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Government seeking views on English light rail 'potential'

New tramways and other 'light rail' systems could improve journey times in English towns and cities, while also offering a boost to UK manufacturing, the government has suggested.08 Feb 2019

It has opened a new call for evidence on how light rail transit (LRT) and other rapid transport systems could be incorporated into the urban transport networks of the future. It is also seeking views on what support would be needed to construct these systems in the UK.

Transport minister Jesse Norman said that the time was right to "explore the incredible potential for light rail schemes across the country".

"This wide-ranging call for evidence seeks new ideas and new support for the next generation of light rail, so that we make existing systems work better and can work with cities and towns across the UK to create new ones," he said.

Norman was speaking on a visit to Birmingham to mark the planned extension of the Midlands Metro light rail system, linking Birmingham city centre with Edgbaston and the city's growing Westside area. The project received £60 million in central government funding on top of the £84m raised by local authorities and local enterprise partnerships, and is due to open for passenger service in 2021.

"The Midlands Metro network shows how government support can help to create a sustainable, accessible and innovative light rail system, which forms an integral part of a modern urban transport network," he said.

LRT and tram journeys currently account for around 3% of public transport journeys in England. There are eight light rail systems in England responsible for a combined 267 million journeys each year: Blackpool Tramway; Manchester Metrolink; Midlands Metro; Nottingham Express Transit; Sheffield Supertram; London Tramlink; and the Docklands Light Railway.

LRT is a rapid and environmentally friendly form of mass public transit, which can reduce dependence on private cars and stimulate local investment, often in areas that were previously inaccessible or unviable. However, it can be expensive to construct, with a minimum ridership of around 2,500 to 3,000 passengers per hour in each direction necessary in order to ensure cost effectiveness, according to the call for evidence.

"This means that, in most contexts, light rail can only be implemented successfully if it is designed from the outset as part of a wider system which is integrated with other public transport modes," the government said in the document.

Schemes should therefore be "designed in a way to develop the system's full potential for speed and reliability", and as part of a wider urban regeneration strategy that supports housing, jobs, and public and private investment along the line, it said.

The call for evidence closes on 19 May 2019.

Transport expert Jonathan Hart of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind, said that the call for evidence was "a reminder that whilst LRT was once at the heart of urban and suburban transportation in the UK, it continues to have a 'Cinderella' status when it comes to policymaking - and, as importantly, public finances".

"The problems of urban congestion and air quality are at the forefront of many aspects of transportation policy, even if the high-water mark of New Labour's encouragement of a wide-ranging programme of potential new tram schemes which sought to address these kinds of problems was a long time ago," he said. "Given the current success of many LRT schemes in operation and the current plans of local transport authorities in Bristol and Cambridgeshire, it must be hoped that this initiative is more than can-kicking or headline-seeking."

"However, establishing appropriate financial structures and funding arrangements remains an important consideration. Despite the transport minister's well-known observations on the efficacy of PFI projects, project finance has successfully delivered tram schemes both here in the UK and in Europe. If such schemes are to be more than merely aspirational, the thorny question of how they are going to be paid for - by transport authorities and members of the travelling public - has got to be at the heart of any serious consideration," he said.