Future Light Rail
Future transport planning in the West Midlands is now the responsibility of the West Midlands Mayor. The current holder of this post, Andy Street, is actively examining options. Here is an article from thechamberlainfiles.com that explores some options, and refers to Pre Metro Operations’ use of Parry People Mover railcars on the Stourbridge branch line.
Beverley Nielsen, the Lib Dem candidate for West Midlands Mayor last year, looks at ‘intermediate options’ on transport for Mayor Street.
Historic transport policy decisions in the West Midlands seem to induce the idea that every journey should begin by car. Even when the popularity of rail commuting has exceeded all expectations, the principal response has been to establish enormous car parks adjacent to stations and Metro stops.
Laura Shoaf, MD of Transport for West Midlands (TfWM), has commented about the ‘many connectivity challenges’ that exist, meaning the lack of high quality solutions for the ‘last mile’ of commuter journeys.
Transport experts have a clear idea why people choose to use their car: it is largely down to the disbenefits or lack of availability of the other options.
Despite years of discussion about integrated transport solutions, issues like through ticketing and real-time travel information across modes to provide the ability to plan door-to-door journeys remain as elusive as ever.
The same goes for a physical mode which fills the gaps and ticks all the boxes – safe, dependable, low carbon, popular and, above all, affordable.
Whilst over 70% of all journeys around the West Midlands are made by car, 80% of travel to work journeys are solo, causing many issues for our network. Congestion is estimated to cost £3bn a year in the wider Birmingham conurbation, impacting on air quality leading to an estimated 3,000 premature deaths across the West Midlands. More pain is associated with all the costs of staying legal, finding places to park, fuel, upkeep, and eventually replacement.
Buses carried 267m passengers in 2015/16, a number that’s been in steady decline. They are much improved as vehicles but share the roads with other traffic without passengers having personal control of the journey which causes anxiety. Fare prices have risen above RPI and are controlled by operators, with over 1/3rd of journeys in WM made on concession.
Rail in West Midlands carried 53.7m passengers 2015/16, with issues around reach into commuter districts and through ticketing between rail, bus and other modes still a work in progress.
Walking and cycling are still too weather-dependent, although Mayor Andy Street has promised to increase spend on cycling to £10 per head by 2020, with an agreed target to hit 5% of all journeys — but he’ll be unable to change the weather.
The Metro, a form of Light Rail Transit (LRT), has consistently carried around 5m passengers a year in the West Midlands, but is an expensive option on the basis of investment to passengers carried.
Taxis are always acceptable and solve most of the problems associated with personal risk and of parking in urban centres but as generally single occupation, they take up 10 times more road space per commuter than a well loaded bus. The taxi fare is inevitably a multiple of the cost of using a bus for the same journey.
History’s ‘orphan’ is the traditional British tram. It’s heritage has been deliberately dismissed by advocates of LRT, but the modern forms of vehicle now being used are like trains that are adapted to run on street. They provide a good solution where there is enough room for them, (taking up three times the road space as a bus).
In their normal form they require a complex electrical infrastructure and so LRT systems, or ‘supertrams,’ are expensive to install. The budget in the Devo 2 settlement for the 11km journey from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill is set at £250m.
Modern supertrams are popular, and have brought about modal shift to public transport. However, they’re not a comprehensive solution.
In fact they may only be suitable for between 5 to 10% of the towns and cities where traditional trams formerly dealt with most of the needs of commuting citizens in earlier times.
In inter-war North America it was quite common to have adjacent towns connected by ‘inter-urban’ streetcar lines – effectively the first ‘tramtrains’ as once in town they could stop frequently anywhere and these are still operating in San Francisco, Portland, El Paso and Toronto.
In the West Midlands it’s quite hard to find many localities where a supertram route can be fitted whilst generating sufficient patronage to be economically viable. By contrast there appear to be many places where a more modest form of light tram and ‘intermediate technology’ system would provide a complete journey or function as a feeder to a main rail transport artery.
Places that would be suitable for light tramway or streetcar lines include:
- West Bromwich to Oldbury via Sandwell and Dudley Station
- Brownhills to Walsall
- Halesowen to University Station
- Stourbridge to Brierley Hill
- Wednesbury Metro stop to Town Centre and Bus Station
- Bromsgrove Station to Town Centre.
Of the six, only the Halesowen route could possibly be operated with conventional LRT.
The radical rail Shuttle service between Stourbridge Town and Junction from Parry People Movers Ltd and operated by PreMetro Operations Ltd was developed over 20 years of design and prototype work using flywheel energy storage in a series of steps with private investors and SMEs based across the West Midlands contributing resources alongside modest commitments of public funding.
The gas/flywheel hybrid innovation is now a well-integrated component of Britain’s franchised rail industry, saving money, passenger safety, high reliability, popularity and good energy efficiency.
Over the course of an eight year period, four million passenger journeys have facilitated between Stourbridge Town Centre and Junction.
Whilst £31m has been allocated to the high tech Connected Autonomous Vehicles in development in Coventry & Warwickshire as part of a last mile solution, more focus on intermediate mode technologies is required to ensure the integration so long sought for our region’s hard pressed commuters is delivered as a value alternative.
