On the right tracks

Trams are ideal as an environmentally friendly transport solution. Simon Jack looks into the design implications and funding constraints

Here in the UK, we have mixed views about the suitability of trams as a means of transport. Advocates say that they are a quick, comfortable way to get about and are an environmentally friendly alternative to road transport. Detractors, on the other hand, point to funding difficulties and question how popular they are among the public.

The Government, in a recent consultation document on an integrated transport policy, showed less than wholehearted support for them.

“They can play an important role in increasing the range of quality public transport available, but schemes are expensive and can be less flexible than other forms of public transport,” it says. Responses to this document will form the basis of a White Paper due to be published next year.

Public funding for trams is complex and comes mainly through grants and approvals for loans given out under Section 56 of the 1968 Transport Act. This sets strict guidelines about the projects, and the local passenger transport executives which propose the schemes, must prove they will create general economic benefits. The level of fares must reflect the services, so if the trams are faster than other forms of transport higher fares must be paid by passengers.

There is also an onus on the passenger transport executives to try to attract private finance, which has, so far, proved difficult in many cases. Such hurdles are in contrast to other European countries, where tram systems are often publicly funded and then subsidised.

“German funding, for example, is more generous than UK funding and is evaluated in a completely different way,” says Peter White, professor of public transport systems at the University of Westminster.

White believes that the difficulties in the UK mean that trams will play only a limited part in future transport policy. “It is plausible to upgrade buses, which could be given sections of segregated or guided routes, and switch to cleaner fuels. Within the available funding they are a more likely option than trams,” says White.

Siep Wijsenbeek, a partner of transport design specialist Design Triangle, says that, as well as funding, the success of trams in continental Europe is often because they are designed and manufactured to a high quality which makes them attractive to customers. Frequently, he says, city mayors or local authorities will be behind the move.

“Their political name depends on it so they want it to look good, rather than designing the cheapest thing possible,” he says.

Roger Higman, senior transport campaigner at Friends of the Earth, believes the difficulties with funding tram and light railway systems are due to the fact that the lines can cross the borders of several local authorities, who act as the highways authority in the UK, and can also use old railway lines, which are controlled by Railtrack.

“Trams fall in the middle of the funding regime,” he says. “The Government should minimise the effect of boundaries if they act against one form of transport.”

One of the most successful tram/light rail systems in the UK is Greater Manchester’s Metrolink running from Bury to Altrincham via

Manchester city centre. The trams run on the route of old heavy railway lines which stop just outside the city centre. They then move to the road.

The ability to go right into the centre of Manchester has enabled the line to attract 13.4 million people each year, twice the number who used the old railway lines. And according to the Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive, peak traffic on parallel roads has also fallen by 6 per cent.

When Metrolink was built in 1992 the vast majority of the funding came from the public sector, but two-thirds of the investment for an extension to Eccles via Salford Quays – Manchester’s regenerated former docklands area – is coming from the private sector.

“The fact that phase one has been so successful has allowed us to attract companies which are now willing to open their cheque books,” says Bill Tyson, the Transport Executive’s director of planning and promotion.

The first section of the Eccles extension will be open in summer 1999, with the second finished by spring 2000. There are several further extensions around the city planned for the future.

Conversely, Sheffield’s Supertram has been less readily used by the city’s population and has been affected both by deregulation of the local bus service (which has consequently lower prices) and by the demolition of high-rise flats along its route. But, even though the ten million annual passengers are under half the 22 million planned when the tram system opened in 1994, there has been an increase in passengers of 47 per cent since last June.

Paul Jackson, customer services manager of South Yorkshire Supertrams, which operates the tram system, believes that there are benefits to the Sheffield area, such as reduced congestion and improved access to shopping and leisure facilities for those without cars.

In response to customer demand, conductors have been introduced on carriages, improving security and reducing fare-dodging. “We found that people preferred to have someone about and it has reduced problems with vandalism considerably,” Jackson says.

However, Sheffield has had to face some of the funding problems tram systems can create. Only 8m of the 240.6m needed for the system came from the private sector, and there have been legal wrangles with the Department of Transport about provision of the remainder.

Private finance is also modest in the West Midlands, making up only 11.4m of the 144.8m being spent on the Midland Metro Line 1 between Wolverhampton and Birmingham Snow Hill, just outside the city centre. The line is due to open by the end of 1998.

Centro, which is the corporate name of the West Midlands passenger transport executive, has amended plans to extend the network because of funding problems. Plans for two more major routes have been replaced by a policy of much smaller extensions – what it calls “bite-sized chunks”. However, funding and planning permission have yet to be gained even for these reduced plans.

Private funding does, however, make up a far greater proportion of Croydon’s Tramlink system – 75m out of 200m – which will run between Croydon and Wimbledon, Beckenham Junction and New Addington, and is due for completion in 1999.

Environmental benefits and easing traffic congestion are cited as major benefits in Croydon, as they are in Birmingham, and both projects aim to make better use of existing transport facilities. Both will also use a mixture of former railway lines and segregated and unsegregated sections of road.

But whether or not these two schemes succeed, it seems unlikely that they will be joined by many more in the UK’s towns and cities unless the current funding difficulties for trams can be resolved.


One of the key issues in the design of light rail carriages is the interior layout with designers constantly being asked to find new ways to maximise capacity and retain customer comfort. Andy Clark, a partner of Design Triangle, explains that use of seating can be vital in allowing free access and large numbers of people to use the tram.

‘The general trend is for large single or double leaf doors with an enlarged vestibule with flexible seating which flips up, and for more open space,’ he says. ‘There could be bays of four seats but the idea is to cope with a lot of people entering and then staying on for only a few stops.’

Design Triangle has worked on light rail projects across Europe, including those in Manchester, Brussels and Utrecht, and Clark believes that in the future there will be a move towards smaller carriages of 6-12m which link together to form longer vehicles with a greater capacity than at present.

Another move is to have a continuous low floor at the same height as the platform, making access easier for the disabled and those with push-chairs. In some cases, this can involve radical condensing of mechanical equipment or even putting it in the roof above the carriage. The driver’s cab also needs special attention and for safety purposes it should have good all round visibility, Clark adds.

British designer Jasper Morrison has been working on a carriage for a new generation of trams in Hanover, which came into service this year. In this instance, there was a 98 per cent increase in window space, compared to the previous trams, which were built in the Seventies.

As Morrison explains, ‘The aim was to create a spacey atmosphere and to get away from the claustrophobic feeling you get on so many buses and trams.’

‘We also had strict requirements on legroom, seat movement and adjustability,’ says Morrison, who is perhaps better known for designing accessories and furniture.

Seating has been kept to a minimum, with longitudinal rows and a wide central aisle taking preference over the more traditional horizontal rows of seats. The result is an uninterrupted view through the vehicle and lots of space to assist passengers getting on and off.

The Hanover trams have been introduced for the city’s World Expo 2000 and have been developed with the millennium firmly in mind. The exterior finishes are silver stainless steel with the identity of the Hanover Green stripe carried over from the previous trams.

Morrison believes it is important that the public finds the vehicles appealing and he found the Hanover Transport Authority willing to listen to ideas. ‘The appearance must not be aggressive or unfriendly and if customers are going to use it every day, it has to be as pleasant as possible. The goal of the Transport Authority was to win customers over from commuting by car.’

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