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Improving public transport in England through light rail

Modern light rail systems, such as Croydon Tramlink and Manchester Metrolink, have brought significant benefits to passengers, according to a report Parliament by the head of the National Audit Office, Sir John Bourn. They deliver fast, frequent and reliable services and provide a comfortable and safe journey. Their modern look and attractive services have enhanced the image of the cities where they have been built. However, since 1980 only seven systems have been built, systems are not attracting as many passengers or delivering as many benefits as they should, several are running at a financial loss and construction costs are rising.

The government envisaged that up to 25 new lines could be built by 2010; 12 new lines are being developed but major barriers are preventing further expansion. The main barriers are affordability and value for money. The costs of proposed new systems are higher than the costs of existing systems and are rising; they must be brought down if many more systems are to be built.

Although the Department for Transport expects systems to be self-financing, four systems have been running at a financial loss, mainly because passenger numbers and hence revenues have been well below those forecast. Passenger numbers have fallen well short of expectations: for example, by 38 per cent on the Midland Metro and 45 per cent on the Sheffield Supertram. Losses are discouraging the private sector from investing in new lines.

According to today’s report, systems could have delivered more benefits. Passenger numbers, and therefore passenger benefits, have fallen short of expectations. Systems are not fully integrated with other forms of public transport, especially buses and have had little impact on reducing road congestion. Through-ticketing arrangements are inadequate and not enough use has been made of complementary services such as park and ride schemes.

Systems take too long to be put in place. It takes on average nearly two years for local authorities to be granted the required legal powers. Approval for an extension to the Leeds Supertram system took almost four and a half years. The Department has increased staff resources for handling applications for legal powers and is taking steps to speed up statutory procedures. Even after schemes have been approved by the government it can still take over eight years before they are opened.

The report points out differences between systems in England and those in France and Germany, where there are more systems carrying more passengers. Systems in France and Germany connect major places of activity, such as hospitals and universities – not always the case in England, although new proposals for lines are expected to do more of this. French and German systems are fully integrated with other forms of transport, with buses, for example, feeding the light rail systems as well as serving non-light rail routes. French and German systems are also heavily subsidised by local transport authorities. In France, local authorities also have access to local taxes specifically for transport projects such as light rail schemes.

Today’s report recommends that the Department for Transport should work with the industry to reduce the costs of light rail systems through, for example, greater standardisation in the design of systems, vehicles and methods of construction. The Department should also require promoters to integrate their schemes better with other modes of transport; encourage more passengers to use their systems through, for example, park and ride schemes; and make the speed and punctuality of services more attractive by, for example, giving priority to trams over road vehicles at key junctions.
Sir John Bourn said today,

“Light rail systems have improved the quality and choice of public transport, by offering fast, reliable and frequent services. Systems need to be better integrated with other modes of transport, however, to attract more passengers and help to reduce urban congestion. And if more systems are to secure private sector investment, construction costs must be brought down and operations placed on a sound financial footing.”


Notes for Editors

  1. Since 1980 some £2.3 billion has been invested in light rail, of which the government has contributed over £1 billion. The Department has so far agreed to contribute some £1.4 billion to 12 new lines by 2010.
  2. Six systems have been running in England for several years: the Tyne and Wear Metro (opened in 1980-84), the Docklands Light Railway (1987), the Manchester Metrolink (1992), the Sheffield Supertram (1994-95), the Midland Metro (1999) and the Croydon Tramlink (2000). Since their opening, the Tyne and Wear Metro, Docklands Light Railway and the Manchester Metrolink have been extended. A seventh system, the Nottingham Express Transit, opened in March 2004. Schemes currently under development include the Liverpool Merseytram, the Leeds Supertram and the South Hampshire Rapid Transit.
  3. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website, which is now at copies can be obtained from The Stationery Office on 0845 702 3474.
  4. The Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn, is the head of the National Audit Office which employs some 800 staff. He and the NAO are totally independent of Government. He certifies the accounts of all Government departments and a wide range of other public sector bodies; and he has statutory authority to report to Parliament on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which departments and other bodies have used their resources.

PN: 33/04