Light Rail – 20 Year Look Back

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Back in 2001 I was compiling a status report of the Light Rail Projects and existing networks in operation, or under active construction around the UK. We had a busy programme, with 6 networks open and operational, and plans to build 3 more around Portsmouth, Leeds and Bristol being put forward, and the Nottingham Express Transit (NET) was being built. Of the existing systems, Croydon – or the London Tramlink as it is now called – and the Birmingham network had only been open a couple of years.

Nottingham Express Transit tram negotiating the esses past Shipstone Street playground, on its way to Shipstone Street tram stop Photo: Alan Murray-Rust, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67500108

There were other proposed systems being put forward, including Edinburgh, which did finally get completed, and a “revamped trolleybus scheme” for Liverpool and Merseyside – the “Mersey Tram” – another pie in the sky scheme. The new generation of light rail and tramway schemes were being scattered around the UK a bit like confetti 20 years ago, and included Hull, Bath and East Lancashire – at least that was what the Transport Secretary was reported as saying in Parliament in 2001.

The major projects actively operating or under construction, with a couple of exceptions, including those that were cancelled by the Department of Transport, included these:

Back in 2001 there were plans for expansion of the existing systems, with Manchester (3 new lines) and Birmingham (2 new lines) at the head of the list. It was clearly essential for the expanding connurbations of the West Midlands and Greater Manchester, and they had already proved their value in passengers carried, and the associated revenue – the Midland Metro had seen a 25% increase in passengers carried in its first fully operational year.

Greater Manchester’s Metrolink tram number 3009A, in Salford Quays Photo: Tom Page – Flickr: IMG_0876.jpg, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16246122

Before looking back at where we were in 2001, it is worth noting that all of these networks were essentially built around a new concept of street running trams, and the UK was following the lead set in other European cities. With the exception perhaps of the Tyne & Wear Metro, the technology being used was new, and whilst the UK’s first new light rail system in Manchester was not exactly the low floor design seen elsewhere, it was a pioneer. The Tyne & Wear had been up and running since the late 1970s, and piggy backed on the readily available ‘heavy rail’ technology, including a 1500V d.c. overhead contact system, and conventional railway station platforms.

The other ‘metro systems’ that could be included would be the underground networks of London and Glasgow, and Blackpool’s century old tramway system. But, Light Rail was evolving down a different path, and in 1989, the industry was first fully showcased in the UK at Bristol, at the “Light Rail 89” exhibition and conference, opened by Mchael Portillo, who was then Transport Secretary. The industry was ambitious, and the outlook was poistive, and by the turn of the century, those 6 new systems were up and running – including the highly successful and automatic Docklands Light Railway.

Where are we today? These are the current Light Rail (LRT) systems in operation in the UK:

Only two new systems have been built and opened in the past 20 years – Edinburgh and Nottingham – so now we have 8 light rail systems, with the older networks continuing to expand.

Edinburgh Princes Street, with a backdrop of the Scott Monument and a glipmse of the outline of Edinburgh Castle in the background. Photo: Smiley.toerist – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47606320

Click on the image below to read about the systems and technology that was in place back in 2001.

Further reading …

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