Tram-train: where did we go wrong?

Source: RTM Aug/Sep 17

Andrew Braddock, chairman of the Light Rail Transit Association (LRTA), argues against the ‘not invented here’ syndrome that has kept the UK from implementing a tram-train scheme quickly and successfully.

The majority of tramways began as wholly urban transport systems, with the tracks laid directly in streets. However, from the earliest days some tramways were built with their own private right of way either adjacent to or totally separate from roads. Over time, as towns expanded, urban tram lines were extended further out, often on separate rights of way incorporated from the beginning into new road layouts but complementary to them. 

Whilst there was some development of this concept in the UK in the latter days of the first generation of tramways, it was in large areas of Continental Europe that this was fully advanced, often in conjunction with post-war reconstruction. Within city centres some high-usage lines were put in tunnels. However, in all cases the tram system remained physically separate from the heavy rail network. 

Connecting light and heavy rail 

With the increasing concerns over better access to city centres than that traditionally provided by heavy rail, some preliminary work on the feasibility of directly connecting heavy rail and light rail or tramway infrastructure was undertaken – largely in Germany – in the early 1970s. 

This culminated in the first implementation of a tram-train operation from October 1979 in Karlsruhe in southern Germany, with the opening of the first line of the new Stadtbahn. To the south of the city it used a completely modernised existing light rail route, the Albtalbahn. To the north, it was a combination of a new tram line which then directly connected with a German Railways (DB) line which was still used for goods traffic. This had to be adapted to some extent to make its new tram-train use compatible with the conventional rail traffic. 

In particular, the tram-train operation had to fully comply with the strict federal legislation for both types of operation. These were for the tramway the Straßenbahn-Bau- und Betriebsordnung (BOStrab) and the more onerous railway legislation Eisenbahn-Bau- und Betriebsordnung (EBO). 

The line was an instant success and has been progressively extended over time. More importantly, it has acted as a catalyst for the expansion of the system over other DB lines and secondary railways. The total layout now extends to over 500 route kilometres. Passenger growth has been spectacular on many of the lines. 

Since that small beginning in 1979, the number of tram-train installations (as defined by an element of track sharing between tram system and heavy rail) throughout Germany and the rest of the continent has expanded such that there are now about 30 tram-train systems. These involve technical solutions ranging from dual electrical voltage to diesel-powered and interfaces between a variety of signalling, control and communications systems. 

In the process, all of the technical and operational interface principles have been addressed and solved to accepted levels of reliability and safety, taking account, where appropriate, of local conditions at the detailed level. All of this detail has been made available to others who may be considering their own local schemes.

Was Sheffield the right choice? 

Given this wealth of information and experience, there was, in the LRTA’s opinion, no real need for a pilot scheme in the UK. It should have been perfectly possible to have moved directly to an initial installation on a route chosen to best demonstrate the ability to penetrate into and potentially through town/city centres to make the journey that much more attractive (thus generating substantial increases in patronage and revenue). It should also have enabled the removal of local services from parts of the heavy rail network to avoid costly infrastructure expansion to accommodate increasing longer-distance service levels. 

Based against these criteria, it seems unlikely that the Sheffield-Rotherham route would have been the first choice. 

The National Audit Office report from July identified a significant number of failings in the Sheffield-Rotherham project, most of which could have been avoided if the DfT had taken a more robust approach and required a thorough review of the experience in Karlsruhe by all the parties concerned, with the help of its colleagues in the German Federal Ministry of Transport. It seems, once again, that the ‘not invented here’ syndrome has come to the fore when the tram-train concept is absolutely made for intra-EU co-operation and the adoption of proven practice in other Member States – while that option still exists!


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Jimbo   14/09/2017 at 10:02

The idea of a pilot scheme wasn't necessarily a bad idea, but a pilot was used for the wrong reason. This is a concept that is well proven elsewhere so doesn't need to be proven here, but it is something the the UK Railway industry (and in particular Network Rail) haven't done before, so it needs to be piloted so that the UK Railway industry can understand what it needs to do. The experience shows that the UK Railway industry has some serious failings around innovation, project management, cost control and overcoming the "not invented here" syndrome. This particular project was a minor example of the problems - all you have to do is look at HS2 to see these issues. We are going to build a fairly ordinary high-speed line, but it is going to take twice as long and cost twice as much as equivalent lines elsewhere, but we think that we will be able to export our high-speed railway knowledge to the rest of the world. Hubris all round.

J Gomersall   14/09/2017 at 10:52

As someone who lives in Sheffield I would have thought the technically challenging bit would be the trams themselves. They have to fit onto the big railway and fit supertram infrastructure. The trams are sitting idle while we put up some wires/install power supplies modify signalling. That should be the easy bit. Where is the knowledge base at Network Rail considering this has been done in Germany since the late 70's. If this is indicative of how Network Rail/DFT works then we need a lot of new people who know about railways to join and a lot of people who don't know about railways to leave.

Andrew Gwilt   14/09/2017 at 22:46

Well that's why Class 399's may not enter service on the Rotherham extension until next year when the electrification to Rotherham is completed. That's why it's taken so long.

Just Another Railway Engineer   15/09/2017 at 20:31

Lets take the OCS as an example. Why not buy proven off the shelve OCS systems? Why does everything in the UK need to be bespoke? This is complete madness! Innovation is not a word that exists in the UK rail industry.

AJG89   15/09/2017 at 22:25

@RTM. Why add the same picture of the Class 700 train which is on the Thameslink completes significant signal testing article. Why not add a picture of a Class 399 tram-train instead next time RTM.

Peter Jarvis   17/09/2017 at 22:07

There is a small railway in Wales that operates part of its track as a tramway. The legislation is the same as for the main line.

Tim Kendell   05/10/2017 at 21:10

The concept has been proven in Germany, using German Safety Systems including their full ATP system to protect the Tram Trains from SPADing heavy rail trains. UK systems are not equivalent so the safety aspects needed re-assessment. At Karlsruhe the went through significant safety risk assessments before DB gave them approval to run. How do we know that, yes we talked extensively with the Karlsruhe team. Before re-classification, this was a RAB funded job and so the DfT has limited authority to tell NR how to do things and I was told to take a less forward approach. The fact that it has taken so long shows that the Pilot was necessary, just think of the disruption and even greater overspend if it had been say in Manchester. Tram Trains require many non-standard equipment on the main line in terms of track, additional signalling and new electrification to a different standard. Just saying, do what they did in Germany shows a total lack of understanding of the differences between the railways systems and it is the details that matter, not the principals.

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