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Cost Contained Light Rail

Scott McIntosh of Mott MacDonald, 19th December 2005

Our speaker began by saying that 2005 had been an annus horribilis for Light Rail in England and Wales. However Light Rail Systems have a proven track record for growing the public transport market, creating modal shift, supporting regeneration and assisting in the creation of a new urban framework; but they are seen as expensive. The Department for Transport gave the excessive cost increases as its reason for rejecting the South Hampshire Rapid Transit scheme. The 2003 present value cost of the scheme is £214M for 12km of route, or £17.8m per route km including a tunnel under the Solent. By way of comparison the cost of other European schemes are as follows:-

The leader of Hampshire County Council had stated “I am appalled that we have had to wait so long for this short-sighted decision and the long wait for the Government to make up its mind”. Another leading UK Public Sector promoter has stated “There is a real question now as to whether or not there is any commitment from the DfT to work towards delivering successful tramway projects – the last three announcements suggest that all of us working on UKtram work are wasting our time”.

The major cost drivers are rolling stock costs, track construction costs, and Utility re-location costs, and “innovative” funding schemes involving risk transfer. The cost of the South Hampshire scheme is around £214m at 2003 prices. The Government claims “The current proposal would require £93 million of capital grant and a total of £581 million in annual payments, associated with the PFI credits, up to 2036”. On another scheme a private sector Director has calculated that “going PFI” adds 55% to the cost to get the price.

UKTram has been formed representing all sectors of the industry to address the problem of cost. It is seeking better business planning – “more Croydon's and fewer Eccles”. It is looking at ways to reduce infrastructure costs, seeking common rolling stock procurement and better risk allocation. The good news is that progress is being made in Edinburgh.

Portland Streetcar in the USA has shown how low cost tramways can be built. The 7.8km city loop serves local trip needs within the downtown area. It also acts as a feeder to the MAX light rail. It has stimulated regeneration with “transit friendly” residential and shopping developments. Americans are rediscovering city life. Rolling stock costs have been contained by use of 20metre long by 2.5metre wide, Skoda ‘Astra’ cars, each with a capacity of 131 passengers. Track costs have been reduced by the use of low profile rail set in a rubber boot, laid on a 300mm thick slab on 150mm substrata. The surface is made up with a brushed concrete finish. The utilities remain in situ. Considerable savings are possible by not moving utilities. Temporary track is available from a number of EU suppliers, facilitating single line working during utility repairs. This practice is common in Austria, Germany, Norway and Canada. The Portland Streetcar costs came out at £7.9m per route km. or $54.6m for the total scheme including $4m for the maintenance facility. It has been found that the regeneration benefits are twenty times greater than the cost over 5 years.

A number of low cost trams are now being offered from former Eastern Block countries. In some cases low floor provision has been achieved at modest cost by constructing low floor trailers or by adding low floor centre sections. The problem of renewing Blackpool’s fleet was being studied and solutions explored including adapting the Balloon cars to meet the DDA regulations.

Vintage Trolley systems are popular in the USA and there are now 20 systems and interest is growing elsewhere, reusing equipment from the past, and tapping into popular enthusiasm at modest cost. The speaker cited the 3km route in Kenosha Wisconsin, linking the ‘Harborpark’ regeneration development with city centre and other transport modes. It uses refurbished PCC’s.

Light tramways such as Seaton can have a role to play at local level. Britain’s newest tram has recently entered service on Southport Pier.

Another low cost option is Ultra Light Rail such as the Parry People Mover aimed at a niche market, suitable for cities with a population below 200,000. This gives the opportunity to use stored energy. In the present economic climate, the chances for smaller systems are more hopeful than for large schemes.

John Laker, 14/1/06

LRTA London Meeting 19th December 2005

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