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Why the champions are key to driving LRT development

TAUT Publisher Howard Johnston argues that there aren’t enough strong personalities prepared to put placemaking before politics.

Let’s face it, the construction of tramways and improvements to major urban rail networks cause significant short-term disruption to the cities they will eventually serve so well. However, the pain before the pleasure is sometimes too great to contemplate, and the furore about a late-running project is fertile ground for both point-scoring politicians and the media that thrives on bad news stories.

High construction costs aside, the reality of ripped-up streets, diverted traffic, disrupted businesses makes the birth of any light rail project a difficult one. Gossip about a construction delay spreads quickly, so it’s easy to see why there is often major opposition to even the prospect of any new scheme. So, why is it that some countries seem able to mobilise mass support for new schemes while others struggle?

Due to the very nature of their planning and development, tramways and light rail schemes require strong local and regional champions to make them happen.

Inspiration can come from a variety of places – and even vocal, committed individuals can make an impact. The important commonality is that they have to be passionate, articulate, determined, thick-skinned and fully prepared to face an uphill struggle to get heard and come up with a convincing case. They can expect a hard time from a range of opposition bodies. Well-mobilised self-interest groups are less interested in cost-benefit ratios than whether buildings will be demolished, local traders affected or public safety compromised by new interfaces with road traffic. Rumours and supposition are more often than not spun into fear more than fact.

It is not unknown for it to take 10-15 years to develop the case for better urban transport, so campaigners need to be there for the long haul, so long that political alliances may have come and gone, along with economic recessions and credit squeezes.

New systems are complex animals, but even when a new line is agreed and completed (or further down the chain, just new stops and stations), what appears on the ground often bear little resemblance to what was originally planned or designed.

Many of the new tramways and light rail schemes in Europe I can think of have been made possible by a strong advocate who has pushed the scheme forward. Often these champions are the public face of the campaign – this is certainly the case with elected politicians – but sometimes they are the project directors, campaigners, planners and engineers who work tirelessly behind the scenes, facing the battles that no-one else wants to fight.

Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo has made herself well known for trying to take trams back into the centre of the French capital. Back in 1989, Mayor of Strasbourg Catherine Trautmann won her seat largely on the basis of cancelling the already agreed scheme for a VAL-type system in favour of a state-of-the-art city tramway.
(The city expressed its appreciation by voting her out of office at the next election).

At a lower level, people devoting their energies to attending endless public inquiries and consultations, rallying support from the community and like-minded organisations and even managing publicity – both good and bad – all deserve our respect and admiration. And we need many more of them.

So what can we do to help? Good question, but one with an obvious answer. In our own way we all need to spread the good word about urban rail systems and how they transform cities. There is a long list of benefits to choose from: generous capacity, reducing congestion, improving air quality, proven high customer satisfaction, increasing confidence for inward investment, enhancing local connectivity, unparalleled accessibility for all – any of these arguments apply to electrified urban rail in a way that other transport systems just can’t match.

Of course, support at national levels is also key and we have to have all our ducks in a row by getting regulatory bodies, passenger groups and the wider business community on side as well. Allying the need for new light rail development to national objectives of increasing access to education, employment and retail and leisure activities in a sustainable manner as part of wider policies really helps, too.

At the time of writing, the UK was about to take to the polling booths in a General Election – required every five years – and it seems to have been one of the closest for decades. Such a pity that improving transport has been so low down the agenda compared with taxation, education, health and immigration. Most parties agree that ‘improvements must be made’, but their statements have been short of substance in terms of cost and timescales. Just as worryingly, there has been scant recognition that the UK is in serious breach of air quality regulations, and one minority party committed to withdrawing from the European Union even suggested that international anti-pollution agreements should be torn up altogether.

It’s hardly a vote-catcher to offer to cut emissions and combat climate change (most parties focus on the adoption of electric cars and improvements to the UK’s charging infrastructure), foster social inclusion and increase inward investment in our towns and cities to rebuild the high street. Is it our fault that LRT merits hardly any mention in any manifestos, when in reality they achieve all these objectives – and will continue to do so for decades to come?

More data needs to be collated on exactly what the return on investment is for new systems to showcase the ‘soft benefits’, and presented on a level that secures more than a polite passing interest. For starters, we do know that every euro, dollar or pound that is spent on light rail delivers a massive return to the local and regional economy. It isn’t instant, but it is readily quantifiable over time.

We know that governments can be short-sighted and don’t like facing issues that only deliver long-term returns; perhaps this is why talk of safeguarding the environment beyond the end of the next decade is so little talked about. Light rail’s gestation period means it will always be on a sticky wicket, but now is not the time to be disheartened. Rain or shine, local champions must step on the gas.

Feature originally published in Tramways & Urban Transit –  June 2015 issue (929)