In making this response we at first note two substantive points:
1. That whilst the Call for Evidence Document is entitled Light Rail (and other rapid transit solutions) it focusses almost exclusively upon steel wheeled solutions; and,
2. The document discusses a defined solution to an abstract problem, rather than commencing from the understanding of the problem and objectives to be satisfied before seeking the appropriate solution.
In adopting this approach many erroneous assumptions are made, known facts ignored and the place of Light Rail in the spectrum of Mass Transit options is not properly considered
Mass Transit Role and Capacity
Mass transit seeks to move large numbers of people between common origin and destination and can form a central role in a fully integrated, multi modal, transport solution. Whilst the transport context is changing, with new technologies enabling both demand responsive solutions and low (zero) emission and potentially automated transport, mass transit is still needed to ensure our cities are not overly impacted by congestion. The call for evidence paper asserts LRT’s mass transit credentials by making the statement:
“In busy corridors, light rail has the potential to carry flows of up to 20,000 passengers per hour per direction (around four times more than conventional buses and twice that of the largest, tram like bus alternatives)”
This statement is incorrect with many Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems around the world carrying in excess of the 20,000 quoted for LRT. Notable cases include Guangzhou (27,000) Belo Horizonte 35,000) Curitiba’s Sul corridor (25,000) and Bogota’s Caracas corridor carrying 49,000 pphpd. As such, ‘carrying capacity’ cannot be claimed as a reason for mass transit mode choice. More so, it is system design that determines a mass transit systems capacity limitations and not the fact of steel or rubber tyred wheels. In fact, a main determinant of carrying capacity is the proportion of route which is exclusively for mass transit vehicles with conventional buses (and street running trams) subject to constraints on speed and space imposed by the interaction with other traffic.
Bus-rapid transit began in Curitiba, Brazil (above) 40 years ago.
Nearer to home, Steer Davis Gleave’s (now Steer) Urban Transport Network Review for the National Infrastructure Commission (2018) quoted the typical maximum capacity per lane (inbound passengers per hour) as being 720 for cars, 1,800 for bus, 2,100 for BRT and 2,880 for trams.
The mode of mass transit must be chosen on the basis of informed assessment to meet the needs of a known problem (in the short-medium term) and adaptive to future challenge as yet not precisely defined. That mode may, in some instances, be rail based and in others rubber tyred based or, as in Nantes, a combination of different systems.
The Need for Flexibility
The nature and function of our urban areas are changing through the eager adoption of disruptive technologies. The nature of mobility is similarly changing fuelled by new technologies and active promotion of those technologies upon an accepting population by vehicle manufacturers. The trend to individualistic decision making is intensified by the increase in demand responsive solutions (Uber etc.) and the ‘promise’ of affordable zero emission personalised transit. Sustainability is placed at the forefront of the formation of new communities and policies for our cities. We are, therefore, in a state of:
• Collective known aspiration (improved environment and high levels of mobility)
• Individualistic desire (in control of own decisions and travel choices)
• Commercial ambition (automotive industry search for an ability to continue car sales through new technologies)
• Reconciliation by public bodies
In our larger cities, known corridors for mass movement have an inevitability in their future existence. Outside of these areas the nature of future mobility is hard to predict and adaption to a changing environment and individual need is required, something that a solution based upon fixed rails is not able to respond to. Consequently, we assert that the focus should be not upon identifying the role of LRT but to understand context and objectives in order to select the appropriate form of mass transit and not to prejudice future need through adoption of restrictive technology.
Cost and Meeting Needs
With inflexibility comes high cost with LRT, or any rail-based mass transit, significantly more expensive to construct than a rubber tyred solution. The recently opened Glider bus based rapid transit line in Belfast has a reported cost of £4m per Km compared to the cost of Metrolink (phase II) in Manchester at £25m per Km and circa £30m per KM in Nottingham.
