Mathew Taylor, Director at Pre Metro and UKTram, highlights the benefits of Very Light Rail and its essential role in connecting our communities

The Government’s most recent ‘levelling up’ agenda and ‘Integrated Rail Plan’ promise greater transport investment and infrastructure upgrades, but the emphasis on large-scale, ‘top-down’ schemes like High-Speed Rail and major road enhancements risk generating economic inefficiency and increased emissions whilst ignoring the value of community railway projects. Unless these schemes are integrated into a wider regional and national strategy, there would not be much ‘levelling up’ at a local level. So, what alternative is available for towns and cities that still aren’t connected to the railway network?

With awakening national interest in Very Light Rail (VLR) and its ability to form part of our advance towards carbonzero, the utilisation of VLR on heavy rail infrastructure has helped to enable
Stourbridge to increase its annual passenger journeys year after year, acting as a short feeder route from the town into the wider UK rail network at Stourbridge Junction. The Stourbridge Shuttle has demonstrated that affordable and environmentally friendly very light rail vehicles can play a key role in re-establishing patronage and reinvigorating the railway with reliable, frequent services. The value of low-cost rail services cannot be overstated, particularly when access to transport funding is becoming increasingly limited.

Local strategies need to be designed around local needs and opportunities, particularly with disused railways and mothballed track so readily available – as made evident with the oversubscribed
Restoring Your Railway scheme. Local transport projects, in particular, need to be embedded in ‘placemaking’ strategies where cohesive multimodal connectivity can establish access to education, tourism, greater job prospects, support urban development, and provide an improved environment.

Tram or Light Rapid Transit (LRT) systems have been the leading edge of wider urban regeneration and play a key role in continental European strategies. VLR is a way of pioneering such services more quickly and at a lower cost than traditional LRT and by demonstrating commitment, influencing locational choices, and building ridership, VLR has the potential to create the conditions for future high-quality and higher capacity heavy rail systems. Many strategic railway corridors have been identified for future use, but why leave them mothballed for another decade when we need to double railway patronage to reach even achieve the Rail Delivery Group’s 2050 carbon-neutral target.

Through the utilisation of this form of transport, it is very much scalable and eminently suitable for other geographical locations in either tramway or rail operating modes. With developers and franchises looking to establish cost-effective and green solutions that can restore Britain’s rail connectivity, taking the initiative and establishing small scale passenger services on restored tracks and servicing the community with next-generation VLR vehicles, you provide a vital link to other rail services further afield. There are several key proposals where this is already being considered, such as Oswestry to Gobowen, Cirencester to Kemble and Wisbech to March.

At these locations, the establishment of VLR can be achieved in a very short timeframe and enables the eventual upscaling of passenger services through replacing and upgrading rolling stock when revenue and demand permits. Low-cost maintenance, high reliability, and 50 per cent of the standard heavy rail OPEX costs, VLR could create connectivity that enhances the lives of the local population and enables multimodal railway journeys through sustainable public transport. By taking this approach, you enable new passengers greater access to the region via the railway
and encourage regional economic growth and sustainability in the long term, with the affordable development of these projects enabling Local Authorities and policymakers to demonstrate results within the relatively short political tenures.

A VLR link between Stourbridge Junction and Brierley Hill is a similar proposal that promotes the more efficient use of one of the low-frequency twin-track freight lines between Stourbridge and the Round Oak Steel Works. Not only would the introduction of services here bring Brierley Hill back on the Railway map, but it would enable a multimodal connection with the proposed West Midlands Metro Wednesbury to Brierley Hill expansion and access to the Merry Hill shopping complex. There are also expectations that this line can be further developed at a later date for current heavy rail service extensions from Worcester and beyond.

This example demonstrates that establishing scalable solutions to cater to current patronage and environmental demands not only represents an affordable ‘quick-win’ solution, but it establishes a long-term foundation for sustainable and cohesive public transport that can accommodate future demands of regional development and accessibility. Rather than take a monolithic approach to public transport planning we need to identify, lobby, design and build projects at a local level, utilising readily available infrastructure, thus developing and enhancing interregional services.

From an ecological perspective, VLR will only enable greater carbon reductions; taking traffic off busy roads will ease congestion and support patronage growth on the wider network. With the expansion of VLR onto restored railways and branch lines, it will become an increasingly attractive prospect to local councils and policymakers, who are actively seeking solutions for cheaper, cleaner, and greener public transport projects.

The Stourbridge Shuttle has already proved Very Light Rail is highly reliable and eco-friendly in the right circumstances, achieving an average 99.6 per cent reliability rating (PPM) every year across its high frequency schedule. The Revolution VLR and Coventry VLR vehicles currently under development are an indication that further railway and light rail innovations are just around the corner, so it will be interesting to see how the industry and policymakers alike utilise these developments to pioneer community focused Very Light Rail, enabling disconnected towns and cities to finally flourish.