01 May 2019

The growing popularity of light rail systems across the globe is evident. Operators, passenger transport executives, local authorities and commentators alike are calling for further investment in order to better harness the great opportunities for building on this growth. We discuss below how the developments in this sector have the potential to provide welcome improvements to public transport in both the UK and other nations, helping to ease pressure on congested roads and improve access for many communities.

Extensions to Current Light Rail Systems

The West Midlands Metro system is set to triple in size over the coming years, with a £1.3 billion investment programme led by the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) and Transport for West Midlands. The extension programme is split into five stages, with the WMCA having just approved £450m of funding for the Wednesbury to Brierley Hill line. In a UK first, several sections of the system will use more environmentally friendly battery-powered trams. These plans will see West Midlands Metro ordering up to 50 new units which are capable of off-wire running.

Other existing UK light rail systems are also looking to expand, including the following: 

  • Nottingham City Council has approved a £200,000 feasibility study into new routes for the Nottingham Express Transit system. The new route could potentially connect with the planned HS2 hub at Toton and an extension from Clifton to a new 3,000-home development on land off the A453. 
  • On 14 March 2019, Edinburgh City Council voted to approve the extension of the Edinburgh Trams system. The extended line will run for 2.91 miles, connecting the city centre to Newhaven and Leith, at an estimated cost of £200m. A consultation was launched in March 2018 into the traffic management for the planned expansion and four bidders have already been invited to tender for the construction of the extension (BAM Colas Rail, Dragados, Farrans Sacyr Neopul JV and Sisk Steconfer JV). 
  • Construction is already underway on Manchester Metrolink's £350m expansion and plans have been outlined in the Greater Manchester Transport Strategy 2040 for further expansion of the UK's largest light rail network, along with longer-term proposals for a cross-city rail tunnel. 
  • Owner-Operator of the Tyne and Wear Metro, Nexus, has put forward proposals for a network expansion. In a recent response to the Department for Transport's call for evidence on new light rail links, North East local authority leaders have urged the Government to back the extension proposals.
  • A £22m extension of the Blackpool Tramway, which joins the existing route to Blackpool North Railway Station, is expected to open later in 2019.

Construction of New Light Rail Systems

The relative advantages of light rail systems over other public transport systems have led to an increased focus on the construction of new light rail systems. Indeed, in February 2019, the Department for Transport issued a call for evidence on light rail solutions in towns and cities.

Cambridge has long harboured ambitions for its own metro system. The Cambridge project is in its very early stages and, if given the go ahead, is not expected to be open in any capacity until 2025 at the earliest. Nevertheless, it demonstrates that new light rail systems are often being identified as the preferred solution to local transport issues.

There are also plans to build new links to important local transport hubs. For example, work has begun on the £225m Luton Airport DART transit system which will run to the airport from Luton Parkway Station. This new link will allow passengers to travel from London St. Pancras Station to Luton Airport in around 30 minutes. The DART is expected to run 24 hours a day once it is operational in 2021, thanks in part to plans for the implementation of driverless rolling stock.

In similar plans, Spelthorne Borough Council is "actively promoting" the creation of a new light rail link to Heathrow Airport, with an estimated cost in the region of £375m. The local authority expects to be funded by private backers and aims to run the service from the airport to Staines-on-Thames, along brownfield land next to the M25.

Innovation

In addition to the creation of new and the extension of existing lines, some entirely new ideas are also being trialled in the light rail sector. Last year, for example, saw the UK's first tram train (designed and built by Stadler) come into operation between Sheffield and Rotherham. Tram trains are a mix of light and heavy rail, with rolling stock that is able to operate on both street tramlines and the national rail network. The Greater Manchester Transport Strategy 2040 proposes the addition of three similar tram train routes. 

The concept of Very Light Rail (VLR), although in its infancy, is being considered with interest. VLR encompasses any set of rolling stock vehicles weighing less than 1 tonne. VLR vehicles have the advantage of generally being cheaper and more energy efficient, making them more suitable for shorter or more rural routes where it would be uneconomical to have a traditional tram or light rail system. VLR is currently being considered for use in Coventry, with construction due to start on the first-of-its-kind line in mid-2020. A group of companies, councils and universities have proposed the establishment of a VLR Innovation Centre in nearby Dudley, which would allow for the testing of new VLR equipment. 

International Developments

Further afield, a number of cities in mainland Europe have begun to use tram systems as freight carriers, repurposing old rolling stock into efficient ways of carrying goods right into the heart of a city centre. In St. Etienne, a system called TramFret has been tested which runs a freight service in the existing timetable gaps of the local passenger tram system. A key challenge facing such systems is, of course, ensuring that any such freight usage does not impact upon passenger-facing operations. 

Canada has recently seen great investment in improvements and extensions to its own light rail infrastructure. Montreal's CAN$6.3bn light rail network across the city is scheduled to open in 2021. SNC-Lavalin, Dragados, Aecon, Pomerleau and EBC began construction in April 2018 and SNC-Lavalin and Alstom are set to supply the new rolling stock for the system. It is thought that this could also lead to a further expansion of the Montreal subway system.

Elsewhere in Canada, the ION light rail system in the Waterloo region of Ontario is currently in its testing phase, which will lead to driverless technology once the system is fully operational. The ION system will supplement the existing Grand River Transit network.

Conclusion

Many of us already use light rail systems on a daily basis and their benefits can be significant for the connectivity and economic growth of any given region. It is therefore not surprising that a chorus of cities are looking to implement their own tram/metro networks and that the UK Government is considering how such schemes can best be supported.

Womble Bond Dickinson has a dedicated team of specialist lawyers with extensive experience in the heavy and light rail sectors. If you would like to discuss any of the above, please do get in touch with a member of our Transport Team.