Smart Transport

The future of public mass transit services: Trams

Tram travel is hugely popular in the seven areas that already have a service, achieving a 93% satisfaction rating. Yet only one more tramway is planned in the UK. Paul Clifton explains what is holding trams back.

Trams are highly successful and hugely popular. But there aren’t many of them in the UK.

New ones are more likely to be extensions of existing lines than entire new systems.

While passenger numbers are at a record high, trams still represent only 3% of public transport journeys even though they are widely acknowledged to have enormous economic and social benefits.

Transport Focus recorded a 93% satisfaction rating for trams across Britain, rising to 99% in Edinburgh. 

These are figures rail and bus operators could barely dream about. 

There are seven tram systems in the UK: Edinburgh, Croydon, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham and Blackpool. 

Soon another will follow: new tram-trains in Cardiff will include a short street section. 

Add two intensively used light rail systems: Docklands Light Railway and Tyne and Wear Metro, which have no street running. 

Why no more? A century ago nearly every city and major town had a tram. In the era of their renaissance, France has opened 30 tram networks in three decades. 

Trams take up road space. It’s a tough sell for local authorities: a new tram means less room for all other road users.

They’re more expensive than buses, and central Government isn’t keen on making up the difference. 

Public support for a tram is no guarantee of getting one; Leeds has been asking for trams for decades, and has spent tens of millions of pounds on studies, so far without success.

Think back 20 years to the South Hampshire Rapid Transit, said to have the strongest case of any in the country: a scheme to link Portsmouth and Gosport with a tunnel underneath Portsmouth Harbour.

Demand was proven, with a busy ferry. Gosport remains the largest town in the country without a railway. Yet it was cancelled.

Instead there is now a bus, running partly along the disused railway corridor once destined for the tram.

It is successful, but a tram promised so much more. 

Elaine Greenwood, UK representative for tram builder Stadler, says: “Because we don’t have many systems, each one is different.

"There is no template, no common vehicle and no standard infrastructure.

"We like to complicate it a lot for some reason. We make it difficult for manufacturers.”

The last new tram system in the UK opened in Edinburgh in 2014, after delays and cost increases.

Though it has since proved popular and successful, no other entirely new systems are planned. 

A notable expansion in the UK has been the tram-train: a vehicle which can run both on-street and along conventional railway tracks. 

First, Sheffield. Next, Cardiff. And it is a preferred option for the reopening of the railway line between March and Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, with a business case due to be completed this summer.

Will there be new schemes? “Yes,” says Martin Fleetwood, who leads the trade association UK Tram.

“If you are looking at reducing not just CO2 emissions but also particulates, then trams have benefits.

With buses, the rubber tyres are being worn down by road surfaces. If you’re running steel wheels on steel rails then fewer particulates are being produced. 

“The downside of electric buses is that they are generally heavier so they create more wear at the road surface. 

“A bus will last 10 years but a tram will run for 30. Trams cost a lot up front, but the difference is less over time.”

Read Paul Clifton's full article on trams from Smart Transport Journal


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