The government has set out its intention to trigger a light rail renaissance in the UK, as part of efforts to cut carbon and create growth.
The findings of a much-delayed government review of light rail was finally unveiled this week by transport minister Norman Baker.
The Department for Transport (DfT) report concluded that light rail – better known as tramways – has a future in the UK if capital costs can be reduced and officials called on the industry to implement a universal design standard to bring down costs.
Once a common sight in every major UK town and city, trams are now seen as an expensive transport solution by local authorities – costing an average of £25m per mile to build in urban areas.
This image crisis has been exacerbated in recent years by the beleaguered Edinburgh tram project, which has been subject to delays, contractor disputes and an astronomical rise in cost.
The report revealed the cost of the Edinburgh tram project is actually four times higher than that of other similar schemes. It cited problems with utility diversions as playing a major role in pushing up the costs by some £200m.
The DfT has also recommended looking at cheaper tram projects on the continent and urged the industry to set up a centre of procurement excellence to advise on procurement options.
In 2010, an inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Light Rail Group – of which transport secretary Philip Hammond is a member – suggested tram schemes could be made more "deliverable" if the UK market was encouraged by more projects.
Despite the majority of UK tramways being dismantled during the 20th century as the popularity of motoring soared and prompted new road building, some new schemes have opened up in recent years. These include Manchester's Metrolink, the West Midland Metro, and others in Croydon, Sheffield and Nottingham.
Work is now underway in South Yorkshire to develop a 'tram-train' service between Sheffield and Rotherham.
Such transport systems are cheaper than conventional tram and railways and are popular throughout Europe.
We asked five transport specialists for their views:
Norman Baker, transport minister
Light rail is good for passengers, good for local economics, good for the local environment and it's a mode of public transport that passengers really enjoy using – that is why I'm committed to doing everything we can to bring costs down to make it a viable option for more communities.
In the past light rail systems have been seen as expensive and an unaffordable option for local authorities to pursue – I initiated this review so we can get to the nub of the problem. I now urge all parts of the light rail sector to work together on implementing these recommendations and I look forward to working with them towards these exciting opportunities.
Matthew Lugg, president of the Association of Directors for Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (Adept) and transport director at Leicestershire county council
Adept recognises that light rail can have economic benefits, reduce congestion in town centres and de-carbonise transport networks, however the association is concerned about the high infrastructure costs associated with developing a light rail network when there are many competing transport maintenance and infrastructure projects for the reduced funding that is currently available.
We would wish to be involved in discussing the issues and recommendations in this report with the DfT, UKTram and other interested parties in order to develop a sector-led implementation plan for developing light rail as part of the UK's integrated transport system
Richard Dyer, Friends of the Earth transport campaigner
Trams are a low-carbon solution to congestion – the report's call for the network to be expanded is spot on.
Major cities such as Leeds and Bristol are missing out by not having either a tram or underground system. Providing green alternatives for short journeys should be a higher priority for the government than spending billions of pounds on High Speed Rail.
Jonathan Bray, director of the Passenger Transport Executive Group
A major opportunity has now opened up to deliver more, and more affordable, tram schemes through effective joint working between the government, local transport authorities and the light rail industry.
Across Europe tram-trains are now revolutionising urban transport systems and bringing down the costs of providing those systems. The UK trial of tram-train technology has been far too stop-start so far and there's a need to pick up the pace to get this trial fully underway as soon as practical. It's now a matter of when, and not if, tram-trains come to Britain's major cities so let's make the 'when' as soon as possible.
Iain MacDonald, campaign officer at the Light Rail Transit Association
[We] look forward to help meeting this challenge in the forthcoming industry debate and tram summit by citing the low cost designed tramways such as those in Besancon, France and Portland USA. In both Besancon and Portland the projects were designed to a fixed cost.
The minister's recommendation of having a centre for procurement excellence will help promoters obtain clear contract and specification guidance which has been based on prior experience and will avoid contractual disputes such as in Edinburgh's tramway.
We welcome the DfT beginning a consultation exercise on proposals to devolve the capital funding for local major transport schemes and the minister pointing to tax incremental schemes as forms of possible finance for authorities promoting affordable schemes.
What will happen next?
The DfT will launch a consultation to seek views on how diverting utilities beneath planned tram routes can be simplified and made cheaper. A high profile summit will also be held between Whitehall and the industry to agree an implementation plan to move forward.