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The Potential for Light Rail by Ian Souter - 22 October 2001

Ian Souter addressed the Scottish Branch in Edinburgh on 22 October 2001 on the subject of the "Potential for Light Rail". He began by looking at the fundamentals of rail based operation, starting with trains and moving onto trams, pointing out that approximately 10% of the Glasgow tramway system consisted of reserved tracks, with consequential benefits. Over the last 100 years the UK has been served by a variety of methods, i.e. rail, trams, trolleybuses, buses and now the private car.

Trams once provided the bulk of transport in urban areas and excelled in short distance travel, whilst mainline railways catered for the longer distance traveller. During the 1930's the bus took over from the tram and in the 1960's the car took over from the bus. The UK is not unique, but has the distinction of being the first to adopt the car as the predominant mode of transport. Mr. Souter highlighted the fact that the usage of local public transport peaked in 1955, and with the subsequent population and activity migration from cities, movement by car is now a necessity, exacerbated by modern employment methods with considerable commuting distances now common.

Ian Souter & Stewart Dickd

Ian Souter (left) & Stewart Dick during the question and
answer session.

© John G. Fender 2001

Light Rail has an advantage over heavy rail in that it can go round obstructions, does not require signals, and has lower speeds. Light rail vehicles have an axle loading of around 10 - 12 tonnes per axle as compared with heavy rail with around 25 tonnes per axle. Light rail vehicles can negotiate curves with a radius of 18 metres and can cope with a gradient of 1 in 10 as opposed to heavy rails inability to cope with gradients steeper than 1 in 40. Light rail can also operate along existing highways whereas heavy rail must have its own separate right of way, complete with signalling etc.

Looking at the application of Light Rail, Mr. Souter said that there were some 340 light rail systems worldwide. From the 1970's the merits of such systems had been rediscovered and there were new Light Rail schemes in Canada, France and the USA, all owing much to developments in Germany. Light Rail can handle up to 20,000 passengers per hour, with vehicles having higher capacity than buses. Light Rail systems are usually owned by local authorities, but operation is often undertaken by private concerns and there are restrictions on competing services. In the USA, 11 new sytems have been opened since 1981, with 9 in France. In the UK there are 6 systems and the Nottingham system is currently under construction. The Docklands Light Railway and Manchester metrolink are both very successful, but the system in Sheffield is struggling to meet passenger projections.

In 1980, the Tyne and Wear Metro opened, using mainly former British Railway trackbeds, with new tunnels under the city centre, but there is no street track. In 1987, the Docklands Light Railway opened and now extends to 4 routes, all operated by driverless trains. This system features high platform heights. In 1992, the Manchester system opened with a mixture of on street running and former British Rail tracks. Sheffield opened in 1984 and features 3 routes with on street running and low platforms. The West Midlands Metro opened in 1999 and uses former railway alignments for its route. In 2000, the Croydon Tramlink opened and has three routes, with some street running.

There are opportunities for joint running where both light rail and heavy rail share common tracks. This was prevalent in the USA with its interurban systems, but these disappeared by the Second World War. There are instances of both light rail systems operating side by side with heavy rail systems, as con be found on the Tyne & Wear metro system. In some cases, both light rail and heavy rail share the same tracks, an example being Karlsruhe. This however, presents difficulties in that the wheel profiles of the rolling stock is different.

Having looked at the technical aspects of light rail operation, Mr. Souter examined the reasons why light rail is of interest now, citing the increasing traffic levels, the need for viable alternatives to cars, and the future energy situation. He highlighted the advantages of light rail in that the capacity of heavy rail can be provided, but with reduced costs and greater accessibility. He thought that there may be opportunities for light rail systems to be fed by bus services providing even greater access to the system. He then examined the practical difficulties of constructing light rail systems and pointed out that in the UK, there is an attitude against such schemes. The funding of systems is also often difficult to obtain and the UK does not have a co-ordinated overall approach to transport planning, the government preferring to leave such matters to local authorities, resulting in a fragmented approach. He showed that in the UK it takes between 9 and 12 years to get a system opened whereas in many parts of Europe it only takes 3 or four years.

Mr. Souter concluded by saying that UK conditions particularly favour street running and that more systems should be considered. There was then a lively debate and Mr. Souter was asked many questions which were very ably answered.

Report by John Fender.

 

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