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Car, Sprint or Streetcars

Car, Sprint or Streetcars

🕔08.Feb 2018

Beverley Nielsen, the Lib Dem candidate for West Midlands Mayor last year, looks at ‘intermediate options’ on transport for Mayor Street.

Historic transport policy decisions in the West Midlands seem to induce the idea that every journey should begin by car. Even when the popularity of rail commuting has exceeded all expectations, the principal response has been to establish enormous car parks adjacent to stations and Metro stops.

Laura Shoaf, MD of Transport for West Midlands (TfWM), has commented about the ‘many connectivity challenges’ that exist, meaning the lack of high quality solutions for the ‘last mile’ of commuter journeys.

Transport experts have a clear idea why people choose to use their car: it is largely down to the disbenefits or lack of availability of the other options.

Despite years of discussion about integrated transport solutions, issues like through ticketing and real-time travel information across modes to provide the ability to plan door-to-door journeys remain as elusive as ever.

The same goes for a physical mode which fills the gaps and ticks all the boxes – safe, dependable, low carbon, popular and, above all, affordable.

Whilst over 70% of all journeys around the West Midlands are made by car, 80% of travel to work journeys are solo, causing many issues for our network. Congestion is estimated to cost £3bn a year in the wider Birmingham conurbation, impacting on air quality leading to an estimated 3,000 premature deaths across the West Midlands. More pain is associated with all the costs of staying legal, finding places to park, fuel, upkeep, and eventually replacement.

Buses carried 267m passengers in 2015/16, a number that’s been in steady decline. They are much improved as vehicles but share the roads with other traffic without passengers having personal control of the journey which causes anxiety. Fare prices have risen above RPI and are controlled by operators, with over 1/3rd of journeys in WM made on concession.

Rail in West Midlands carried 53.7m passengers 2015/16, with issues around reach into commuter districts and through ticketing between rail, bus and other modes still a work in progress.

Walking and cycling are still too weather-dependent, although Mayor Andy Street has promised to increase spend on cycling to £10 per head by 2020, with an agreed target to hit 5% of all journeys — but he’ll be unable to change the weather.

The Metro, a form of Light Rail Transit (LRT), has consistently carried around 5m passengers a year in the West Midlands, but is an expensive option on the basis of investment to passengers carried.

Taxis are always acceptable and solve most of the problems associated with personal risk and of parking in urban centres but as generally single occupation, they take up 10 times more road space per commuter than a well loaded bus. The taxi fare is inevitably a multiple of the cost of using a bus for the same journey.

History’s ‘orphan’ is the traditional British tram. It’s heritage has been deliberately dismissed by advocates of LRT, but the modern forms of vehicle now being used are like trains that are adapted to run on street. They provide a good solution where there is enough room for them, (taking up three times the road space as a bus).

In their normal form they require a complex electrical infrastructure and so LRT systems, or ‘supertrams,’ are expensive to install. The budget in the Devo 2 settlement for the 11km journey from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill is set at £250m.

Modern supertrams are popular, and have brought about modal shift to public transport. However, they’re not a comprehensive solution.

In fact they may only be suitable for between 5 to 10% of the towns and cities where traditional trams formerly dealt with most of the needs of commuting citizens in earlier times.

In inter-war North America it was quite common to have adjacent towns connected by ‘inter-urban’ streetcar lines – effectively the first ‘tramtrains’ as once in town they could stop frequently anywhere and these are still operating in San Francisco, Portland, El Paso and Toronto.

In the West Midlands it’s quite hard to find many localities where a supertram route can be fitted whilst generating sufficient patronage to be economically viable. By contrast there appear to be many places where a more modest form of light tram and ‘intermediate technology’ system would provide a complete journey or function as a feeder to a main rail transport artery.

Places that would be suitable for light tramway or streetcar lines include:

  • West Bromwich to Oldbury via Sandwell and Dudley Station
  • Brownhills to Walsall
  • Halesowen to University Station
  • Stourbridge to Brierley Hill
  • Wednesbury Metro stop to Town Centre and Bus Station
  • Bromsgrove Station to Town Centre.

Of the six, only the Halesowen route could possibly be operated with conventional LRT.

The radical rail Shuttle service between Stourbridge Town and Junction from Parry People Movers Ltd and operated by PreMetro Operations Ltd was developed over 20 years of design and prototype work using flywheel energy storage in a series of steps with private investors and SMEs based across the West Midlands contributing resources alongside modest commitments of public funding.

The gas/flywheel hybrid innovation is now a well-integrated component of Britain’s franchised rail industry, saving money, passenger safety, high reliability, popularity and good energy efficiency.

Over the course of an eight year period, four million passenger journeys have facilitated between Stourbridge Town Centre and Junction.

Whilst £31m has been allocated to the high tech Connected Autonomous Vehicles in development in Coventry & Warwickshire as part of a last mile solution, more focus on intermediate mode technologies is required to ensure the integration so long sought for our region’s hard pressed commuters is delivered as a value alternative.

A series of Foresight Engineering Projects (‘FEPs’) focused on intermediate technology solutions are being formulated to oversee practical projects. Light trams – ‘British Streetcar’ – can be run on zero carbon technologies, harnessing energy supply technology based on compressed gases of alternative types.

Meanwhile out in the wilderness are ‘buses that think they are trams’ – an articulated, lengthened form of bus, doubling the capacity of a normal single decker. One pioneering example was designed and built by a highly accomplished British manufacturer, Wrightbus, and ran in York. Versions of articulated buses (‘bendy’ to journalists) were used in York, London and Birmingham, also in Swansea.

All four of these articulated bus fleets have been withdrawn from service despite expensive work preparing special supporting infrastructure. TfWM has inherited proposals to introduce the Netherlands-designed ‘Sprint’ system as Metro’s ‘little sister.’ .

The issues to look out for in assessing the practicality of the Sprint include:

  • Extra length causing blockages at junctions
  • Problems rescuing vehicles which have broken down
  • Greater difficulty reversing or dealing with issues at the far end of the vehicle
  • Fare evasion
  • Subject to the ‘Oslo-effect’ criticism of heavy axle rubber-tyred vehicles adding road and tyre wear particulates into the air
  • Market perception that they are still ‘a bus’ and not ‘a tram’.

Planning for the Sprint system seems to be advancing, but it may not be too late to review some of the routes to see whether light tramway streetcar lines might not be better.

Beverley Nielsen is Associate Professor and Director of IDEA, the Institute for Design & Economic Acceleration, at Birmingham City University. She is also Non Executive Chairman of Light Rail Partners Ltd.

Pic: Stourbridge Shuttle, Pre-Metro Operations Ltd

A version of this post has also appeared on LinkedIn. 

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