LRTA logo Light Rail Transit Association
Light Rail for better public transport

Does the DfT really have a clue?

The Department for Transport has taken another hammering for its muddled thinking and lacklustre support for light rail. Leading consultant and transport expert Tony Young is scathing of Government in his review of an important House of Commons investigation.

‘If Metrolink trams ever get to Oldham and Rochdale, it will have taken a staggering 28 years since the initial plans were drawn up, and 18 since Parliamentary powers were obtained’

Blaming the UK Government for all the country’s light rail ills has long been a popular pastime for keen advocates of modern trams. While we must not forget the amazing achievements in Britain over the past 25 years, those who think we should have achieved much more now have authoritative support for their arguments.

No less a body than the House of Commons Transport Committee has produced a report, its third on light rail, agreeing in damning fashion that the Department for Transport (DfT) has failed to give a strategic lead in the development of light rail.

This is the second Select Committee report to severely criticise the DfT - the Committee of Public Accounts also produced one following evidence submitted by DfT in November 2004.

It does not mince its words – it concluded that the planning and approvals process takes too long, the DfT should develop an integrated transport strategy with light rail and has shown only limited interest in financial viability.

When the National Audit Office Report (NAO) on light rail was published last year (T&UT, June 2004), the press thought it was critical of light rail and reports were largely negative (except of course in T&UT!). In fact, the NAO was very supportive of light rail but highly critical of the Department for Transport. This prompted the House of Commons Transport Committee to make its own investigation, and it has also concluded that major changes are needed in the Department if the potential benefits of light rail are to be realised.

The committee asked for evidence on six topics:

As well as receiving nearly 100 written submissions from a wide range of interested parties, the committee held three open sessions to hear oral evidence. The first of these saw NAO representatives clarify and expand on points in their report.

The second heard from AEA Technology (Rail), Transport for London, Tramtrack Croydon Ltd, Merseytravel and Nottingham City Council, followed by Government Transport Minister Tony McNulty. The final session had a powerful Manchester influence with representation from the city council, PTA and PTE and Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA). They were followed by John Parry and Holdfast Carpet Track Limited.

It was quite clear from the start that the committee members were generally supportive of light rail and impressed by its successes around the country. It was equally clear that they were not the greatest fans of the DfT. After all, many of the recommendations for light rail from their previous report in 2000 have still not been taken up.

Answer the question!

Committee chairman and Labour MP Gwyneth Dunwoody has a relaxed but authoritative rapport with witnesses. She encourages free and frank discussion and will not allow anyone to avoid answering the question in hand.

Graham Stringer, MP for Manchester Blackley and a keen supporter of Metrolink, tried in vain to get Minister McNulty to state exactly what hurdles promoters had to get over to gain approval for light rail. On the specific issue of the Greater Manchester PTE’s application for funds to upgrade the existing Metrolink system, Mr McNulty said he was ‘cracking the whip’ on that one and fully accepted that it needed to be done soon.

When quizzed by Graham Stringer if he thought ‘cracking the whip’ was happening, Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council, gave an emphatic ‘No’. Chris Mulligan, Director General of GMPTE, expected another long drawn out debate with department officials who were treating the application as a new project even though they had had all the information before.

When he predicted a long ‘minuet’ with the DfT, Chairman Dunwoody said it sounded more like a ‘funereal march’! By late-April 2005, there was still no word from the Minister, although DfT officials have visited Manchester to see Metrolink for themselves.

Louise Ellman, the MP for Liverpool Riverside who is keen to see trams return to her city, asked the Manchester team if they thought the Government had gone cool on light rail systems.

Roger Jones, Chairman of the Greater Manchester PTA, was absolutely convinced that it had, despite the Minister’s denials. Several witnesses, including Pat Armstrong from Nottingham, highlighted long delays waiting for responses from the Government, and delays caused by methods of procurement.

Declined to respond

Graham Stringer is clearly convinced that DBOM (Design, Build, Operate Maintain) contracts are the cause of much delay and cost escalation because of the transfer of risk to the private sector. He asked the NAO witnesses if they thought this was at Government insistence but they declined to respond, saying they did not find any evidence of it.

In fact Mr Stringer is absolutely right. GMPTE only agreed to DBOM for phase 1 because it was the only option acceptable to the then government. Successive governments have followed the same course, until rapidly escalating costs have forced a re-think.

The Government’s Ten-Year Plan, published in July 2000, called for up to 25 new light rail lines in major cities and conurbations. They included six new lines in Manchester, the Docklands Light Railway extension to London City Airport, Tyne and Wear Metro extension to Sunderland and Nottingham Express Transit, with the possible addition of lines in Leeds, West Midlands, Bristol and South Hampshire.

The Sunderland extension and Nottingham are open, and the DLR extension will be completed later this year. Nothing else is likely to be open by 2010, with the possible exception of Liverpool line 1 if it gets a clear run. That will make four lines at the most, out of 25! Not a very creditable performance.

