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Transport should be about what it delivers – the case for more light rail in the UK

Despite the political and economic shockwaves caused by Brexit, the UK Government remains committed to infrastructure spending and indeed likely sees it as a mechanism to promote and maintain economic growth. Despite opposition, HS2 is progressing, an east-west HS3 route along the M62 corridor is being promoted and with the construction of Crossrail coming to an end, a new south-west to north-east Crossrail 2 connecting Surrey and Middlesex to is also being promoted.

Meanwhile, the flagship programme of City Deals continues to develop momentum. As of May 2016 , there have been 26 city deals in England, 3 in Scotland and the Cardiff Capital Region deal in Wales. The 2016 budget also proposed to begin negotiations with Swansea and Edinburgh.

There is a link between some of the large infrastructure projects and city deals, with HS2 and schemes such as the electrification of the Great Western Mainline designed to increase connectivity between core cities and City Deals geared towards giving cities more control on how best to deliver local solutions to promote local economic growth. A common theme in the city deals so far has been job creation, either in specific industries specific to the city, such as oil and gas in Aberdeen or more generic ones such as advanced manufacturing.

However, with an increasing focus on job creation in cities and city regions in the UK, there needs to be a corresponding improvement in urban transport provision. Considering that around 80 per cent of the UK’s population lives in urban areas and our four largest cities – London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow – account for 23.6 per cent of the total population , there is an obvious link between the two. In fact, in England, 74 per cent of the population and 78 per cent of the jobs are within cities , so having a reliable and integrated transport network that can support movement in and around these cities is vital. Whilst many deals mention improvements in infrastructure generally, the Cardiff Capital Region deal is focussed almost exclusively on the development of the South Wales Metro system.

Light and heavy rail schemes allow large numbers of people to get into city centres, which is the key reason that Crossrail has been constructed and why most major urban cities have a well-developed metro system. Los Angeles is a good (or rather bad) basing transport around highways and cars does not work well in large cities. Today, there is an increasing realisation that leisure and business travel can be more usefully spent on public transport. Wi-Fi coverage can now enable users to access work or entertainment, while travel apps support multi-modal transport opportunities. So the focus now needs to be on integration of transport modes, including shared ride platforms and future driverless vehicles.

Trams and light rail present an excellent opportunity to form part of an integrated transport system for urban areas. Not only are they are fast, quiet and produce no tailpipe emissions, but they have been shown to promote a modal shift from car to public transport in a way that buses do not. Moreover, the benefits of large inter-city schemes such as HS2 or the electrification of the Great Western Mainline will only be fully realised if there is an efficient public transport system at the destination city.

Too often however, focus is lost on what transport options, including light rail are meant to deliver. The proposed metro system around Cardiff, which is expected to have a large light rail element, is not being developed as a simply as transport option, but rather a facilitator of economic development. Having a permanent infrastructure gives confidence for people to choose to live or work near a metro station, whereas a bus route can change overnight. This in turn has been shown to raise land values around metro stations which can help the economic case for development.

Integrating land use and transport planning enables opportunities around creating housing, leisure and education facilities or commercial property around transport nodes. By investing in better transport solutions and an integrated network, there’s no doubt that commercial and residential development will follow. As light rail has been demonstrated to have benefits around development opportunities and encouraging modal shift, along with high customer demand as demonstrated by the record numbers of passenger journeys and vehicle miles since record began on the eight operational systems in England (a rise of 5.8% in comparison to the previous year) why then are there so few light rail systems in the UK?

A major reason, has been that previous schemes in the UK have been perceived as expensive and time consuming, causing major disruption during construction. The requirement to divert utilities (£5 million for the one mile extension in Birmingham) is a major reason behind this, whilst another has been around the choice of bespoke systems in the few cities in the UK operating light rail schemes and a lack of common standards leading to a tendency to adopt heavy rail standards in their place. However, steps are being made to address some of these issues, with UK Tram funding research and development of several new trackform options to reduce the requirement for utility diversions and reduction in disruption to, and replacement of the urban realm.

Other research is underway regarding power systems including battery power and inductive charging, which could remove the requirement to install overhead wires, reducing costs further and at the same time improving the aesthetics of the system.

The results of this research should help reinforce the potential for light rail to be an attractive option for address mobility needs in the UK’s increasingly urbanised society. As more schemes are developed and extended, the potential to share learning and even pool procurement could be explored as a means of reducing costs further. If these cost reductions are considered in line with the wider role of job creation, connectivity and social cohesion as part of an integrated land use and transport planning, this could really help make the case for more light rail in the UK.