A Call for Evidence on the Opportunities available to introduce new Light Rail Systems or other Rapid Transit Solutions into towns and cities in England.
Response by Pre Metro Operations Limited, Regent House, 54-56 Hagley Road, Stourbridge, DY8 1QD
Q1 What is the potential scale of the opportunity for further light rail (or other rapid transit) systems to be introduced in England?
We believe there is scope to introduce a number of new light rail schemes in England, including potential ULR (Ultra Light Rail) operations in areas of increasing congestion, which may be outside busy urban areas, but may include locations that are seeing major house building and commercial activity.
Q2 Is there an appetite for new systems to be introduced in our cities and towns?
Most definitely. Research from Transport Focus highlights high passenger satisfaction levels from existing light rail systems. PMOL’s discussions in various parts of the country regarding potential introduction of such schemes are often met positively as a concept.
Q3 Is there evidence to support this appetite?
As mentioned above, Transport Focus research points to high levels of passenger satisfaction with the LightRail mode. (The most recent research from 2017 shows passenger journey satisfaction overall at 91%). Existing operators’ own research adds to this. Many cities, such as Bath, have built up a campaign to bring light rail to their area, and there is much positive comment in local media and elsewhere to support such proposals.
Q4 What would the environmental, economic and congestion benefits be?
Environmentally, light rail and ultra light rail can be seen as an excellent solution to providing large capacity mobility without harming the environment. PMOL commissioned a report that compared Carbon Dioxide emissions amongst modes of transport, using the Kilograms of Carbon Dioxide per Passenger Kilometre measure, which is used by DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) and other environmental organisations. This shows that tram as a mode, alongside our own Class 139 light railcar, provide the best mode of transport regarding low emissions, compared to other modes, per passenger kilometre.
Economically, outside London, investment in public transport over many years has not kept pace with demand. This had led to an increasingly car-dependent society in many areas. This inevitably has led to increasing congestion. However, significant improvement to local heavy rail networks is seen as expensive, and often does not fare well in existing appraisal systems. We believe there is scope to develop not only further expansion of light rail systems, but also the much cheaper and environmentally-friendly Ultra Light Rail mode, in areas that would benefit from such an operation.
Q5 What impact would it have on jobs?
Many jobs rely on car-dependent workers. This can exclude many poor families, who may not be able to afford the costs of running a car. Bus services are mainly provided commercially and may be withdrawn or changed at relatively short notice. Light rail brings a long-term commitment and assuredness that the service will be there. Operating such a service at times to suit workers in certain areas requires a long-term commitment, but also guarantees real opportunities for the jobs market that depend on effective public transport. Employers large and small may have the confidence to open new operations upon the promise of a new light rail scheme.
Economically, a significant benefit of Light Rail and ULR over heavy rail is the ability to operate on line of sight, eliminating the need for expensive signalling installations. A further benefit, as evidenced at Stourbridge, is the opportunity to achieve lower labour costs compared to Heavy Rail.
Q6 Does light rail open up new housing or business developments or improve the urban fabric of the area?
It does both! New housing and business developments benefit from having a real, viable alternative to the private car for some journeys, that is both attractive, effective and reliable. Areas with light rail systems are often seen as positive environments. We believe that this positive feeling can be extended to numerous locations that may not be able to afford a traditional light rail system, but may benefit from an intermediate mode Ultra Light Rail system. We believe such ULR operations can be provided by the community, for the community in order to improve the urban fabric.
Q7 What can we learn from the experience of other countries in adopting new systems?
In mainland Europe, Cities and urban areas have been very proactive in maintaining and introducing new light rail systems as part of a wider urban strategy. Statistics from 2015, produced by UITP (Union Internationale des Transports Publics) show that light rail is operating in more than 200 European Cities, and globally has more than 15,600 km of track infrastructure with over 3000 km more at the planning and construction phase. Light rail is proving increasingly popular in Europe, with some projects providing innovation as part of a wider urban mobility plan. For example, in Norway, the Bergen Bybane saw the implementation of a light rail system removing heavy lorry traffic from the city centre and providing more cycling access, as well as providing a rapid transport link to and from the airport. Passengers increasingly approve of rail transport options, as they give a sense of permanence, which attracts investment along the route.
Q8 What issues have helped progress light rail schemes or acted as barriers to their development?
The need for high quality, high frequency rapid transport unhindered by traffic congestion has led to increasing demand for solutions that light rail can provide. Once operating, these systems are always popular with users, attracting high proportions of previous car users, and can provide a real, effective, visual alternative to continuing traffic congestion and pollution. The environmental aspect is crucial, with road-based traffic increasingly seen as negative, due to the effects of emissions. Light rail technology is an antidote to this, and users will feel that they are “doing their bit” for the environment. On the downside, cost is often an issue when it comes to implementing a new light rail system. The benefits need to be seen over the longer-term. There is the relatively short-term issue of upheaval as the line is built, with roads having to be closed and businesses facing disruption. In some examples, Ultra Light Rail could be seen as a much cheaper and often more flexible solution, minimising such disruption. This intermediate mode can supply cheaper levels of operation and less intrusive solutions for track laying and operation.
A barrier to development on the Stourbridge branch line is the ownership of the infrastructure by Network Rail. This has tended to demand the adoption of Heavy Rail operational standards and practises with a consequential lack of flexibility. As an example, conversion of the branch to tramway “line of sight” operation would permit duplication of journeys at over-popular times within the existing fleet.
Q9 What and where are the future opportunities here in England for new light rail systems or alternatives?
