Light Rail Transit Association - UK Development Group 


JUNE 2002 



The higher capacity of a heavy electric railway line is only an asset when its theoretically-high passenger capacity is actually required. Potential savings are possible by either converting fully to light rail operation or just adding branches operated by dual voltage LRVs. A track-sharing operation, fast becoming standard practice in Europe, permits a lower-cost procedure with sharper curves and steeper gradients, often needed for street operation or in pedestrian precincts. Light rail operation can be particularly useful when integrating with other transit modes (1).


For many years, rail activists in West Yorkshire have argued that the heavy railway line between Leeds and Skipton was a vital part of the Aire Valley's transport infrastructure and needed only a costly electrification project for it to regain much of its former glory. Although no-one is likely to argue with this, suggestions have often been made though that this alone will not be enough.

For a number of reasons it has failed to attract many of the motorists living in the valley, partly blamed on a shortage of well-placed stations. Also playing their part have been the closure threat on the Settle and Carlisle line, reduced service on the Morecambe line and the total elimination of the line to Colne. This all added to a traffic "explosion" in the Valley and strengthened the resolve of the average shopper/commuter motorist to remain just that, a shopper/commuter motorist. It also strengthened the call for a new high-quality road which, after a very short time following its opening, funnelled a lot more traffic into Bingley.

Unfortunately, those firmly opposed to a Bingley by-pass tended to rely on a "King Canute" type approach and are now beginning to realise that an injection of some European ideas into the area is probably the only sure way of avoiding further road extensions. It has often been said at political level that a motorist will remain a motorist whilst he/she has no suitable alternative.


Only a short distance from Bingley is the market town of Otley in Wharfedale, a place that lost its railway service about 40 years ago. Any thought of railway electrification in Yorkshire at that time was beyond anyone's wildest dreams and, with its station somewhat remote from the town centre as well as being located in an ideal place for a road by-pass, it became a very easy target for a Beeching-style closure. Although the Otley by-pass was eventually built, the local press has indicated that opinions in Wharfedale are changing: "A rail link would benefit people who live in Otley and everybody in North Leeds because it would lead to a massive reduction in traffic" (2). The idea of connecting a small town to a nearby conurbation by a light rail line is no longer a unique concept, and a modern example can now be seen in Karlsruhe. This German town extended its interurban tram system through a narrow street in the nearby small town of Linkenheim and provided a through service into and then through Karlsruhe (3). It is now well used by local residents, and no doubt played a prominent part in reducing demand for road expansion. It might be too late to save Wharfedale's green fields though, because Bradford Council is currently planning a bid for over 5m from the Government for a 3-km (plus) road by-pass across fields between Otley and Ilkley (4).


Still in West Yorkshire, a connection from Otley to the proposed Supertram system in Leeds via electrified railway tracks in Airedale (just one of many possibilities) would be a carbon copy of the 2001 railway/tramway connection into Heilbronn in Germany (5). Although this particular connection is serving only the CBD in Heilbronn at the present time, the intention is to eventually extend it out on the far side. If Leeds copied this idea, Otley could be connected to St. James Hospital via the Leeds Bus Station.

Another Otley to Leeds variation could copy the recent tram extension into the airport in Bremen (Germany) (6). By catering for passengers along the route as well as airport workers, not a usual practice with dedicated and expensive airport links, Bremen's method used here would overcome a viability problem by boosting the patronage level (7).


Cost savings have no doubt been the spur to experimentation with mixed heavy and light rail operation which, as mentioned earlier, is now common practice in Europe with Britain belatedly following suit. Tyne & Wear recently succeeded in mixing light metro cars with DMUs in the Sunderland area, but the ultimate aim of low floor LRVs sharing track with heavy rolling stock in Britain has yet to be achieved. Nottingham came very close but played safe by sticking to known technology, and designed its system such that the two systems (heavy and light) shared only the track bed, not the actual tracks. The layout in Nottingham has similarities to the Saarbrücken system in Germany in that the heavy component circulates from the railway station through the town's suburban fringes, whereas the tramway meets up with the railway route after traversing the streets in the CBD (8).

Long before the first tram runs through Nottingham, plans have been aired by the local authorities for light rail expansion in a 20 year strategy report. Serious problems have already surfaced because of a potential conflict with Council plans for a South Nottinghamshire rail network (9).


Despite the potential economies to be gained by sharing the same running rails, Britain has shown extreme caution by so far not allowing light and heavy rail technologies to physically mix. Valuable experience will no doubt come from Tyne & Wear but it will be only a "partial" experience because only high-platform light metro cars and diesel DMUs, also with high floors, are involved. Further studies will be required before mixed running of rolling stock with different floor levels are approved. It will be interesting to follow developments in Newcastle (Tyne & Wear), where new tram services have been proposed mixing with high-platform metro cars under the CBD.


  1. RAIL INDUSTRY MONITOR 2002 - published by The TAS Partnership - TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT page 167 - May 2002.
  2. Pauline Cooper - YORKSHIRE EVENING POST - 20th March 2002.
  3. Tony Smale - RDS RAILWATCH page 3 - April 1996.
  4. YORKSHIRE EVENING POST - 2nd April 2002.
  5. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - September 2001.
  6. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - June 1998.
  7. YORKSHIRE EVENING POST - 4th February 2002.
  8. RAILWAY GAZETTE INTERNATIONAL page 471 - July 2001.
  9. LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - 28th March 2002.
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