A series of Foresight Engineering Projects (‘FEPs’) focused on intermediate technology solutions are being formulated to oversee practical projects. Light trams – ‘British Streetcar’ – can be run on zero carbon technologies, harnessing energy supply technology based on compressed gases of alternative types.
Meanwhile out in the wilderness are ‘buses that think they are trams’ – an articulated, lengthened form of bus, doubling the capacity of a normal single decker. One pioneering example was designed and built by a highly accomplished British manufacturer, Wrightbus, and ran in York. Versions of articulated buses (‘bendy’ to journalists) were used in York, London and Birmingham, also in Swansea.
All four of these articulated bus fleets have been withdrawn from service despite expensive work preparing special supporting infrastructure. TfWM has inherited proposals to introduce the Netherlands-designed ‘Sprint’ system as Metro’s ‘little sister.’ .
The issues to look out for in assessing the practicality of the Sprint include:
- Extra length causing blockages at junctions
- Problems rescuing vehicles which have broken down
- Greater difficulty reversing or dealing with issues at the far end of the vehicle
- Fare evasion
- Subject to the ‘Oslo-effect’ criticism of heavy axle rubber-tyred vehicles adding road and tyre wear particulates into the air
- Market perception that they are still ‘a bus’ and not ‘a tram’.
Planning for the Sprint system seems to be advancing, but it may not be too late to review some of the routes to see whether light tramway streetcar lines might not be better.
Beverley Nielsen is Associate Professor and Director of IDEA, the Institute for Design & Economic Acceleration, at Birmingham City University. She is also Non Executive Chairman of Light Rail Partners Ltd.
The successful operation of the Stourbridge branch line service by Pre Metro Operations has led to interest in operating schemes elsewhere in the UK.
Pre Metro Operations are the preferred operator of the proposed scheme, which has recently been given permission to establish a demonstration operation in the City. For further information, please see links here and here The Preston Trampower website can be viewed here
Trams for Hereford
A projected Light Rail scheme in Hereford City Centre is the latest proposal to suggest Pre Metro Operations’ involvement.
An outline report of the case for a light tram system in Hereford, produced by transport geographer Gareth Calan Davies with assistance from Pre Metro Operations, was published early in 2016. This was prepared as part of a growing case for a sustainable transport plan for the City of Hereford and dovetailed into the declared Local Transport Plan policies of Herefordshire Council. Following this an autumn public meeting was arranged by the transport group Rail & Bus for Herefordshire at which the MD of Pre Metro Operations gave an informative and enlightening talk on developments in light tram systems with specific reference to the Stourbridge operation.
The result of this meeting was to stimulate a considerable interest and support for a tram system in Hereford starting with a phase 1 scheme connecting the large housing areas south of the river with the city and the main line railway station. The tram route would use the existing Great Western Way which as a pedestrian and cycle route is on the formation of an old railway line which includes an existing bridge over the River Wye. Further phases of the scheme connect into the new Enterprise Zone at Rotherwas (also south of the river) and greater penetration of the city centre.
Following the Rail & Bus meeting a number of interested groups came together under the banner of the Hereford Transport Alliance, supported by both Pre Metro Operations Ltd and Gareth Calan Davies. Hereford Transport Alliance organised a stand in High Town, the city centre, where information on the potential for a tram route was disseminated to the public together with a petition to the Council asking for the proposals to be taken further as part of their long term LTP.
A significant factor is that a number of groups came together and the tram proposal gained a higher profile and hence an increased measure of support. To build on this Hereford Transport Alliance have called a meeting in mid-December to discuss ways forward for the project. Pre Metro Operations is closely involved in the process which as a next phase will include developing a business plan and involving more closely the Marches Local Enterprise Partnership, the Department of Transport and both Herefordshire and Hereford City Council.
For further information, please contact Gareth Calan Davies: email@example.com
You can view a presentation by Gareth Calan Davies here
Pre Metro Operations Ltd has responded to the Department for Transport consultation on the South Western Rail Franchise.
Chief Executive Phil Evans suggested that Pre Metro could play a part in the development of several operations in the region through a sub-contract arrangement similar to it’s current operation in the West Midlands, as well as the possibility of a standalone micro-franchise.
Recognising that a small company such as Pre Metro couldn’t realistically be considered for the provision of train services at a franchise level, he suggested that the innovation put in place by Pre Metro on it’s Stourbridge Operation could be repeated in the South West.
The Isle of Wight Island Line proposal for a separate business unit is supported, and this could be the precursor to a locally-controlled bespoke company. Pre Metro’s consultation with interested parties on the Isle of Wight has led the company to recommend a phased approach to autonomy. The operation could see revenue growth through tourism growth, new developments and an improved & regular train service frequency. The “third rail” system is recommended to be replaced by existing light rail technology.
Other proposals suggested by Pre Metro in the consultation response include;
- The progressive expansion of the Island Line to other parts of the Isle of Wight utilising light rail technology and working practices.
- Conversion of the existing Lymington branch line operations to a non-electrified light rail operation.
- Introduction of a low-cost passenger service on the Swanage-Wareham alignment utilising a non-electrified light rail operation.
- Other potential light rail feeder services to be investigated in the longer-term, including Bentley-Bordon and a Weymouth dock circular service.