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January 5, 2016

In the previous century Britain's manufacturing sector turned out fleets of vehicles, locomotives of all types, aircraft, trolleybuses and of course, trams satisfying the domestic market and shipped them to markets throughout the world;  from China to South America.   Trams built in Preston, Loughborough and the industrial heartland of Scotland were part of the streetscape in diverse overseas towns and cities.   Still today, the 'descendants' of designs originating in Preston, clatter through the streets of Kolkotta;  whilst British double deck style trams are the mainstay in one of Hong Kong's central districts.  Of course these are isolated exceptions in the now sizeable light rail market carved up by a small cabal of tramcar builders competing globally for lucrative deals.   Below :

 

UK Content on Metrolink trams : grey dots on vinyl adhesive  !

 

Once upon a time this country was itself a market leader in transport technology.   No more.   Instead, thanks in no small part to our 'membership' of the European Union - Britain's manufacturing sector has been persuaded (or obliged) to give way to 'foreign' imports crowding our streets with coaches, trucks, buses, and trams. The stream of yellow branded trams for Manchester Metrolink have kept Bombardier workers in Bautzen (formerly the home of the Linke Hoffman Busch rail equipment plant) very busy and extremely happy.   Nottingham's operator has sourced new trams from France - pleasing Alstom no end with its successful 'Citadis' design now finally operating in the UK  and dominating the French market.  London's solitary tram operation prefers Bombardier designs built in Vienna; more recently supplementing its fleet with Stadler units manufactured near Berlin. Edinburgh opted for an overlarge (27 units) fleet of Spanish built trams for a still incomplete first line - and constructed by CAF.

 

Birmingham after operating Italian built trams on the initial service to Wolverhampton has now gone for 'Urbos 3' replacements assembled in Zaragoza by Spanish builder CAF - to operate the newly extended route into Birmingham's commercial centre.  Interestingly Zaragoza was the very last first generation tramway in Spain with a local bus and tram builder producing unique designs for that system. Sheffield opted for German trams (by Duewag).  This system has just welcomed trial 'tram train' units for the Rotherham extension from Meadowhall - these naturally are imported products;  this time from Vossloh's Valencia plant.  German design Spanish build.    

 

London's DLR is seems to be wedded to Bombardier after early deliveries from the BREL plant at Derby (since sold on to Essen). DLR then began all subsequent contracts with the Brugge factory of the Belgian group BN Construction - since taken over by Bombardier.  The last deliveries being built in Bautzen by that company. One wonders how the workers at the Brugge plant feel?

 

All in all Britain's light rail sector is full of taxpayer subsidised contracts for foreign builders - with not a British designed or built tram in sight. Nor is one likely as long as the UK is wedded (sorry shackled) to the EU's regulatory constraints on market competitiveness over public sector funded contracts.  What is of concern is the ease with which French authorities are able to ensure that nearly 100% of their massive public sector tram procurement favours almost exclusively that country's sole domestic manufacturer - Alstom.  Obviously France's regulatory bodies know more than a thing or two about preferment of local suppliers - particularly so when competitively priced light rail vehicles are available in the EU from more recent manufacturers in Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia (and I dare say Spanish plants).   With Chinese rail manufacturers emerging in the light rail sector with new advanced designs and technologies - how long will it be before we will be riding on units assembled in their lower cost factories ?   Had the UK not allowed itself to be elbowed out of rail vehicle design build it is possible this story might have had a happy ending.  Even the brave attempt led by Dr Lewis Lesley to bring about a wholly UK built low floor tram was shockingly ignored by UK light rail professionals and a veritable army of 'consultants' clustered around large capital investment projects; whilst being lobbied against by interests seeking to stall any new start British tram innovation.  The so called UK light rail organisation ostensibly looking after this country's engagement in a tram renaissance has given scant attention nor any focussed effort to instigate a 'buy British' initiatives for the medium and long term.  Instead they coo and ahh at foreign show exhibits around Europe and host self congratulatory events. Unsurpringly our Westminster politicians take it for granted that UK companies cannot design nor build trams for today's world.

 

Only Blackpool offered collaborative support in what became a still born effort while so called 'light rail professionals' raised not a little finger in promoting UK sourced vehicle development.  The only UK firm seemingly having any 'traction' being the never ending announcements by the Parry People Moving firm with apparent redesigns stemming from decades past.   At least on the bus side of things the Mayor of London (Boris) through TfL got rid of the horrendous articulated buses that managed to clog up capital streets (and burst into flame) in favour of a British built innovative double deck design for which he will be forever remembered,  whatever his political future.  There is a way to beat the system it seems.  And now for the tram bit.  Any blue skies thinking there then ?

 

We can never recapture the days of yore except through glimpses of a long gone era when British tram design, innovation and operation was noteworthy.   It seems unlikely that this sector now reliant on public subsidies and funding will ever be able to source indigenous production or tram design prowess.  Until then the only UK local content on the shoals of gaudy painted tram imports now dominating our market are vinyl add ons and livery detailing before completed vehicles (shipped by foreign logistics firms) enter service here.   In the US these matters face up to a somewhat different approach, where politicians insist that any Federally funded transit equipment contract must incorporate substantial local content through components and/or final assembly.  In the meantime we just roll over on our island and ensure public funded contracts keep the plants and workers in Bautzen, Zaragoza, Brugge, Vienna, Graz, etc.  busy.......  How the worm has turned.

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