We believe that there is considerable scope for developing intermediate mode Ultra Light Rail provision in areas that may not be suitable or affordable for conventional light rail schemes. These may include use of currently disused rail lines, including a mix of some on-street running. There may also be scope for conversion of some existing heavy rail links to ultra light rail, such as the Stourbridge branch line conversion, which, in its 10 years of ultra light rail operation has increased patronage by over 50%, whilst cutting operational costs by 50%, both compared to the previous heavy rail operation. Pre Metro Operations Ltd has identified a number of locations throughout the UK which may be suitable for the implementation of an ultra light rail operation.
Q10 What are the key issues that are preventing light rail schemes from being delivered?
One of the main issues is funding. Others include political will, or the failure to consider long-term objectives. There are always cheaper options, such as bus operation, but light rail takes longer to recoup initial financial outlay, making it often appear as a risk that promoters and local authorities are not in a position to take financially or politically. Light rail – and ultra light rail – need to be seen in the context of a much wider urban development plan, which takes into consideration much longer timescales.
Q11 How can we deliver systems within a budget as has happened?
We need stricter controls with clearly defined responsibilities for performance and reporting on project progress against time and financial budgets.
Q12 What are the key lessons from Europe in progressing light rail and in what way are these different to the U.K.?
Provision of comprehensive public transport is increasingly important, as congestion continues to increase and environmental concerns consequently rise. Public transport must be seen as an attractive alternative to the private car, and light rail systems consistently rank very highly in passenger surveys, such as those by Transport Focus. The UK could benefit from taking a closer look at other European countries and to their City-Region approach over many years towards public transport provision. The devolution of many powers, including transport, to several UK City-Regions, may have positive implications for provision of further light rail schemes.
Q13 What does the future of light rail look like with new generation transport schemes coming forward?
We believe light rail, and ultra light rail, can play an increasingly key role in urban transport provision. Light rail is also well placed to progress with driverless operation, as this technology improves. Light rail is well placed to progress with alternative fuels, such as hydrogen cells and battery power. The Stourbridge ultra light rail operation has successfully operated with LPG/flywheel power during its 10 year operation, with an unprecedented reliability rate of between 99.8-100%.
Q14 How do you see light rail aligning with new initiatives such as autonomous vehicles; cycling and walking; and wider Mobility As A Service initiatives?
Autonomous vehicles may well be the future, but will still take up road space. We see the light rail sector as playing a vital role in both providing an alternative to motoring, and being complimentary to other modes, such as cycling, walking, heavy rail and bus. We also see “Mobility As A Service” as a growing, important sector. People increasingly demand reliable, integrated transport. MaaS will provide them with seamless travel options across all modes, and light rail will be an attractive component of that service delivery.
Q15 How can promoters leverage funding from sources beyond central Government?
PMOL considers that local authorities must play a role in attracting funding sources through land value capture with the attraction of a long-term light rail line being established. Section 106 agreements are also a potential source of funding, in areas of new build, which are likely to benefit from a new light rail line serving the area.
Improving public transport connectivity has the potential for improving productivity in a City Region such as Greater Birmingham, where recent work by The Open Data Institute has revealed a 33% productivity shortfall when compared with its twin city of Lyon. Much of this shortfall is attributable to the significantly higher quality of public transport in the latter. Light Rail and ULR has apart to play in addressing this imbalance, and could rightly expect some reward for its efforts.
Other Rapid Transit System Alternatives
Q16 Is there an appetite for considering Very/Ultra-light rail or Personal Rapid Transit as an alternative transport solution to light rail?
PMOL considers that ultra light rail has great potential in a number of geographical areas. We believe there needs to be a much greater awareness of the mode and the contribution it can make. We see ULR as complimentary to existing public transport modes, positioned as an intermediate mode between conventional Light Rail and Bus Rapid Transit.
Q18 Should such a system be a concept that is promoted?
Most definitely! We believe that Ultra Light Rail is a mode that has great potential in urban areas, not necessarily city centres, and where an affordable light rail system could be developed at costs that are much cheaper than traditional light rail systems.
Q20 What are the barriers for developing such systems, particularly those with elevated sections? For example, public acceptance, or environmental sensitivities?
Many disused and freight-only railway lines may form the basis for some sections of route. Public acceptance of the proposed route is crucial. Environmental concern is also a serious issue – how vehicles are to be powered is vitally important. Some areas of particular importance, such as historic areas or beauty spots, may not be suitable for overhead lines, for example. Pre Metro Operations is keen to develop systems that are environmentally friendly, without encroaching on areas of sensitivity with overhead lines.
Ultra Light Rail – A Summary
We see great potential for developing a sector within Light Rail, which is Ultra Light Rail. We are terming this an intermediate mode, which sits between bus, light rail and heavy rail.
Ultra Light Rail can be viewed as a complimentary system that integrates with other public transport options, as well as walking and cycling that will provide attractive alternatives to car use. We see Mobility as a Service (MaaS) as an increasingly important development, which will simplify the public transport offer, and we are keen to work with pioneer developers of MaaS in the UK, such as Whim.
PMOL view Ultra Light Rail as a potentially exciting addition to the mobility options available to the travelling public. Operating the Stourbridge branch line for the last 10 years has provided us with a wealth of experience to have confidence that this mode can be adapted elsewhere. We recognise the attractiveness of light rail, and the satisfaction levels it produces amongst users. We also recognise that building new lines is often seen as initially expensive, and often prohibitive to promoters. We believe that that Ultra Light Rail is a mode that is cost-effective, flexible and attractive to users, as well as being environmentally-friendly and increasingly adaptive in many areas, where implementation of infrastructure needs to be less intrusive than more traditional light rail systems. PMOL is capable and ready to play its part in a more sustainable future for us all.
G J Lusher
Pre Metro Operations Limited 16th May 2019