Transport Watch UK Focusing on UK's Traffic & Traffic Systems

Topic 8, Rapid Transit Systems

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Updated November 2006
Wp Ref website. Topic 8 Rt Systems 02

Note: this is an interim update as it stood in 2004/5. It awaits latest TSGB data for it to be fully up to date but that is unlikely to change any conclusion.
The systems for which data is here presented are Docklands, Strathclyde, Manchester, Tyne and Wear, Sheffield, Centro (West Midlands) and Croydon. Detail is in the table appended. It shows:

  1. The capital cost at 2003 prices for Manchester, Tyne and Wear, Sheffield, West Midlands and Croydon amounts to £1.8. If Docklands is added the bill is £2.93bn. In addition to that (and separately from the data table) Mersytram had the option of spending £225mn, Manchester hoped to spend an additional £900mn, South Hampshire was bidding for £270 million and Edinburgh for £375mn, providing a total of £1.77 billion. Adding that to the historic expenditure of £2.93 yields £4.7bn as in 2004.
  2. With the exception of Sheffield no system covers operating costs. When the costs of capital and maintenance are added costs are between 3.2 and 5.8 times as large as the receipts.
  3. Including the annual cost of capital and maintenance the annual subsidy per journey has the range £2.50 (for Manchester) to £4 (for Tyne and Wear).
  4. In highway terms, rail rapid transport systems are substantially disused. E.g. the average one-way flow per track for the systems has a range equivalent to 92 to 525 buses per day, each bus containing an average of 20 people. That may be compared with a potential of up to 10,000 vehicles per day for a single lane of a motor road managed to avoid congestion. The comparison suggests a catastrophic under-use of valuable transport land.
  5. The staff per car (or per tram) has the range 4.3 to 10.9.
  6. Average journey lengths have the range 3.2 to 10.5 km.
  7. The average train or tram load ranges from 17 to 50, excluding Docklands, which has 69 passengers.
  8. Capital costs per route-km have the range £7.6 million to £10.4 million excluding Docklands for which the value is £43 million.

We have sought fuel consumptions but with little success. However, data from 1990 provided the equivalent of 51 passenger miles per gallon for Tyne and Wear, 55 for Strathclyde. Also data from 2003 for Croydon’s Tramlink provides 92 passenger-miles per gallon (it has phyrister control - using breaking to provide energy for traction). In comparison buses returning 8 miles per gallon (as they may do on rights of way such as these systems enjoy) and containing the average train loads set out in the tabulation, (range 17-50 excluding Docklands) would return 135 to 400 passenger miles per gallon.

We conclude that, with the benefit of hindsight, and of this data, none of these systems would have been built. An alternative may have been bus-ways open to commercial vehicles and to cars at certain times of day. The modern option may be to control congestion by road pricing. Ordinary buses would then no longer suffer delay. That would remove the need for bus lanes or indeed for tram systems.

In contrast the Europeans are famed for trams. However, is it merely a case of the grass seeming greener over there. Whatever the case Terry Mulroy OBE, a doyen of Multi-Modal Studies, said, at an Institution of Civil Engineers meeting held on 21st November 2002, that, "If one asks the Planners in Geneva, Home of the Tram, if they would do it again, they will say quietly, never again – far too expensive". Meanwhile the Grenoble is renewing its tram network after only 10 years.

As for London, in 1949 the trams were seen as an embarrassment to the capital’s post war planners. In that year Lord Latham, chairman of the London Transport Executive delivered a speech outlining the plans for the tramways conversion programme in which he stated “the loss on the trams is about £1,000,000 per year” equivalent to £20,000,000 at today’s prices. Now we have Ken Livingstone’s plan to bring some of them back.

Against that background we encourage those considering such systems, and the Treasury, to do careful sums before spending the hundred or so million pounds likely to be required for a few tens of miles of route.


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