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Debate Light rail This week we ask: Are light rail schemes the best way of improving public transport in urban areas?

Local authorities are stepping up efforts to reduce traffic congestion and encourage people to use public transport. But which transport is best for our crowded cities?


Light rail offers the best longterm option for sustainable transport. It meets all the principal criteria for development including environmental, accessibility, safety, integration and economic considerations. Such systems are highly visible and their evident permanence promotes public confidence, encouraging people out of their cars.

For public image and acceptability, trams are well ahead of other transport modes. Trams are viewed as more reliable, safer, cleaner, quicker, and a smoother ride. Buses could penetrate city centres as well as trams, but trams are perceived as being more compatible with pedestrianised areas, as a visit to Manchester will demonstrate.

In theory, there is no reason why, given equal opportunity for route segregation and junction priority, buses could not provide an equal quality of service to light rail. But in practice this rarely seems to happen.

Many cities have responded very positively to the successes in London's Docklands, Manchester and Croydon. Leeds has had a growing guided bus network, but is also implementing a three line light rail system. Liverpool has moved away from a guided trolley bus scheme in favour of light rail. Nottingham, Manchester and Tyne & Wear are all actively pursuing further extensions to their systems.

Light rail can provide a high capacity network, penetrating areas of low car ownership. Well planned park and ride facilities can also be very attractive to car commuters.

I have no vested interest in promoting light rail over other modes - Maunsell services all transport modes from bus to heavy rail, but I believe that light rail is well ahead of rival modes in terms of acceptance.

Every transport mode has its place in urban life and once habitual car drivers have the opportunity to use trams they may discover that public transport is no longer a horror story.

They may also realise that bus services are improving - particularly as a very effective feeder services for trams.


Light rail may be best when recycling heavy rail routes, but opportunities are rare in inner cities, with street running often needed. There are real problems with the current proposals for extensive street tramways, with trip and slip hazards for cyclists and pedestrians - particularly for the mobility impaired, and displacement and disruption of other traffic and activity.

How primitive to encumber busy streets with costly rails.

The tram crawls as people blithely wander in its path. Others would feel intimidated by a lumbering rail vehicle - modern trams are really trains in the streets, which cannot stop dead or steer clear of obstructions. All this for 10 times the cost, construction time and disruption of a trolleybus system.

Some civil engineers love light rail because of possible lucrative work for the profession. Consultants get endless employment from studies and design, and contractors get busy. The underlying demand and economic modelling is often dubious, in some cases disastrously wide of the mark.

Sheffield could have got a comprehensive trolley network for the huge written-off cost of its three mainly street tram routes. Trolleys are the best solution for UK inner cities, including London. Electric Tbus Group members know first hand what cost effective, zero emission and high quality transport trolley buses provide. Modern trolley systems worldwide are a vast improvement on anything here.

As a youngster I took trolley buses for granted as more comfortable and civilised than the noisy, fume ridden, vibrating and lurching motor buses. No tram gives such a silent and comfortable ride. Unfortunately many UK advisers and decision makers have never experienced trolleybus quality or even heard of it.

My main memories of previous British tramways were seeing them removed - so much for their permanence - and I expect to see some new tramways suffer a similar fate. Trolley buses give more value for money, no harmful emissions and a better ride.

The facts Transport secretary Stephen Byers told this month's Labour party conference he wanted to see more light rail schemes.

Trolley buses are powered by overhead cables and run on the street rather than on rails. Go to www. tbus. org. uk The Electric TBus group promotes trolley buses as a cheaper, pollution free alternative to trams and buses.

Paris is planning a circular light rail system to connect the outer suburbs.

In the US, light rail lobbyists claim government research shows cost overruns are less likely on light rail schemes than express bus routes. Go to www. lightrail now. org

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