It could at least have got into double figures if Transport Secretary Alistair Darling had not pulled the plug last July on three of Manchester’s lines, three in Leeds and South Hampshire Rapid Transit line 1 between Fareham and Portsmouth. Now none of those projects have any real chance of being operational by the end of the decade. All have been subjected to endless delays and uncertainty by the DfT.

Gloomy Outlook

The outlook is even more dismal. Not only are lines not being built but plans are being cut back in response to DfT’s demands for more ‘affordable’ projects. Thus, Manchester will have to build extensions one at a time instead of in one package.

Hampshire have cut back SHRT line 1 to terminate at Fareham railway station instead of in the town centre, destroying the potential benefits of light rail in giving good town centre accessibility, integration with the bus station and support for major regeneration.

Tyne & Wear’s imaginative and ambitious Project Orpheus to extend its Metro with street running tramways to other parts of the conurbation has been virtually abandoned and reduced to trying to find ways of just keeping the Metro going.

Leeds has reduced its three-line scheme to two, with no guarantee of even getting that much.

Blackpool’s planned extensions to their tramway to support regeneration of the Fylde coast have effectively been reduced to a modest upgrade of the existing tramway, just to make sure it survives rather than extend its benefits.

Even London’s desperately needed light rail schemes – West London Tram and Cross River Tram – are unlikely to be running before 2013, if then.

Britain has a long history of doing things by halves. Short-term pressures are allowed to dictate cutbacks which in the longer term prove costly and disruptive. A classic example is Metrolink’s plea for over £100 million to upgrade the existing system, before any extensions begin. Most of the work needed – replacing track on the Bury line, buying more trams, upgrading stations – was included in the original phase 1 specification but was cut out to meet Government demands for economies. And there will be no money for more park-and-ride, also cut out of phase 1 to save money.

We still do not learn. Buying eight more trams (resulting in four different types in a fleet of 40 vehicles) is just not enough; 28 would be more sensible. Metrolink could have carried many more passengers if they had not been priced off or discouraged by overcrowding. Croydon needs more trams, and so does Nottingham after barely a year in operation.

The Select Transport Committee has summed up its views:

“It is in no doubt that light rail has the potential to be an important part of the transport mix, although it will not meet all transport needs. It needs to be part of an integrated transport system… if it is to be fully effective.”

The committee concludes that local authorities must be given more powers over local bus services. But, despite integration supposedly being a central plank of transport policy, the Government stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that integration and deregulation are mutually incompatible.

The Committee also recommended that the DfT obtains more light rail expertise and share it with promoters, gives clearer guidance on how to plan light rail schemes, and understands that the time it takes to consider schemes has added to project costs.

In the case of Metrolink phase 3, it is probable that well in excess of £20 million has been spent by promoter and bidding contractors over the past five years of the tendering process, and the DfT’s decision means much of that expenditure is abortive. This is grossly unfair on both client and contractor and a waste of public and private sector monies, and tendering contractors will have to recoup that money from future contracts.

A dramatic new tram station and bridge will soon be completed at North Manchester Business Park, but it will not have any trams, a monument to Government bungling and procrastination.

A little good news ...

There are a few crumbs of comfort. The DfT has set targets to ensure that Transport & Works Act decisions are made much more quickly than in the past, and processing the Merseytram order in just 14 months shows that it can be done.

The DfT has set up a new team to deal with light rail, and closer contacts with promoters are evolving. The DfT is also an observer on UKTram, a new organisation formed to allow the tramway industry to develop a co-ordinated front to deal with Government and statutory bodies.

At last, it seems to be accepted that DBOM contracts are not the most sensible form of procurement, and more risk must be retained in the public sector. Separating construction from operations, as successfully exploited by Docklands Light Railway, is likely to be one favoured route for future schemes.

In the past, Select Committees have produced excellent reports which have then been ignored or forgotten. It is hoped that this report and its conclusions, which strongly support light rail expansion, will be fully accepted by the DfT and Government and actioned accordingly. Time will tell.

At this rate, it will be another generation or two before the Ten-Year Plan targets are met. Perhaps it should have been the Hundred-Year Plan.

Reports worth reading

Integrated Transport: The Future of Light Rail and Modern Trams in the United Kingdom. Tenth Report of Session 2004-05. Volume 1. HC378-1. TSO. April 2005.

Note: In preparing this article reference has been made to the uncorrected transcript of evidence which is not yet an approved formal record of the proceedings.

Improving Public Transport in England through Light Rail. Eleventh Report of Session 2004-05. House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts. HC 440. TSO. April 2005.

Improving Public Transport in England through Light Rail. National Audit Office. Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General. Session 2003-04. HC518. TSO. April 2004.

Light Rapid Transit Systems. Eighth Report of the Environmental, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee. Session 1999-2000. HC 153. TSO. May 2000.

Does the DfT really have a clue?: top