The Last Word


Lowering the cost of UK light rail and tram projects

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Dec/Jan 2013

Leeds North West MP, Greg Mulholland, recently urged the DfT to make light rail standards more appropriate in a Commons transport questions session. Light rail projects are being held back by over-engineering and unnecessarily high safety standards associated with heavy rail, he suggested. Here, Andrew Braddock, chairman of the Light Rail Transit Association, expands on that argument.

Greg Mulholland’s plea for appropriate standards for light rail projects has picked up a longstanding concern of the LRTA, which has been at the forefront of campaigning for more than 75 years – initially to oppose the closure of the UK’s remaining city tramway systems and latterly to bring about the reintroduction of this eminently sensible mode of transport.

With the renaissance of the modern tram – initially in Tyne & Wear and then Manchester – we were inevitably combining light- and heavy-rail thinking and, given the dearth of experience with tramways (compared, say, to Germany) it is not surprising to find that the UK’s consultancy expertise tended towards the heavy end of the spectrum when it came to advising fledgling promoters of new schemes.

In addition, the consequences of risk transfer from public to private sector inherent in Private Finance Initiative delivery of light rail projects insisted on by the Treasury led to a cautious approach in areas like utility diversion, track formation and overhead line equipment. Advisors took the view that potential overspecification in these areas was preferable, to limit their clients’ risk of future claims by affected parties.

These tendencies undoubtedly added to costs, as did the failure to develop a common specification for new vehicles along the lines of the Tramway Standard Français across the Channel. The thinking in the Parisian equivalent of our Department for Transport was heavily influenced by neighbouring Germany’s standardised approach through the Verband Deutscher Verkehrsunternehmen standards and federal BOStrab regulations, which were perhaps regarded here as too restrictive in an era of ‘small is beautiful’ and political preference for private sector flair over dull public sector standardisation.

So today we have a situation in which just about the only common aspect of the tram and light rail installations in Birmingham, Croydon, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield (plus the refreshed Blackpool and Edinburgh in due course) is the 1.435 metre track gauge!

But the good news is that a recent study by UKTram has shown that overall costs in the UK are not that different to those of other European and North American new-start systems – though the make-up of the totals varies widely (for example in areas such as utility diversion). The job that UKTram is now doing, through a series of specific Action Plans and the development of a Centre of Procurement Excellence, will create a more level playing field for the future and rely, in cooperation with the Railway Inspectorate at the Office of Rail Regulation, more heavily on the adaptation of BOStrab and VDV norms within the guidance and standards applicable to, and ultimately ‘owned’ by, the UK tram and light rail industry.

If we are to benefit from the significant economic, employment and environmental advantages delivered to 21 French cities over the past 27 years it is vital that costs are lowered and past mistakes avoided. That two of our current six second-generation systems are disposing of trams only half way through what should be their economic lives is quite telling and certainly not something that encourages the Treasury to think beyond its ‘buses are cheaper’ mindset.

In Norman Baker we have a ministerial champion like no other, and his support for change through the ‘Green light for light rail’ report represents a clarion call to all parties with an interest in furthering the cause of tram or light rail systems in more British cities to positively get their act together.

There is unlikely to be a second chance.

‘Over-engineered and over-expensive’

Greg Mulholland MP said: “High safety standards are an important part of any project. However, the European standards that are currently in place for all rail projects must be revised for light rail projects.

“While I recognise that these standards have been successful in ensuring a high level of safety on the UK railway system, the standards are inappropriate for on-street tram. Having unnecessarily high safety standards has led to UK tram networks being unnecessarily over-engineered and over-expensive.

“I hope the Government will follow up on the findings of their ‘Green Light for Light Rail’ report and look again at the current European safety standards and look towards tailoring specific standards for light rail projects to ensure those who put forward applications are not forced to spend vast sums of money meeting the requirements of these unnecessary safety standards.”

Tell us what you think – have your say below, or email us directly at


Henry Law   02/02/2013 at 16:52

Underground services in central Brighton were completely renewed in the late 1990s. Had there been a plan for a possible light rail system in the future, this work could have been done at next to no extra cost, so as to avoid the necessity of renewing the services in the future. Unfortunately, the opportunity was lost. However, with modern remote control repair techniques, to what extent is it still the issue it once was? When it is possible to use robots to work on complex tasks at the bottom of the North Sea, surely the lack of direct access could be overcome in the same way?

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