Trams hit cost barrier

Light-rail travel, heralded as the answer to urban congestion and pollution, may prove too expensive. David Bowen reports

THE REVIVAL of the tram in Britain is already under threat because of its high cost, stimulating a search in the industry for cheaper ways of whisking people through our city streets.

A proposed flagship tramway in the London borough of Croydon, supposedly heralding the return - for south Londoners at least - of a golden age of transport, is now in doubt.

Contrary to press reports last week a preferred bidder has not been chosen: London Transport is still considering whether the system makes economic sense. According to the trade journal Local Transport Today, the Government is insisting that the cost of the scheme be cut from pounds 180m to pounds 150m before it will provide its pounds 100m grant. "My feeling is it will be resolved, but nothing is in the bag until the contract is signed," says Peter Hughes, LTT's editor.

The hiatus in Croydon is an example of the caution that has slowed light- rail or tram schemes everywhere. "Everyone in the world is worried about costs," says Tony Depledge, managing director of Blackpool Transport Services, the only place in the UK never to have stopped running trams since they started in 1885. "Our international trade association held a conference last year called `How can we afford light rail in the future?' "

This retrenchment is particularly noticeable in the UK because trams have only recently made a comeback. Three schemes are complete or are under construction - in Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham - but it seems likely that many planned systems will be replaced by better traffic management, "guided buses", or by a new generation of low-cost trams.

Trams disappeared from the streets of every British town except Blackpool in the Fifties and Sixties, killed off by their antiquity and the spread of suburbs. Comfortable, heated buses nudged them aside and ruled the roost until the late Eighties, when congestion and the environment put trams back on centre stage. People who travelled in Europe saw swift, pollution-free vehicles carving through the traffic jams and concluded that their time had come again.

The tram-making industry had all but died in Britain, but was still healthy in continental Europe. Until recently the biggest tram maker in the world was Tatra of Prague, which supplied the Eastern bloc with all its units. Now the big manufacturers are Siemens, ABB and GEC-Alsthom, with Bombardier of Canada expanding fast through investments in Europe

The Docklands Light Railway in London was a precursor of the tram revival proper: its cars were built by a Bombardier subsidiary in Belgium.

The DLR did not have government support, mainly because the Docklands property developers were prepared to contribute. But the three tramways built since have all received public money. Phase one of the Manchester Metrolink cost pounds 155m, half of which came from the taxpayer. The Government has also funded half the pounds 240m cost of the Sheffield Supertram and pounds 40m out of pounds 145m for the Midland Metro.

Several other proposals are on the drawing board. Apart from Croydon, these include schemes in Leeds, Cardiff, Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow, Medway, Portsmouth/Fareham, Nottingham and an extension of the Manchester Metrolink. But there is a feeling in the industry that the nature of the projects will have to change from a "continental model", where quality not price is key, to a British model, where the priorities are reversed. Mr Hughes believes this is no bad thing: "It has become clear that the pounds 200m a light-rail scheme costs could fund a whole range of traffic-reduction measures for a town."

Traditional trams are expensive, costing pounds 2m for a two-unit vehicle, against pounds 110,000 for a bus with about half the carrying capacity. That is why other measures are under consideration. These could include more rigorous traffic management - such as blocking off bus lanes - and the introduction of guided buses. These are ordinary buses with horizontal rubber wheels that guide them between concrete ridges - cars cannot get in the way and the busway need be hardly wider than the bus. Leeds introduced a guided busway last September, and passenger numbers have risen by 10 per cent since. Similar schemes are being considered in Bristol and Liverpool.

But the tram still has appeal because it is robust, and because it can make commercial sense when linked to a rail network. One of the main benefits of the Manchester Metrolink has been that it has revived little-used rail lines, with passengers linking to the tram system.

The most experienced tram company in Britain is Blackpool Transport Services, which still carries 7 million passengers a year in its 60-year-old trams. It has been advising CentreWest in Croydon and is also involved in TramPower, a consortium developing a new vehicle that it says will be half the weight and cost of a traditional tram. "We are taking knowledge from other industries to find out how we can make trams cheaper, easier, lighter," Mr Depledge says.

Jim Boswell, managing director of PSV International, a design company involved in TramPower, says the secret is in the philosophy. "People typically take train theory and downgrade it for tram use," he says. "We have worked up from commercial vehicles." Pullman, based in South Wales, is building a prototype, but the consortium hopes to license manufacture out to whoever wants it. "I would say you will see this tram raising its head in every new tram proposal," Mr Boswell says.

The export potential of a new-generation low-cost tram like this could be immense. Britain, unencumbered by a significant tram-building industry of its own, could in theory leapfrog its "gold-plating" competitors. Whether it will grasp such an opportunity is, on past form, uncertain.

Suggested Topics
Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
football
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him
musicIndie music promoter was was a feature at Carter gigs
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
News
Performers dressed as Tunnocks chocolate teacakes, a renowned Scottish confectionary, perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
news
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
Life and Style
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
News
people
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Extras
indybest
Sport
Arsenal signing Calum Chambers
sportGunners complete £16m transfer of Southampton youngster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Entry Level Fund Accountant (Edinburgh)

£17 - £20 per hour: Cameron Kennedy Recruitment: My client, one of the worlds ...

SQL DBA/Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL DBA/Developer
 SQL, C#, VBA, SQL Server, ...

Risk Analyst - VBA/EXCEL

£300 - £600 per day: Harrington Starr: Risk Analyst Access, EXCEL, VBA, RISK, ...

Market Access Analyst (FIX 5.0, Equities, Derivatives)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Market Access Analyst (FIX On-boarding, FIX 5.0,...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on