The Belfast Glider network launched in 2018
Cost justification relies upon multi criteria appraisal with the often-held belief that LRT is innately more attractive than a rubber tyred mode. This is evident in the selection of the modal constant used in modelling mode choice. The believed innate attractiveness has not, however, been linked directly to the form of wheels and track but more to the level of service and sense of permanence that LRT possesses. This, we feel, is a product of design where the LRT mode commands a higher level of priority over other traffic, as part of its fixed track limitations, and quality of its rolling stock. Where a rubber tyred mode has been designed to be equal in its permanence and quality it has been seen as equal in attractiveness to LRT. This is most notable in Nantes where Line 4 of the LRT network was built as a busway using high levels of
segregation from other traffic, priority at junctions, high quality, materials and vehicle. User satisfaction surveys have shown the busway to be equal to that of the LRT lines. Surveys undertaken by Steer Davies Gleave showed that the overall preference (for LRT) is virtually zero, and while Tramway is still preferred on the service level attributes and Busway on comfort, the magnitudes of the scores are mostly reduced. Whilst constructing a busway to this standard is more expensive than a bus priority scheme at £7.9m per Km it is significantly cheaper than a LRT alternative.
In the UK Glider has shown how a rubber tyred approach can meet, in entirety, objectives of emissions reduction, community integration and accessibility through uptake in excess of that forecast. Ciaran De Burca, Department’s Director for Transport Projects and Business Services, stated:
“Since its introduction in September, the Glider has far exceeded expectations for patronage. In the first six months of operation journey numbers are already hitting levels that the business case projected for 2031.”
Further, levels of accessibility for those with disabilities were seen as similar to that of LRT with Lindsay Rainey from the project team reporting;
“There has been a huge increase in people with disabilities using the service because it is accessible.”
As with Nantes, the success of Glider was put down to attention to detail in design, adopting the standards of segregation normally associated with LRT to achieve run time reliability and a sense of permanence.
As such, the cost of a rubber tyred mass transit system is significantly less than that of a steel wheeled solution and, is capable of producing the same levels of user satisfaction if designed according to user needs. The resultant economic case will therefore be likely to be preferable, as will flexibility and adaptability, to changing technologies and demand.
Attractive, Integrated Networks
One of the reasons that Belfast’s Glider has been so successful with users is that it provides a smooth ride along roads with good bus priority on high-quality vehicles with attractive, bright and clean interiors. Access and egress is easy for all travellers, including those with disabilities or with child-buggies, and the stops (‘halts’) are clear, well-signed and well-equipped. Both fare-purchase and on-board customer information are easy and straightforward for users to engage with. At the same time each Glider vehicle can carry very large numbers of passengers. All these are features that have been traditionally associated with new tram systems, but are provided at a significantly lower cost than the latter.
In such a system this lower cost can then result in large funds becoming available for investing in the city passenger transport network at its critical points of interface and interchange. So the whole city network can potentially benefit, not simply the high-frequency corridor which has received the new transport. These critical points are the principal stops (or ‘hubs’) where there is connectivity with interurban and out-of-town public transport, local bus services, park & ride, taxis, shared and flexible transport, on-demand car hire, bike hire etc. Investment can be made in signage, lighting, clear branding, ‘orientation-maps’ , spider maps and facilities such as EV charging points, all of which help to create an integrated, welcoming and attractive urban environment. Focussing attention overly on a rail-based transit answer for a city can effectively end up precluding these.
Conclusion: Outcome Based Assessment
Whilst LRT and other rail based mass transit modes have a place in serving the mobility needs of our city we assert that it should not be technology and transport form that is the focus but user needs encompassing that of the passenger and the city in respect of policy and strategy to protect the environment, encourage economic growth and achieve high levels of social well-being. When direct comparisons are attempted rubber tyred solutions have been shown to be more flexible within a changing environment, are lower cost, can achieve similar capacity and, if designed appropriately, meet the needs of the passenger in a way that is indistinguishable to that of LRT.
We firmly believe that transport mode and technology should not be the focus of paper such as that presented but the needs of the urban area. When need is understood and defined objectively, and meeting it is set as the key benchmark of success, then the most appropriate mode is seen as the one that meets need in both a cost effective and deliverable form.
• The issue of Mass Transit should not emanate from within a Rail Division but exist either within its own right or within a Department that is focussed upon objective multi criteria assessment within an integrated approach
• If Mass Transit is accepted as an aim of the Department, that aim is best served by a champion who is able to coordinate activity across UK cities and be a focal point for advice, promotion and articulation
• The issue of Mass Transit should actively consider the future, particularly with the emergence of new technologies and uncertainty as to what public transport (and wider mobility demands) could look like, asking whether it is wise to implement an expensive fixed mass transit system or one that is flexible and adaptive to new emerging technologies and trends.