In March £1.95 million funding was secured for a study into a mass transit system for the West of England, potentially linking the city with Bath and other towns. Dave Andrews, Chair of Bath Trams, makes the case for a Bath tram network

British cities are in a transport and air quality crisis. Growing populations, increased car ownership and use has led to gridlock and dangerous levels of toxic air pollution (much of it arising from hitherto unacknowledged deadly rubber tyre and road dust). This air quality results directly in the premature deaths of about 60,000 people in Britain per year. Bath is no exception to this but worsened by being in the deep River Avon gorge, where pollution concentrates. There are few alternative routes to avoid these problems.

The Bath Tram group is a local engineer-led residents’ initiative determined to find a solution that will attract trips from cars, so reduce traffic and pollution, and make better use of existing roads. After considerable research the group has identified trams as proven to attract at least 25 per cent of patronage from cars, and with a frequent reliable service (every six minutes) increase the passenger capacity of roads to the equivalent of a six-lane motorway. Research shows that a rubber tyred bus cannot achieve the same for fundamental engineering reasons. (I expand on this at the end of the article.)

Potential Bath Tram Network

With a carefully calibrated and professional approach, based on fact based correspondence with local Bath and North East Somerset council (B&NES), the local media Bath Chronicle, and public briefings, Bath Trams has developed a good working relationship with local politicians, B&NES and is also in correspondence with the new devolved Mayor for the West of England Combined Authority (WECA). The tram plan now has cross-party support.

As a result, B&NES commissioned an initial high level review from the consultant Atkins which indicated that there were indeed potentially feasible routes in Bath. WECA will fund a £1.5 million study looking at a high-quality mass transit solution that provides a step change in public transport connectivity in the West of England, unlocking significant housing and employment.

Strategic corridor links into Bath are a major component in the study which will consider a range of transport modes with trams having been added to the range due to BTs efforts. Officers from WECA will work with B&NES to produce a new Transport Study for Bath to address transport challenges and ensure alignment with the wider Mass Transit network an additional £450 million has been allocated to this.

The study will also need to establish the root cause of the many issues which culminate in transport-related problems, whether this may relate to areas such as planning, health, education, regeneration and tourism, as well as transport. Again this will now include trams as one option and  B&NES will be advised by UK Tram the official light rail body, accepted by the Government as an authority in light rail matters; Bath Trams, having developed a close working relationship with B&NES, will be involved as they offer local expert knowledge to this project.

Given the dearth of public funds, and the very long time needed to unlock them, the Group are also looking in parallel for a more immediate resolution by identifying an initial tram network that could be self-funding and could therefore potentially be financed by private investment. The crux of a new tramway is a tram depot, which needs to be on one of the first lines. Bath also needs affordable housing for its many service sector workers who presently face an expensive and lengthy commute into Bath from outlying areas, ironically causing some of the traffic congestion and pollution. Trams are quiet and do not pollute, so the space over the depot could be used for social housing, making this a win-win solution. Bath is also a World Heritage City. People are concerned about the environment, which is why we are promoting trams, and have set up a Community Interest Company to implement the system.

The Group has previously commissioned a financial analysis of potential tram routes to identify a core ‘viable’ network. Once this network is in place additional lines can be added on a marginal cost basis. In the UK, once one tram line has been introduced there is inevitably a clamour for it to be extended – as has recently happened in Edinburgh despite its initial challenges. We are also aware of the criticisms made by the National Audit Office about the high cost and disruption of existing modern tramways when they were constructed.

This is why we are looking at a ‘no dig- glue in the road’ tram track that potentially requires less diversion of utilities like gas and water and will reduce the present loads on Bath’s historic subterranean tunnels and vaults. Use of low-cost, low impact track technology could potentially save much time and money. However, a detailed study, testing and demonstration has to be carried out to see if this potentially attractive technology can demonstrate benefits over more conventional well-tried track technology, and be installed on a widespread basis.

Potentially viable network – all routes are technically accessible by trams

The Group is raising initial funding via the Community Interest Company, to be used to develop their proposals. Some people have also questioned if trams can get up the steep hills in Bath and to that I say we should remember that until 1939 trams climbed these hills with no problems, and in Lisbon and Sheffield trams climb even steeper hills. With electric power and braking, trams can run up hill faster than downhill.

We are also aware that trams operate in sensitive cities such as Freiburg and Vienna and in Croydon trams have reduced road traffic by a fifth. Trams will be a game changer in Bath. A study some years ago compared York with the similarly-sized Freiburg; the latter went for trams and has achieved a wonderful low traffic environment with drivers switching from cars to trams, whereas in York using buses there has been very little effect on car traffic simply because it is impossible for rubber tyred buses to offer the service and environmental benefits which only a steel wheeled tram can. The study found that only 29 per cent of travellers in Freiburg were car users, compared to 52 per cent in York, and public transport use was 18 per cent in Freiburg compared to only eight per cent in York.

