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Light transports of delight?

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Metrolink tram in St Peter's Square, Manchester

New tram and light-rail systems are making a hesitant mark, but are only receiving lukewarm government encouragement

The opening of Midland Metro's 20km Line 1 last Sunday heralds a significant burst of activity in the development of light-rail transit in the uk. The line, from Birmingham to Wolverhampton through the Black Country, is the first of several new urban tramways and transit schemes opening or starting construction in the months straddling the millennium.

This autumn no fewer than three light-rail schemes will start carrying passengers: the highly successful Manchester Metrolink's extension to Salford Quays; Croydon Tramlink's 28km, three-line system; and Dockland Light Rail's 4km extension to Greenwich and Lewisham. Construction is due to start on the 14km Nottingham Express Transit, running from the main rail station through the city centre, and north to Hucknall and a park-and-ride site on the M1. Leeds, Glasgow, Edinburgh and South Hampshire are among places promoting or revising rapid-transit projects.

But any assumption that government has opened the doors wide to light- rail schemes would be premature. The Tories were sceptical; Labour is more positive, but its funding policy is still drip-feed. And some schemes, strongly backed by city councils and passenger transport authorities, are still getting the thumbs-downs from central government on environmental or economic grounds. Only last month, Merseyside pte's scheme for an electronically guided bus system linking waterfront and city centre to motorway park- and-ride got the brush-off from John Prescott.

Midland Metro provides a vivid illustration of how promoters have been forced to scale down their first ambitious ideas. The original plan envisaged three lines, two of which had expensive tunnelled sections under central Birmingham. The city, which got rid of its trams in the immediate postwar years because they were impeding motor traffic, could not contemplate letting them back into city-centre streets. Since then, two things have changed. It became clear that those tunnelled sections with expensive underground stations were not affordable: the packages of government and European grants and pfi money, however carefully assembled, just would not run to them. Secondly, as Metro development manager Andy Dixon explains, the city council has been squeezing motor traffic out of the centre. It has told the West Midlands pte, Centro: 'Would you please introduce trams into the city centre. We don't want buses in the central area but we'd be happy with trams.'

Line 1 has its present Birmingham terminus at Snow Hill station and runs for 18km of its 20km along the route of an abandoned railway. For the last 2km into Wolverhampton its trams run on the street, but even on the 20km it is distinctively a tramway, doing a very different job from the heavy-rail Birmingham to Wolverhampton line. It has 23 closely spaced 'stops' - simply but stylishly designed by Percy Thomas Partnership's Birmingham office - and its red-blue-and-yellow, articulated, low-loading vehicles are clearly trams, not trains. It has two main functions: to give West Midlands commuters the chance to leave their cars at home; and to assist regeneration in that post-heavy-industry swathe, pock-marked with brownland opportunity sites, which lies west of Birmingham.

Sandwell council's head of regeneration, Clive Dutton, can point to a whole series of schemes to regenerate the Black Country, including West Bromwich's planned £40 million C-plex development by Will Alsop. The Metro, says Dutton, is a powerful lever for regeneration. A dozen of Line 1's stops are either inside or just over Sandwell's borders. Smethwick, West Bromwich and Wednesbury are all well served and there are local bus connections at most of the stops. But the speed and reliability of the trams must be a revelation to Black Country folk used to lumbering buses frequently delayed on congested roads. They are quiet, smooth, and take on average one-and-a-half minutes per stop.

At Wednesbury a second Metro Line is planned to take off 12km southwest towards Brierley Hill, via Dudley and the Merry Hill/Waterfront shopping/offices complex. The place where the two lines would meet is largely empty of development, but cleared and ready for it. 'We have 100 hectares of land as a major employment opportunity,' says Dutton. 'The new line would create a node for development.' This part of Centro's original three-line plan still looks viable: it uses safeguarded routes of old railways, and is relatively low cost. This line forms part of a stage-two Metro package now being promoted by Centro, whose other ingredients are a 3.4km Birmingham 'City Centre Tramway' and - perhaps - a town-centre loop in Wolverhampton. The city centre tramway would be an extension of Line 1, diverted round Snow Hill station and running on the street through the core shopping area to New Street station, then via Victoria Square, the convention centre and Brindleyplace to Five Ways, and possibly (subject to a deal with Calthorpe Estate) Edgbaston shopping centre.

This underlines the changed nature of light-rail financing. The government has made it clear that, for most schemes, the bulk of the finance must come from concessionaires which build and run systems for a period of years, plus contributions from commercial firms which see advantages in having the line, or one of its stops, close to their places of business. It may well require funding from Wolverhampton businesses to secure the planned town-centre loop. Of Centro's 1980s scheme for a Metro line to the airport and the nec via Heartlands, little survives. Its long underground section made it just too expensive. Instead Birmingham may soon once again - after a 50-year break - see trams running on city-centre streets.

Similar calculations underline the expansion strategy of the uk's most successful (though not most stylish) light-rail network, Manchester's Metrolink. Its first phase took over two ailing British Rail commuter lines (to Bury and Altrincham), upgraded existing stations, and linked them through the streets of a traffic-thinned city centre together with a spur to Piccadilly station. The original concessionaire's designs for both trams and street hardware have been rightly criticised, but the system worked. To drive from Altrincham to Piccadilly Gardens in the morning peak takes 50 minutes, by bus 70 minutes, but by tram 20 minutes.

On the back of its commercial and popular success, Greater Manchester pte has been building a second phase: to Salford Quays and Eccles town centre. Salford city council's development director, former rtpi president Tony Struthers, emphasises the line's value as a catalyst to development: it is underpinning job-creating development at Salford Quays, including the 50,000m2 of commercial space at the Lowry Galleria, as well as social and housing regeneration. It should also help Eccles town centre. But a planned 300m spur into the Stirling/Wilford Lowry centre has not been built and requires extra trams and extra money.

gmpte's strategy is now, like Centro's, to persuade the detr to let it package together a bundle of extensions - Oldham/Rochdale, East Didsbury, Airport/South Manchester, and Ashton-under-Lyme. Deputy director-general Geoff Inskip explains that this approach has great advantages in continuity and would attract a better bid from the concessionaire who would supply the bulk of the finance and carry most of the risk. 'You don't get best value if you treat each line as a separate exercise,' he says. He also stresses that light-rail forms part of an integrated system with upgraded bus routes. A long-planned extension through Trafford Park to the controversial Trafford Centre at Dumplington will not, he adds, be part of the Metrolink funding package. The pte is happy to build it - but only if the private sector meets the whole cost.

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