ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN TRAMWAY & URBAN TRANSIT, FEBRUARY 2004
UK LRT: IGNORE THE MERCHANTS OF DOOM!
It's all over the UK newspapers - our light rail revival has run out of energy, following main line railways into a financial black hole. CASPAR LUCAS is far from gloomy, and reasons the case for every town having its own tramway.
The newspapers relish - as ever, where national infrastructure and public services are concerned, negative comparisons between Britain and continental Europe.
Once again, not only are realistic solutions conspicuous by their absence, but also sensible analysis of the differences between the UK and its neighbours. The media's message is simple: the tram revolution is dead; engineers have been proved wrong. Britain's population had better get used to increasing congestion, poor bus services and no real change in public transport provision. Oh, and we could expect lots more newspaper features by globe-trotting journalists pitying those of us who had to stay at home.
As a British engineer, I can't help feeling that this point of view is not so much a depressing indictment as a failure to appreciate economic and social realities. Allow me to explain a few facts that are rarely seen in the mainstream media.
Engineering - as I was taught in a British university - is about achieving benefits for human populations using technical knowledge. But crucially, it is about achieving these benefits under the conditions in which the activity is to take place. And while we're on the subject, transport planning (also denounced in the same articles and the same terms as the "engineers") is the same, but using different tools.
If conditions change, obviously the means to achieve the benefits change as well. What continues to grab me is the all-too-persistent inability to recognise this simple fact: just because one solution is no longer valid does not mean that no change is possible or desirable.
One highly beneficial effect of a belt-tightening environment is that it encourages the search for efficiency and value for money. In particular, it brings closer scrutiny of what were previously seen as the "automatic" (tried and tested) solutions to existing problems and more rigorous comparison with other methods.
Seen in this light, the "supertram" model operating in cities across the world suddenly loses its sole panacea status. Just ten years ago I was a student in Sheffield and the supertram seemed the only show in town (literally and metaphorically). Now, however, it is not difficult to discern where the supertram concept is the appropriate solution to transport problems and where not.
As a vehicle, a supertram needs a large number of passengers to pay off its investment cost. It demands relatively generous curve radii and an overhead power supply, both of which add to the cost and inconvenience of construction and require public acceptance of the need for poles and wires. In terms of the procedures involved in approving such a scheme, the complexity can be immense. Of course, there are situations where a supertram is the appropriate solution, but all these factors increase cost to the point where serious political commitment is essential - but can be cut off. Which brings us back to where we started.
The challenge, therefore, is to improve public transport provision without breaking the bank. Is it possible? Of course it is. Can this bring additional benefits? Well, why not?
For example, it is a commonly-held view that the rail mode is good at doing three things: intercity passenger; bulk freight; and suburban mass transit. It is interesting - and a little alarming - that this belief was the guiding principle behind the 1963 Beeching Report. (That it is included in the SRA's document "Everybody's Railway" is certainly food for thought.) The reason for this thinking is that heavy rail is, well, heavy. That means high cost of rolling stock, high power, high cost of infrastructure and high cost of maintenance. Result: intensive use by high-revenue traffic is required to pay the bills (and even then some subsidy is often needed). An equilibrium is then reached and you tinker with it at your peril.
But by applying the same logic we arrive at an interesting alternative equilibrium. If heavy rail balances with heavy cost, then genuine light rail balances with light cost. Low cost allows operation with low revenue requirement, which in turn means fewer people are required to make it viable. In summary, by reducing the inherent costs of a rail operation we reduce the size of market needed to support it.
So far, so obvious. Yet this really ought to be a rallying call for improved public transport, because the point which seems to get lost is what this means to people's lives. We can bring the benefits of rail travel to smaller communities: we can expand rail! It is partly a case of the age-old paradox: when money is seen to be available, some of the effective uses of resources can be overlooked. When funds are scarce - and provided the right attitude is taken - new possibilities emerge. It is also partly a case of new thinking and new products entering the marketplace. There is good news to be reported, but in general it does not reflect the expectations of many because it does not take the form that is expected.
The new approach
Let me describe a few ways in which the new approach for light rail differs from what went before it. Those who have been following developments may be well aware of these, but what is new is the growing acceptance generally of the principles outlined below.
First, a light rail vehicle is not necessarily a high-capacity, electrically-powered, urban metro. Let us consider spreading the application of tramway-style operation to areas of lower population density, and making the vehicle self-powered.
Second, a railway does not have to be operated by heavy rail vehicles - the use of lighter railcars based on tramway technology may be the best option, but can still retain the option of using the same line for classic trains.
Third, heritage railway routes do not have to be run as museums only. In many cases, a true passenger service to meet local transport needs can be dovetailed into the heritage operation.
Fourth, innovative transport solutions do not have to be so expensive that massive political support is needed to make them happen.
