there? Image courtesy of West Yorkshire Combined Authority

As a consolation prize, current Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that Leeds can have its mass transit system. It should be noted, however, that the word ‘tram’ is conspicuously absent from any official statement and what has actually been offered is GBP200m (EUR238.6m) for a feasibility study. The Government expects the first phase of this GBP2bn (EUR2.4bn) project ‘to be in service by the second half of this decade’.

There must be drawers full of approved tram plans for Leeds, so why yet another study is needed beggars belief. What West Yorkshire desperately needs is the funds to build a first phase tramway, probably along York Road to Seacroft, or south to Stourton and Middleton.

Why can’t we be like the French?

Five years after the Tyne and Wear Metro brought light rail technology to the UK, Nantes became the first French city to bring trams back to its streets. Seven years later, Manchester followed. In the next 25 years, tramways were built in more than 20 cities in France. In Britain, the figure for the same period was five.

While all these cities in France have been reaping the wide benefits of new tramways, many UK cities which could have seen similar success are instead suffering ever-increasing congestion and pollution, and declining bus patronage. Paris now has no fewer than nine tram and tram-train lines. London, by comparison, still has only one. It could have had more, but they were killed off by Boris Johnson when he was Mayor.

One major difference between the UK and France is devolution. French cities and their mayors have a high degree of control over their own affairs and funding through the ‘Versement Transport’ (now Versement Mobilité) hypothecated taxation system. Dating back to 1972, this has been a consistent policy for half a century. In Britain, policy has ricocheted between extremes but always with steely control from the capital. West Yorkshire’s Mayor, Tracy Brabin, has supported plans for a mass transit system for her region – it remains to be seen if she will succeed.

Tramway extensions are being built in the West Midlands, Edinburgh and Blackpool. More new routes are in the early planning stages. New tram-trains are to be delivered to Cardiff, which is a great step forward, although how they are to be used is still rather uncertain. But there are no shovel-ready new schemes anywhere. It will probably be another ten years at least before any other city sees the benefits of a tramway.

It is good to see investment going into existing systems – including Government packages to support systems as they rebound from the pandemic – but we need massive investment in new schemes to combat climate change and tackle pollution and urban congestion. We have the solutions, some are outlined in this article; there are many more.

But we can’t achieve anything without the backing of the Government. If a fraction of the GBP27bn (EUR2.2bn) to be spent on highways could be diverted to urban tram schemes, the benefits would be enormous.

A comparison of tramway progress in France and the UK (not including rubber-tyred ‘trams’).

Article appeared originally in TAUT 1011 (March 2022)

Further reading: The scale of missed UK opportunities is starkly illustrated in
the author’s book Might have been trams and tramways, published by the LRTA in 2021. It lists over 20 tramways that could be helping to green our cities. Available from the LRTA for GBP23 including P&P. Click here for details/to purchase a copy.