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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Leeds, Preston, South Hants, Liverpool, Crossriver, westLondon, Isle of Wight - we've heard it a

First Generation light rail vehicles consigned to the history books. Above Manchester on a wet miserable day and below West Midlands in sunshine, with a visiting group examining the troublesome units on that system - all now gone.

The publication this week of a transport strategy report for Lancashire by the County Council and the revival? of proposals for light rail (or similar) investment on the Isle of Wight no doubt will go the same way as countless expensive studies and reports published in the past twenty years for light rail schemes in the UK ---- On the shelf or in the bin.

Given the fact that Lancashire County Council cannot even sustain a six figure maintenance contribution to that part of Blackpool's light rail service which traverses tracks outwith the Unitary Authority of Blackpool - beyond March 2016 - nor continue to provide sustaining grants for rural bus services in the County linking otherwise isolated communities with urban centres - it beggars belief that nearly £800 Million of capital spending plans on road and rail infrastructure are being put forward by this latest what might be report - starting with complete overhaul of Preston's mainline station to make it fit for HS2 3 or 4 - take your pick.

I haven't visited the Isle of Wight although I have a hankering to do so to ride the superannuated London Underground rolling stock still providing service on the island. Given the plethora of touted light rail schemes launched under the Labour Government and that el supremo of tram revival Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott - the subsequent cancellation of Merseyside's extensive plans and those of Leeds are just two examples of those schemes flattened by Treasury expediency and political weakness. Liverpool even got as far as acquiring right of way and tram rail for its projected lines. Leeds got a 'Busway' which now disfigures major roads in the east of that city; doing little good other than having satisfied the scheme's promoters and construction contractors.

The chances of new light rail projects lighting up the UK landscape are slim at best. Noises from South Wales and Cardiff - given backing from the Welsh Assembly possibly have a chance - being somewhat removed from the deadening hand of London's (read Westminster) mandarins and insiders. English City/Regions with strong political leadership (read Birmingham, Manchester and Nottingham) have clawed their pieces of light rail action; although the grandiose proposals for a network of lines in and around Birmingham to neighbouring towns have been long stalled; with exception of course of Wolverhampton.

London's much heralded CrossRiver tram link between Waterloo and Kings Cross/St Pancras; and the west London scheme running from Shepherds Bush on more or less the same axis as the original London United Tramways route to Uxbridge - fell foul of local political (and business) opposition. Even proposals to put trams onto the Oxford Street corridor doing away with the never ending shoals of buses herded through this retail canyon - thus relieving congestion and pollution, got little more than a titular nod from the powers that are in the capital's administration. Only Croydon managed to secure a competent tram service with good management and popular support - incremental add-ons being forecast for that system.

A tentative toe in the water trial of tramtrain concept linking Sheffield and Rotherham is as far as it gets in building on Sheffield's pioneering system. Of course such capital projects are heavily promoted and lobbied by consulting firms on a win win basis: ie they get paid for pre-development work irrespective of final approval or implementation. Eventually in those cases which actually negotiate endless and myriad phases of planning justifying public funding - the hardware and equipment procurement are virtually all 'foreign imports' creating a net drain on the UK taxpayer accounts; and depriving UK companies of worthwhile business. Such is the way of European (EU) contract manipulation in this and many other sectors.

One can anticipate the usual corporate suspects, flag carrying 'advisors' and lobbyists now chasing around Cardiff and the soon to be steel free zone around Newport, in anticipation of lucrative contracts emerging at some point from early signs of light rail development in South Wales. Elsewhere in the British Isles - the overpriced Edinburgh scheme with its equally overly large fleet of Spanish built trams awaits the moment when Scottish taxpayers will be mindful of signing up to further capital spend on extensions to that system. Lessons having not been learned from the mismanagement debacle involving hugely inflated costs and overspend on Scotland's first new light rail scheme. At least Croydon, Sheffield, Manchester (and Nottingham) have costs under control and firm political grip on light rail delivery - or so it seems. Blackpool remains the smallest urban centre in Britain with light rail service - one which is under local authority ownership; no easy task for a Council with limited resources; nor prior experience of light rail operation. The traditional tramway know-how is of course exceptional - hence the ongoing success of 'heritage' tram tours and expanded heritage fleet. Possibly lessons there then?

First generation light rail fleets have already succumbed in Manchester and West Midlands - the life cycle of 'modern' trams being somewhat less than their first generation predecessors. Advances in technology and all manner of IT systems means that tram designs delivered today are already being superseded by smarter models moving off CAD to CAM lines in an assembly plant somewhere (else) in the EU. Leasing trams might be a more economic option for short life spans than investing in heavy overhauls. The discards being sold on (or further leased) to less demanding users; much like railway rolling stock of which Blackpool in particular has been a beneficiary in the past twenty odd years. It would have been marvellous if Preston's plans for a new light rail operation originating with UK firms had come to maturity - and Merseyside saw steel wheels on steel (tram) track again. Elsewhere in the world, from Turkey to China, France to the USA - new light rail systems are appearing like wild fire, whilst we in this country are on a very slow burn. Only the consultants win out here it seems - now there's a lucrative growth sector that shows no signs of abating.

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