Why trams are essential

I mentioned at the start of this article that there are fundamental engineering differences between a steel wheeled light rail or tram and a bus (whether battery, trolley, diesel, or electric) and that trams are nearly always the essential ingredient in any low congestion city transport mix.

From the driver in the car’s point of view, only railed vehicles are an acceptable alternative to some car trips, typical shorter journeys in towns; buses are not. The evidence for this is clear, from the busways built in Britain since 1970, from Swansea which spent £10 million on road alterations and new super bendy buses but soon abandoned them, and from Utrecht, entirely car free in the centre, which is replacing its super triple bendy bus with a tramway.

Tramways are expensive to build but have lower operating costs than buses. So the marginal cost of carrying extra passengers is very low. The London Underground demonstrates this daily. This is why trams can operate throughout the day at six-minute intervals. There is little benefit in leaving them in the depot, and a frequent service throughout the day is what car drivers want, to encourage them to leave their polluting vehicles at home.

On the other hand, buses of all types (trolley, bendy bus, tram bus etc.) are more expensive to operate, because the high cost of the driver is shared over fewer passengers. With bus passengers ‘captive’ the result is an infrequent and slow service with long stops for passengers to alight and board, compared to multi-door trams where access is considerably easier and more efficient.

On the other hand, a tram is more like an underground train and it is perfectly acceptable to stand near the doors and move around, because there is no jerk or bus vibration. This ability to stand and move nearer the door before stopping, coupled with a tram having several sets of large doors means tram boarding times are shorter than a bus.

So, trams run at greater frequency and speed and are more punctual, all of which are attractive to motorists and the operators. Typically trams have an operating speed about 50 per cent faster than buses, and as fast as cars when time for parking is included. Trams are not constrained by the need to accommodate suspension and large wheel movements, and as a result can have exceptionally low ground clearance assisting elderly, pram and wheelchair users.

Because each tram can have up to 400 passengers, compared to a bus with around 70 (and not significantly more with bendy busses) , and with rapid boarding and alighting a tram line can have up four or five times the capacity of the equivalent bus route or segregated busway.

Another important point is the granting of priority to trams. Highway authorities are unwilling to grant priority to buses because they get too many complaints from the influential car lobby. On the other hand, it has been shown that a significant proportion of tram passengers are also car drivers. Green Wave traffic light priority can be applied to trams permitting quick movement through traffic whereas an unfeasible five times as many traffic light prioritisations would be required if buses replaced trams.

People in Bath are environmentally conscious. Being in a deep river gorge concentrates toxic traffic pollution in the centre of the city. Much of this pollution comes from heavy diesel vehicles like buses. NOx and small particles are killers, and over one hundred people a year in Bath die from diseases which are directly attributable to traffic air pollution. About half the small particles come from tyre, tarmac and brake dust. Rubber tyred vehicles with electric motors will still exceed the World Health Organisation safe air standards limits.

There is strong evidence around the world and in the UK to support this (all well referenced on the Bath Trams website), but perhaps the most convincing is what happened when trams were removed from Liverpool, Sheffield and London. In all cases there was an immediate drop of 30 per cent in mass transit passenger numbers because the bus service was not an acceptable replacement, and people found other means of getting about – typically by purchasing a car. The ‘flexible’ bus failed cities as ex-tram passengers swamped roads with traffic congestion. Trams give confidence and permanence for people to run their lives. It is wrong to suggest that the flexibility of bus services is a good thing, but it is obvious from reading regular comments and new articles in the Bath local press that bus routes change frequently to suit the operator – enraging users. No developer plans to build a business or a housing estate based on a bus service. Tram lines are fixed for the future, and this is attractive to developers and house owners alike. Houses near a tram stop increase in value above local trends (20 per cent in Croydon) because the tramline is inflexible and permanent.

This is why many of the suburbs of Bath such as Twerton and Oldfield Park were provided with a tram by the developers – specifically to make them attractive. It’s the same reason the Metropolitan Line in London was built by the developers who turned farmland into ‘Metroland’. In fact, nearly all large cities expanded along tram lines.

Members of the newly registered Community Interest Company formed by the Bath Tram group sincerely believe that the introduction of trams to Bath will result in a greater improvement in the quality of life in the City than would any other single measure.

Dave Andrews is Chair of Bath Trams, you can learn more about the project by visiting https://bathtrams.uk/ and following @engineman999 on Twitter