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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Birmingham & West Midlands Charade - Solutions at Hand in the UK

John Woodman

The extended closure of the entire West Midlands light rail network and impact on opening recently completed extensions has rightly prompted the political leaders of that Regional Authority to call for an independent investigation. It now is reported that several other 'customers' of the CAF Urbos 3 model design have encountered operational problems - but this does not so far extend to the Lothian Region's premier light rail line.

If anything the investigating body should give its views on just how a UK industrial region which once produced rail equipment and rolling stock should have totally allowed its specialist skills to have succumbed to foreign manufacturers. And even more why the UK government's transport policy advisors have advanced little in the way of guidance or criticism on the loss of an industry sector in favour of imported products. Of course contracts being tendered for the West Midlands light rail fleet expansion would have had to conform to European Union strings attached format.

Fortunately the UK's 'Brexit' means that application of these contrived conditions from Brussels no longer apply. It is high time that a UK domestic supplier emerges to satisfy future light rail procurement for the domestic market. West Midlands MPs and business leaders should be at the forefront of forcing entrenched interests at Westminster to forcefully open up this agenda so UK taxpayers money is no longer expended on blindly purchasing high capital cost trams from foreign suppliers - and especially ones that incorporate deadly structural flaws.

Blackpool had positive experience of buying trams built in UK factories by British workers - when it ordered ten trailers from Metro Cammell in 1961, and eight 'Centenary' cars from the Blackburn factory of East Lancashire Coachbuilders in 1985, aided and abetted by experienced engineering input from Blackpool Transport's Rigby Road Works. As far as I am aware none of these units encountered structural faults requiring early withdrawal for repairs. Even more salutory is the history of the long lasting products from English Electric in Preston, and the Loughborough factory of Brush Engineering - all of which gave reliable service on the Fylde coast, without recourse to being returned to their builders over six decades. But of course all this was before the interfering grasps of EU bureaucracies set themselves up as arbiters of tramcar procurement.

Birmingham built trailer 687 (formerly T7) delivered in 1961/2 and performing reliably as a Control Trailer right up to withdrawal in the following century.

Britain's longest operating tramway system has maintained a cooperating relationship with the innovators responsible for pioneering the new light rail service in Preston. A project seeking a northwest base to build a proven reliable all British tram capable of meeting operating standards in the 21st Century. If advanced avionics technology can be developed and applied at Wharton and Salmesbury by BAE Systems and within spitting distance of the city of Preston, the logic in providing robust support to the ongoing Trampower project is self evident; even to Lancashire County Council, as well as those movers and shakers leading the northwest enterprise set up.

All pending UK contracts with the CAF company should become part of an independent scrutiny while every future light rail order should now be required to have mandatory UK supplier preference much like the US Administration's light rail vehicle procurement policy. This has resulted in factories and employment being established in the US by well known European light rail firms. The UK's soft touch attitude to importation of rail equipment has denuded towns like Preston, Blackburn, the West Midlands etc. of high value employment potential. Manchester alone is continuing to merrily go along with bringing a steady flow of European imports guaranteeing workforces far removed from the northwest. The setting up of a northwest assembly plant should have been a minimum requirement of the supplier as part of contract terms.

Don't light rail operators and their board level senior management and industry ever talk with each other ? What purpose do all these high sounding bodies and their annual backslapping events serve? Time for their principles to be revisited.

Now that Grant Shapps has proposed a new transit network for Leeds as a partial sop to the loss of HS2 investment in railways serving the people of Yorkshire (and eastern Lancashire) ; an immediate UK procurement clause needs to be inserting in the implementation of rolling stock for new lines in Leeds and West Yorkshire conurbation. The managers of the Leeds transport set up should heed recent lessons from their counterparts in Birmingham, not to mention the independent inquiry being launched by the West Midlands political leadership. Unfortunately both Manchester Metrolink and Tyne & Wear rolling stock upgrades are done deals - but the West Midlands arrangements need urgent revisiting.


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