The work of organisations such as of the Association of Community Rail Partnerships and Transport 2000 is bringing this new thinking to the forefront of transport development, in such a way that a fifth difference could be added to the above list: the impetus behind transport policy does not have to be the preserve of large public bodies.
Into this bubbling cauldron can be added the hardware that makes this all viable: the vehicles, such as those proposed by some innovative British ventures; the track products enabling quick and easy installation; the processes for simplifying approvals (another advantage of widening the gap between traditional rail transport and what we are discussing in this article).
The range of applications for which, for instance, Parry People Mover (PPM) vehicles are currently being considered, is very interesting in its range and demonstrates the breaking down of boundaries between types of rail system. Apart from the well-documented and still ongoing project to use PPM technology on the Stourbridge Town branch, the burgeoning interest includes several different types of transport systems.
PPM car 12 is currently in service on the Chasewater Railway in Staffordshire, where it has already built up several thousand kilometres of running and carries paying passengers on a regular basis. This is providing an invaluable shakedown test of the vehicle design on a railway with similar characteristics to other rural lines which may be converted to light rail operation. The railway's managers have begun looking into how the combination of rural rail and tram-type features can be applied to create better connection to other nearby attractions and to the local town centre.
A similar application to the Stourbridge branch is under development to introduce light rail services to the town of Oswestry in Shropshire. Future drivers from the Cambrian Railway Society are being trained on the PPM railcar at the Chasewater Railway. Proposals for a PPM system linking the Racecourse and town have been widely publicised in Cheltenham. In both Llandudno and Great Yarmouth, proposals are being pursued with a view to providing transport links in the areas of the respective sea fronts.
At Hythe in Hampshire, a PPM system is being considered as replacement for the existing 600 metre pier railway which meets passengers off the ferry service from Southampton. It is possible to extend this railway converted to tramway mode into the town itself in a loop, providing a unique opportunity for visitors and the local population to actually beat the car journey into Southampton by a faster tram and ferry link.
As a result of the weight restriction on Hythe pier, this application is likely to see the first appearance of a bogied flywheel-powered vehicle. Such a design will allow a maximum passenger load of 80, while retaining the use of a flywheel energy storage system with regenerative braking and a low-emission LPG engine, the long range version of the PPM package. Meanwhile, a major NHS trust in Birmingham is looking into the same mode being used as an internal distributor system as a means of overcoming chronic competition for car parking spaces near principal access points.
A measure of the seriousness with which the PPM product is being taken is provided by two recent developments: proposals for improvement of transport links to an expanded Wolverhampton Airport include a PPM link to Stourbridge Junction, while a major leasing company has expressed strong support for providing finance for PPM vehicles.
It is intended that many of the above applications will benefit from the use of a new range of products from HoldFast Carpet Track Limited, a development from the company's already successful level crossing building system. This opens up the prospect of street tramway installation by removal of a six-inch deep strip of road surface, and inserting a tramway and surrounds as a neat kit of parts.
But if all this can be done in the UK by reducing the costs of light rail provision, then the potential for radical change overseas is phenomenal. Cost reduction can bring attractive public transport to more people in the West whereas in African countries it can bring it for the first time.
Metros and supertrams are not a viable proposition in countries such as Ghana and Kenya, but their major cities are now seeing the unpleasant results of enormous growth coupled with no alternative to bus or taxi for the majority of the population. Interest has been expressed from other quarters too. Recent enquiries about the new light rail concept applications have been received from South Africa, the Netherlands, Greece and USA. We may yet see a British rail industry exporting rolling stock to the world.
The Status Quo
But before we start dreaming too much, let us reassess the situation as it stands. In the current climate it has become more difficult to attract finance for mega-projects such as supertrams. This presents an opportunity, if one is prepared to let other transport possibilities enter the arena. Attention that used to be focused on large-scale, high-capacity schemes should be partly diverted on developments that remain realistic. Any given system may be right for a particular application, but the right solution should always be sought for each situation - "horses for courses", as they say.
If large amounts of funding are not available for large benefits from large projects, then the right thing to do is identify where small projects which are affordable will still bring proportionate benefits. This is happening because engineers, transport planners and business people are doing what they should do in the prevailing circumstances: using the resources available rather than forming a queue around an almost empty treasure chest.
The merchants of doom are wrong. Just as the absence of a high-speed network does not in itself mean that a railway 7 June, 2004d just because of the absence of large urban tramway projects.
Caspar Lucas is an Associate of JPM Parry & Associates Limited, involved in the development of the Parry People Mover and bringing it into full commercial service. He graduated from the University of Sheffield in 1997 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering with French and subsequently worked for Connex South Central Limited and ALSTOM Transport Limited in rail vehicle engineering and project management, becoming a Chartered Mechanical Engineer in 2002.
15 July, 2008