Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Back To The Future - How Trams Are Back In Vogue

Has anyone else noticed how trams are quietly making their way up the transport agenda in Britain?
It wasn't so long ago that they were regarded as expensive bits of kit that no one really wanted to fund. A "glamorous" addition to a City Centre's transport portfolio, which somehow made us look more European, new tramways seemed to cause more heartache amongst stakeholders during the procurement and construction process (if it ever got that far) then almost anything else. It's certainly true that Edinburgh's new tramway is an appalling advertisement of how not to build a new system.
For years, we've had frustrations here in the West Midlands. For as long as I can recall, there has been talk of a strategic network of tram lines across Centro land. To date, we have just the one, from Wolverhampton to Birmingham, which largely utilises an old rail line. Almost everyone agrees that a network of lines is the way to go. Yet whilst the French take a City and build several lines in the space of a few years, we have talked and talked until we're blue in the face about extending Midland Metro to the point whereby the half mile extension into the City Centre is a huge cause for celebration. We shouldn't even be batting an eyelid at this. The real talking point should be the additional 4, or 5, or 6 new lines that we need to demonstrate that we're serious about public transport in this area.
I'm as excited as anyone about the City Centre extension - seeing trams on our City streets certainly makes a statement. But progress elsewhere is painfully slow.
But is all this "can't do, won't do" attitude changing?
Centro has always been positive about promoting a new network of trams.
Now it seems that Government - led by Transport Minister Norman Baker - are warming to trams.
As well as the Birmingham City Centre extension, HM Gvt has given its blessing to extensions to the Manchester and Nottingham networks, an upgrade to Blackpool's iconic tramway, modernisation of the Tyne & Wear system, and projects to investigate the feasibility of "tram-train" operation (trams that run on both street-level and existing heavy rail lines) on Sheffield-Rotherham and St.Albans-Watford lines. Locally, a similar "tram-train" operation remains an idea for Stourbridge Junction-Brierley Hill journeys along a lightly-used freight line. Vehicles such a version of the highly-successful Parry People Mover could be used.
This is all very welcome stuff.
The Department for Transport has produced a report entitled "Green Light for Light Rail", which, although noting that "building light rail systems has become expensive", acknowledges that they can also "help improve the attractiveness of public transport in major conurbations...promoting economic growth and reducing carbon through modal shift."
UKTram is a consortium of PTEg (Passenger Transport Executive Group), CPT (Confederation of Passenger Transport - the industry group), Transport for London and the Light Rapid Transit Forum. They have been asked to produce a report on how to reduce costs through standardisation and harmonisation of design. This surely makes eminent sense. The example of the Midland Metro Italian trams is one that should never have come to this - each one is now supposedly "unique" part-wise. To have a framework or template of procurement and harmonisation across different UK systems is how it should be.
Another aspect UKTram will look at is the major cost implication of diverting utilities running beneath the proposed tramway.
Norman Baker is also planning to Chair a Light Rail summit, and DfT will start consulting on how capital funding for transport schemes can be devolved to Local Authorities - a catalyst Centro is interested in to try and kick start a revival in funding Midland Metro extensions.
Trams are good. They give a City that certain "wow" factor and give a subliminal message that the City is serious about transport. Whenever I'm in Europe, City tramway systems fascinate me and I'm always impressed how so many people use them. For some reason I don't really fathom, there is less "stigma" attached to catching a tram then a bus, especially for irregular users. In the UK, just look at how trams have transformed Nottingham City Centre. Coupled with exceptional bus services in that City, there is a feeling that public transport is taken really seriously there. Ditto Manchester.
Horses for courses, maybe. Trams won't work everywhere, and sometimes there are cheaper options, such as the impressive Guided Busway in Cambridge. But for City Centres and large conurbations, the tram makes a statement.
Let's hope Norman Baker and UKTram can push on to a position where trams are once again seen across many of our UK Cities, providing quality public transport.

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