Ian Brown BSc FSCILT, managing director, London Rail, Transport for London, describes his experiences with trams
Economic growth, planning policies and social changes have led to increasing demand for travel. Combined with historic under-investment in our urban public transport networks, this has led to increasing congestion in our cities. Congestion is no longer confined to traditional rush-hours on urban radial routes, but also appears in other areas and at other times.
In parallel, cities are seeking to compete in an increasingly globalised economy by making themselves more attractive and accessible. Britain’s major cities are increasingly looking to regenerate their city centres and to open up further industrial areas to new commercial development.
Future travel patterns
Only public transport is capable of both encouraging and facilitating the sustainable travel patterns that will be needed in the future. The solution therefore lies in strategies that incorporate an effective, city-wide transport network, including high quality and capacity public transport as an alternative to the car and ugly, edge-of-town car park lots as so evident in many US cities.
Such a network, if properly planned should include a range of public transport modes, varying in size from buses to heavy rail and indeed recognising the motor car through strategically provided ‘park and ride’, so potentially extending the reach of city based public transport.
London has a historic metro system, the London Underground, but even that, if seen alone, does not comprehensively cover the Greater London area. TfL’s integrated plan to grow the city’s transport system has recently been radically extended to include developing mainline rail services but also light rail, the Docklands Light Railway and London Tramlink – a more conventional tram system centred on the significant urban centre of Croydon.
Trams in the UK
First question – Why are there so few modern tram systems in the UK? Highways and National Rail are, in the UK, essentially planned and controlled through government bodies such as the Highways Agency and the Department for Transport. The frustration is the lack of devolution to local bodies i.e. cities and the passenger transport authorities in city regions to allow them to plan and develop integrated transport systems based on trams. Even more concerning is the lack of devolution of funding to allow what should be city-based decisions. This situation has restricted the development of new tram systems and only those with persistence over a sustained period have succeeded, so providing starter tram systems in Manchester, the Midland Metro, Nottingham and Sheffield. Even in these cities with acknowledged successful systems, expansion has been extremely slow in coming – but it is coming in Manchester and Nottingham.
Second question – We have a London-based tram system so it is pertinent to ask what did trams do for Croydon? We have asked people in Croydon about this and the responses included views that Croydon was a town in decline. Of those questions, most saw the area experiencing regeneration and expansion. Indeed, many people saw Tramlink as a unique and valuable marketing tool, creating a modern and European feel for the town. The enormous support for the development of Manchester’s Metrolink system indicates that these views are not unique to Croydon. A visit to Dublin shows what trams can contribute if they are seen as part of a wider regeneration and social agenda and properly designed as part of the city’s infrastructure.
Changes in Croydon – Croydon Tramlink was a PFI project, opened in May 2000. Both the infrastructure and the operations were provided by the private sector and the system has been very successful, if seen as a marginal add-on to TfL’s mainstream transport activity. All that changed in June 2008.
TfL took over the infrastructure in June 2008 and as client for the operation, effectively provided by First Group, immediately set about properly integrating the system against the objectives of an integrated transport system, also addressing social and regenerative agendas. This took the form of cleaning up the whole system; the stops and the trams but also increasing frequencies, designed to make more use of the assets given a very high level of demand; now at 27 million riders a year.
What next? The next stage is to treat the trams as an increasingly relevant option for providing better transportation. This will inevitably involve expansion of the system; both in terms of its core capacity including more trams but also new routes. The Croydon model, within London, would work just as well in other significant and important, economic, high density centres such as Kingston in southwest London.
Why change the name to London Tramlink? TfL did this because we do not see trams as unique to Croydon. Given the enormous comparative size of London with other UK cities, an integrated approach around the Tube and National Rail is essential but the scope for trams in feeding into these systems, so regenerating major urban centres in themselves, is huge. In many other UK cities, the role of trams is potentially just as significant and in many, more dominant, given the costs of upgrading or providing new National Rail and metro systems.
There is still the issue of devolution of funding from central government to allow cities to make the right choices.