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  • Gareth Davies

Ultra-Light Rail: Financing & Deliverability in a Small City Environment. May 2020

Updated: Aug 31, 2021

Innovation and the Track to Net Zero

1. Introduction

Mark Naysmith, Chief Executive Officer of WSP Consultancy remarks in the foreword to the informative publication Delivering Net Zero for the Bright Blue Organisation; ‘WSP is delighted to accompany public and private sector clients delivering the transformational projects helping to advance this agenda today.’ Regarding transport he goes on to say: On the transport front we have no choice but to move away from combustion – and quickly.

WSP is currently assisting Herefordshire Council in its reassessment of major capital transport schemes in line with the move towards decarbonisation of transport in the county as part of its Climate Emergency declaration.

Barny Evans, Head of Sustainable Place, Energy and Waste at WSP states correctly: Delivering net zero may well be the agenda through which local government regains its purpose as an agent of change…… As the guarantors of the local people’s quality of life local leaders have rung the alarm bell on the need to act fast on climate.

Further quotations are taken from this important collection of essays.

In 2019 the Department for Transport undertook a consultation on Light Rail. Jesse Norman MP for Hereford was instrumental in steering this forward and in the foreword to this document he stated: ‘It is clear from the evidence that light rail (and other forms of rapid transit system) continues to play a very useful role in many communities and has the potential to play a still greater role in the future’

Innovation and thinking outside of the long-standing roads mantra in urban transport planning is now the key to the future. Cities in the UK and abroad are constructively looking at alternative means of travel to the car in both the areas of public transport and active travel. This applies as much to the small city, e.g. Hereford, as it does the metropolitan city regions. That Herefordshire Council has addressed such innovation and thinking in its transport reassessment analysis for the city is to be lauded.

In the short timescale for the implementation of the government’s commitment to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, deliverability, finance and minimising effects on the environment figure large in project assessment. The fact that an ultra-light rail route is included in the Herefordshire Council’s assessment is encouragingly indicative that they consider it a possibility on a line of route that is already in their ownership and which they maintain. Building on that as part of an integrated public transport and active travel transport package must be the essence of the current reassessment.

2. Financing

Laura Sandys CBE, Chair of the Energy Data Taskforce declares: Decarbonisation at the heart of the Covid 19 recovery will in turn release the growing appetite for the private sector to invest, innovate and build strong low carbon businesses.

The Railway Industry Association stated: ‘RIA joined a call with the Bank of England this week – where in response to an RIA question whether the Bank supports Government borrowing to invest in rail infrastructure it was confirmed that the Bank expects interest rates to remain low and that they agree that this opens up opportunities for infrastructure investment. It was noted that there will be opportunities to invest in structural change in the economy and to influence the way we live our lives and that support for this was more important than ever now.’

Alasdair MacEwan, Director of Culmer Raphael, makes an interesting comment: Treasury does have the capacity to spend at scale when crisis looms. The climate emergency is now seen in the same light as Covid 19 from and economic aspect.

Shaun Kingsbury CBE, former Chief Executive Officer of the UK Green Investment Bank considers: ‘We need a new class of investor, a specialist investor, one that only invests in sustainable businesses. In 2012 he was asked by the UK Government to establish and build the UK Green Investment Bank. The bank established that it could be both green and profitable. Examples such as this need building on.

With Britain moving into a global trading scenario post Brexit, this in itself should open up the potential to tap into green funds worldwide. In this situation a project such as a ULR route for Hereford at a total capital cost of £90-110 million with a first two stages cost of £22-30 million falls into a very low risk category in comparison with a major road scheme.

In terms of revenue cost it is preferable that the ULR is operated outside of Herefordshire Council. In all probability this would be as a franchise as for bus services under the provisions of the 2017 Buses Act. The Council would be retaining ownership and would be capable of specifying the level of service.

3. Deliverability

Light Rail tram systems have been around in Britain for over thirty years but it is over the last decade that innovative developments have been rapid. The two principal developments have been:

  • The successful use of pre-cast concrete track sections. Used now both by Network Rail and the light rail sector they are a proven method of lightweight and quick track construction.

  • The introduction of lightweight single tram units using flywheel and battery technology. This eliminates the need for the installation of an extensive and costly overhead electricity power supply. Such trams have been operated successfully for over a decade on the Stourbridge Shuttle in the West Midlands.

