Railfuture has an international group, structured to understand international best practice and use it in advancing our arguments in Britain on railway development. Light rail is a case in point where Britain has not exactly been a world leader…

Eastern European countries including those in the former Russian Federation kept their tramways but this was a mixed blessing as most networks had a huge maintenance backlog as a result of decades of underfunding, leading to casualties. As recently as 2016 the huge tram system in Tashkent, now a modern capital city, closed down, consigning the future of the city to traffic congestion. Samarkand (pop 500,000), just up the Silk Road, didn’t have a light rail system and started one in 2017 without the burden of antiquated infrastructure.

France, mainland Spain and the UK, either didn’t have tram systems or closed them down. In the UK the last tram ran in London in 1952. The final city system to close was Sheffield in 1960. Maintenance backlogs were quoted here on account of World War Two, certainly in London but in many other cases the cities were changing. Trams owned by city corporations traditionally ran to the ‘Cemetery Gates’ on the city boundary. People were moving out of grimy cities so promoting ribbon development served by emerging private bus services.

So, France, Spain and the UK commenced light rail development using a blank canvas. The similarities end there. The devolution agenda in France and Spain started far earlier and every city mayor wanted a light rail system as a way of revitalising their city, economically and environmentally. The planning system was designed to facilitate such development and land use was arranged to place large footfall activities such as hospitals, retail and universities along light rail alignments. The French Government, through their own suppliers, produced standard trams in any colour and front nose shape so facilitating city procurement. The French and Spanish light rail industry thrives.

As a result, just about every city in France and many in Spain have fully integrated transport systems based on light rail. Paris realised that upgrading the rickety Metro was a long haul, so built new express rail routes, like Crossrail in London (the RER) but vastly increased their catchment area by a ring of light rail routes right round the city. 29 French cities now have new from scratch light rail systems, Spain has 13.

This didn’t happen in Britain although trips by councillors to look at European cities became the norm. We simply just didn’t have the client-side project governance, the financing and funding structures to undertake such city-based capital schemes. Manchester broke ranks first at a time when two urban national rail routes to Bury and Altrincham had to be renewed or closed down. The case was made to join them together running on the street through the city centre, European style. Metrolink was born in 1992. Since then Manchester has acquired proper city government and the planning and financial tools and project delivery skills to go with it. The result is that this wasn’t a one-off in Manchester. Everybody loves ‘their’ light rail system which has since grown to 62 miles and 93 stations.

A new dawn for light rail in Britain might have occurred then. Indeed, modern light rail systems have since been constructed in five other British cities (Croydon, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Nottingham and Sheffield, plus an upgrade to the Blackpool seafront tramway to modern standards). Similarly, Dublin is now viewed as a thoroughly modern European city with its modern LUAS light rail system – evolution certainly, but not revolution.

Could 2020 be a second new dawn for light rail in Britain?

Although a blank canvas is preferable to attempting to adapt an old system with a huge maintenance backlog and routes not optimised around modern commercial development, starting a new system has not proved easy from just about every perspective – planning, obtaining authority, financing, funding let alone physical construction with all that entails in terms of city centre disruption including negative effects on local businesses.

The most recent light rail construction in Edinburgh demonstrated that we had not learned much in terms of setting up the client side to undertake such projects, so bringing the city to its political knees in terms of cost overruns and physical construction disruption. Once opened, having been curtailed in scope and nearly abandoned mid project, the Edinburgh Tram system has been a huge success beating ridership projections.

The result in 2020 is that we have three light rail schemes set to be commissioned, all of which are extensions of existing systems rather than new starts, and yet cities the size and economic strength of Leeds have no light rail, no Metro and really only a limited national rail suburban service using a single twin track route across the city.

The three extensions are however significant. The extension of Manchester Metrolink to the INTU Trafford Centre, is to the second largest shopping mall in the United Kingdom. Trafford City, which includes other largely leisure facilities employs 16,500 people (12,000 in the shopping centre) and has 43 million visitors (30 million to the shopping centre) per annum. The French experience demonstrates that routing light rail into traffic objectives of this magnitude, is key to the viability of light rail.

