Rail 521: Rail ultra-lite! A powerful case for self-powered trams

Light rail schemes are notorious for their high capital costs, but CHRISTIAN WOLMAR believes there is another, cheaper way forward for tramway projects that should be taken more seriously.

The clearest casualties of the cost escalation on the railways have been tram schemes. When John Prescott published his ten year transport plan five years ago, he promised there would be up to 25 new light rail lines in major cities by 2010.

There is no way that target will be reached even by 2020 at this rate. Indeed, we will be lucky to see 5 by 2010, let alone 25, so a new approach is needed and there may well be a very different type of light rail that provides the answer.

Just a quick tour d’horizon around the country shows that virtually all proposed light rail schemes are in trouble and many face long years on the drawing board with little chance of coming off it. In Manchester, the three proposed lines the centrepiece of the city’s regeneration programme have been promised £520m by the government, to cover the original expected budget, but ministers have refused to sanction the estimated £240m cost overrun, leaving the situation in limbo. Indeed, they have only reluctantly agreed under duress to provide £58m towards the £102m required to upgrade the original Bury-Altrincham line that has been such a huge success.

In nearby Liverpool, the local council is desperate to see a line from the city centre to Kirby built in time for the City’s inauguration as European City of Culture in 2008 and the Merseytram scheme was promised government support amounting to £170m. However, the cost to the public purse has now risen to £325m but now Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, has refused to sanction a £34m in his contribution which was needed to keep the project on track, even though this was pretty much in line with inflation. Other schemes in Leeds, Blackpool – where the existing system needs major refurbishment – South Hampshire, Croydon, Nottingham and Bristol are all stalled or proceeding at a snail’s pace.

It has been pointed out Private Eye that the scheme where progress is most promising is in Edinburgh where, coincidentally Alistair Darling happens to have his constituency, but that is just malicious political tittle tattle. The other exception is the Docklands Light Railway which is really a misnomer anyway as it does not run on the streets and is really a proper grown up railway. The DLR has sprouted extensions almost as fast as bindweed takes over my garden and has been given a further boost by the success of the Olympics bid.

Probably Merseytram is the most inexplicable of these since not much extra money was being asked for and the scheme is an important part of a major regeneration project attracting nearly a £1bn of private money. It seems that the government is using the excuse of cost rises to withdraw support it had promised initially in the hope of being able to redeploy the money to the cash guzzling railways.

As the list above shows, the reason for the delays and cancellations are inevitably cost increases but contrast this with roads projects. The Campaign to Protect Rural England recently discovered that government figures show that the cost of new road building has spiraled with the cost of 96 national and local road schemes increasing by £1.3bn since first approved, and average of over £10m per scheme. CPRE points out that Ministers have been quick to act on rising costs in the railways by scrapping or postponing light rail projects, but road schemes always seem to get the go-ahead.

Light rail projects are indeed very expensive in this country but the reasons have little to do with the schemes themselves. For example, the National Audit Office report Improving public transport in England through Light Rail published in April 2004 pointed out that promoters of light rail schemes have to pay the full cost of moving services such as gas and electricity while those in France or Germany do not; moreover, the Department for Transport has insisted on expensive procurement methods involving transferring risk to the private sector which is often not appropriate; and, as this column pointed out recently ( Rail 510) buses are allowed to compete rather than be made to integrate with tram services which makes them less viable economically.

One lesser publicised conclusion of the NAO was its recommendation that funding should be provided by the government for ‘innovative light rail’ to be developed and demonstrated. So it is strange that the Department for Transport has never given serious attention to a concept that is gaining credibility and seems a very obvious way forward: Ultra Light Rail. This is not a new fat-free drink but an idea whose time may have come. Much of the high cost of light rail schemes is in providing the infrastructure to provide a continuous supply of power for the whole length of the route. What, instead, if you had self-powered vehicles that would, therefore, not require the whole hassle of so much streetwork and which could be powered by relatively ‘green’ methods.

One of the main promoters of the idea, James Skinner of Sustraco, has long been lobbying the Department about the concept and has come up against a lot of brick walls. The most bizarre is that he cannot get support from the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, a government created agency to support development of low-carbon vehicles because ‘light rail is not categorised by Government as “road transport” which means that LCVP is prohibited from any involvement with Ultra Light Rail, even though nobody can dispute the fact that trams run on roads and compete directly with buses’.

Skinner ran the Bristol Electric Railbus, which operated a demonstration service along the Bristol Harbourside, on existing standard gauge rail, in 1998 to 2000. It carried 50,000 fare-paying passengers and the tram proved highly popular with the public. The 6-ton tram, with capacity for 35 passengers, was powered by ‘green’ electricity and ran on energy stored in a flywheel. It therefore had zero emissions, no pantograph or overhead wires and no electric current to be earthed through the rail. As a result, in 2000, Bristol included an ULR project in its current Local Transport Plan but no money has been forthcoming from the Department, even though the cost would be a handful of millions.

Skinner also recently gave evidence to As an example, we were recently called to give evidence to the public inquiry into the guided busway proposed by Luton for the disused Luton to Dunstable rail route. A report backed by Amec, the engineering firm, estimated that the cost of converting the route to ULR would be around £25 million, as compared with the Luton proposal for a guided busway costing £78 million.

Skinner points out that diesel for buses is subsidised to the tune of £1m per day, a cost that is bound to increase dramatically as oil prices top $60 per barrel. ‘Conventional light rail schemes are very expensive’, he says, ‘and I can see why the Department is reluctant to fund them. But why have they not given proper consideration to the idea of ultra light rail?.’

Indeed. The whole idea of self powered trams seems an obvious one. The metal on metal of rail systems is far more fuel efficient than rubber on road, and trams have all kinds of advantages over buses in town centres.

But Skinner’s ULR concept goes much further. He would like to see fuel cell driven trams.

A fuel cell operates like a battery with oxygen passing over one electrode and hydrogen over the other, generating electricity, water and heat. The only problem is that because of the cost of producing the hydrogen, fuel cell power costs 100 times more than conventional diesel or electricity.

Skinner envisages a number of ways of reducing that. The key is to have an on board energy storage system – a battery – similar, in principle, to that used in the Toyota Prius and other cars and even in some buses. This uses a conventional engine to top up a battery which powers the vehicle. By running the engine at the most optimum rate continuously, it saves enormous amounts of fuel and emissions. There are, too, ways of making the vehicle lighter through modern design techniques which also saves fuel. Trams, too, have a much longer life – up to 30 years compared with 8-13 for buses, which also makes the more expensive initial cost worthwhile.

Ultimately, a flywheel system of stored energy, as with the Bristol tram, may be commercially viable but even without such new technology, it still seems obvious that the idea of self powered trams should be considered in the light of the huge infrastructure costs of providing new lines and the lack of money available. Skinner estimates that the cost of laying down the infrastructure could be as little as £1m per kilometre, compared with ten or fifteen times that for conventional light rail. Of course the vehicles would be more expensive and it may be only possible to have single coach vehicles, but the extra driver costs would be less than the expense of servicing the huge capital debt incurred by building the infrastructure.

Now there may be a major hole in this suggestion. Or it may be that vested interests of manufacturers, compared with the timidity of politicians, both local and national, mean that only heavy light rail – as it were – schemes are ever considered. But surely the concept of Ultra Light Rail deserves a bit more attention than it has received hitherto, especially with subsidies for buses on an ever rising curve and tram schemes falling off the drawing board like flies hit by killer spray.