New tram systems planned or under construction make light rail look like the solution of choice for improving urban transport. Jon Masters reports.
Government policy now seems firmly in favour of economic and environmentally beneficial light rail projects, judging by the amount of funding promised by the Treasury. Providing the money does not dry up - and there is more than one reason to suggest it might - light rail could provide a bonanza for construction and support service companies.
Cursory inspection of light rail development shows just two schemes under construction.
But a closer look reveals a myriad of metro systems between proposal and completion.
This year the government has promised finance towards a metro line between Bristol and Bradley Stoke as well as Leeds' £500M Supertram and the Portsmouth to Fareham, South Hampshire Rapid Transit System. This has taken the light rail public spending commitment to over £1,000M, including around £400M already secured for planned extensions to Manchester's Metrolink.
The two projects under construction are the Nottingham Express Transit (NET) and a Sunderland extension to the Tyne & Wear Metro (see box). These will add to systems already operating in Sheffield, Birmingham, Croydon, Manchester and Newcastle.
Detailed design of the NET system is being carried out for the construction joint venture by Maunsell.
The company has also been appointed engineering and operations advisor by Leeds Supertram promoter, West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive.
'The government now appears more in favour of light rail and stronger funding support is coming through, ' says Maunsell northern region executive director Doug Blenkey.
'The possibility of a lot of new schemes is being investigated, but some may not become a reality because these systems are expensive to build. Metros are an attractive asset and means of transport for any city, however, and most existing networks are proving successful.'
Bids for central government funding towards new metro schemes are submitted in local authorities' annual five year Local Transport Plans (LTPs), where economic and demographic studies support such projects.
LTP bids have been prepared for new schemes in Liverpool, Plymouth and Edinburgh, with a £230M modernisation and expansion of Blackpool's tram system and four new lines to add to Birmingham's Midland Metro.
Light rail development is also picking up in Greater London where four schemes have been shortlisted by Transport for London. These include a City Airport spur for the Docklands Light Railway and the Cross River project between Camden Town and Elephant & Castle.
'The government's 10 year transport plan published in 2000 was as much in favour of improved bus provision, but commissioned reports have shown that light rail is more likely to get people out of their cars, ' says Light Rail Transit Association chairman Mike Taplin.
'Also, the long term view shows light rail is usually more economic and provides time savings for users as well as greater environmental and economic redevelopment benefits.'
The case for metro schemes has been strengthened since the former Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions introduced a new system for appraising highway and public transport proposals in 2000.
According to Taplin, the old method of appraisal only considered benefits to non-users of proposed schemes. The new system is more comprehensive and reviews all user and non-user benefits.
'We are seeing a huge expansion of plans as a result of a violent swing in favour of light rail, but optimism should be guarded in case cyclical policy turns again, ' Taplin says.
'The concept of light rail is a good one and most schemes make a good economic case where conurbations are large enough. Environmental redevelopment benefits are very much in favour of light rail, but there is