This route when opened will be a huge commercial success with a better, faster alignment than the Salford Quays line, also a commercial success serving Media City. It will surely lead to other Metrolink extensions such as to Middleton and Stockport. Before embarking on this project, Manchester took the precaution to increase the capacity and resilience of the City centre operation by building an additional route across the centre – the ‘Second City Crossing’. Strategically, the four largest retail centres in Britain – Gateshead, Trafford Park and the two Westfield centres in London at Shepherd’s Bush and Stratford are all rail served. This is a far cry from the big complexes built on the motorway network outside London at Bluewater and Lakeside serving the Volvo estate generation.

Birmingham and the Black Country also have a light rail line with an extension opening in 2020. This is also strategically significant for different reasons. The first new light rail line from Wolverhampton to Birmingham, like the two original Manchester Metrolink lines, was built along a railway alignment. Unlike in Manchester, the new light rail line terminated in the rather rundown Snow Hill railway station, out of sight, out of mind, so was not a commercial success with annual ridership at around five million pa. Birmingham learned the lesson about city penetration and took the tramway out of the station and through the city centre to New Street Station. Although only short, ridership grew to seven million pa.

2020 will see the line extended to Centenary Square and on to Edgbaston, so creating a cross Birmingham city centre route like in Manchester. Light rail in Birmingham is likely to take off in 2020 and is likely to develop into a comprehensive network based on success, with a whole series of extensions in the Black Country, to the East of Birmingham, to Solihull and also linking up with the new HS2 railway at Curzon Street and International stations.

The third 2020 light rail extension opening is in Blackpool, a traditional sea front tramway running eleven miles from Star Gate, south of Blackpool along the promenade to Fleetwood, the only survivor in Britain from the tramway age, since it was redeveloped to meet modern light rail standards. It is transforming from a fun ride for visitors to a meaningful transport system for the Fylde coast by provision of a new extension inland to Blackpool North station. The national rail route to Blackpool was recently electrified and now has direct all year electric services from Manchester, Liverpool and London.

The Blackpool system in linking to the national rail network will therefore provide a viable distribution system from the eleven-mile seafront catchment area, so joining the ranks of the other six British light rail systems all of which feed and interchange with the national rail system.

2020 will probably also see a start of further developments on the other four British light rail systems. Edinburgh has got over the trauma of its first stage with the focus moving on from inquiries into cost overruns towards building a comprehensive network for the Capital of Scotland. Nottingham with a cross city light rail line splitting into two branches north and south of the city will not resist adding more, possibly in conjunction with HS2.

Sheffield tried a different approach – Tram Train, in the form of extending the network not by using defunct railway alignments but by running on a live national freight and passenger railway via the Meadowhall shopping centre to Rotherham. Merging tram and main line technologies was not easy – the project cost four times the original budget and is still having problems.

The people of Rotherham who have endured Pacers for 40 years and a steep uphill walk into Sheffield City centre from the station now travel by tram train right into and through Sheffield city centre. Like Edinburgh, the perception is changing. 2020 should see considerable thought on how to apply this technology elsewhere so that the national rail network can penetrate urban centres far more effectively also mitigating city rail terminal congestion.

This would be the case in Leeds if a tram train network were developed. The betting is that Manchester will be first to adopt tram train on a larger scale based on the Sheffield experience for these reasons. There are now twelve tram train operations in mainland Europe, mainly in Germany and France, whereby light rail has extended out of cities onto the national rail network with the active cooperation of the German and French national rail networks (DB and RFF).

The prospects for light rail in Britain are bright for all seven existing systems. All political manifestos for the December election contained strong commitment to devolution and to investment in rail infrastructure. Devolution to cities is critical to replicating the French experience in Britain. 2020 will also see the transfer of the Welsh Valley Lines rail network to local control with expansion and electrification leading to far less distinction between light and main line rail.

We are a long way off in providing London with a light rail ring around the city like Paris but the true test will be whether we see new starts in other British cities, such as Leeds, Bristol and Cambridge.

Railfuture will continue to work alongside our trade partner, UK Tram, to assist sponsors in making strong cases for light rail development in Britain.

Ian Brown CBE FCILT is Policy Director at Railfuture

Railfuture is an independent organisation campaigning for a bigger, better railway in Britain. To do this it makes sustainable arguments based on the contribution railway development can make to addressing economic, social and environmental concerns and opportunities.