Phases one and two of a ULR Hereford scheme are on an existing ex-railway formation making construction under the necessary Transport & Works Order easier than the lengthy public inquiry system and compulsory purchase orders necessary for major road projects. The timescale would be significantly less than that of a Western Bypass.

It has been proven, as in the case of large schemes such as Manchester and Nottingham that once a first phase is in operation then a call for its extension is not long in following. Evidence from the UK, mainland Europe and America shows that investment in light rail in conjunction with other supportive policies can have positive economic impact on cities. Such impact includes:

  • Increasing accessibility to Central Business Districts: Hereford’s central district is in desperate need of economic rejuvenation.

  • Stimulation of inward investment: The city lags behind other West Midlands towns in attracting inward investment. The slow growth of the Rotherwas Enterprise Zone is a valid example of this.

  • Unlocking previously difficult to reach sites for development: The Edgar Street grid brownfield site is proving troublesome to develop due to poor public transport accessibility

  • The reorganisation or rationalisation of production, distribution and land use; in effect re-designing the city for people not cars. Hereford is now known for its poor environment which is having a negative effect on the volume of inward visits.

  • Triggering fresh growth through elimination of significant transport constraints: Congestion on radial routes into the city is a significant constraint. With less than 20% of volume being through traffic it is difficult to comprehend that a major bypass of the city will reduce congestion. Attractive, efficient and environmental alternatives to the car are needed

  • Improving accessibility which leads to increase in land and property values which in turn stimulates developer contributions.

  • Boosting a city’s image and in the case of Hereford, making the city a first in Britain to encapsulate an ultra-light rail route in its city wide economic, social and environmental vision of the future.

It is worth considering the words of Enrique Penalosa. ‘We can redesign a city to give people dignity; to make them feel hope: The city can make them happier’. These are the words of the Mayor of Bogota, the Bolivian capital in a third world continent and this was a city given over to the car.

4. Modelling & Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA)

It is likely that WSP, in the short time scale for the current review, will revert to evidence from past transport studies which includes the Hereford Multi Modal Transport Model of 2014 updated by WSP in 2017. This is dangerous in that it is evident previous models were designed around the need to justify an outer bypass. Modelling and its pitfalls has recently been in the spotlight with regard to Covid 19 analysis. As reported in the Guardian newspaper: It is not a question of whether models are flawed but in which ways are they flawed, and models can still be enormously valuable if their shortcomings are appreciated. As with other sources of information, however, they should never be used alone.

Transport models in particular are open to distortion to prove a particular course of action or investment. As with cost benefit analysis, in transport models there is a heavy and unhealthy emphasis on time saving based on the value of time. All that will change in a post lockdown and post Brexit readjustment of our economy, society, how we move about and the demand for transport. This is directly related to the climate change emergency and the need to decarbonise. It is noticeable that transport models, as with CBA have great difficulties, or indeed find it impossible to value environmental, social and wider economic effects.

Herefordshire Council should be greatly wary of accepting the results of a current reassessment which includes the use of past transport models. It could be that the council needs to adopt a pragmatic approach to determining the way forward for the city in what we hope will be a new clean, healthy and innovative Britain.

5. The Importance of Integration

To achieve success in reducing congestion and addressing climate change, integration of public transport and active travel modes is of vital importance. Electric bus services, cycling and walking, ultra-light rail, transport hubs safer routes to school and improved school bus services, environmental travel promotion, traffic management and bus priority, shared space and mobility, parking demand management are all part of a realistic and integrated approach to reducing congestion and accelerating the move to net zero emissions by 2050.

We hope that the WSP exercise currently being undertaken for Herefordshire Council takes due regard of this in its first stage assessment whilst seriously noting the words of specialists in the collection of essays ’Delivering Net Zero’ for the Bright Blue Campaign.

In the words of the WSP motto:

"Question Today

Imagine tomorrow

Create for the Future"

Let us hope that is what WSP are doing in their work for Herefordshire Council.


WSP: Delivering Net Zero WSP for the Bright Blue Campaign 2020

UKTram: An Investigation into the Economic Impacts on Cities of Investment in Light Rail Systems UKTram 2014

Department for Transport Light Rail & Other Rapid Transport Solutions DfT 2019

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