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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Buy British - Best Policy

John Woodman

The latest debacle affecting a UK tram operator is the withdrawal of services by the West Midlands system of their expanding network from Birmingham city centre to Wolverhampton (station). entire fleet of cars has had to be withdrawn for checks to bodywork and frames as the result of appearance of yet more structural cracks. This problem arose a year ago when a number of trams underwent checks, with subsequent remedial work and repairs being carried out for the same reason. This time round (March 2022) the entire West Midlands light rail fleet has had to be taken out of service with bus service replacement instated.

Midland Metro Italian built trams for the opening of the first line between Birmingham (Snow Hill Station) and Wolverhampton. Withdrawn and replaced by CAF models sourced from Spain - and now experiencing structural problems. Photo John Woodman during a visit by Skoda Transport Engineers.

Trial run by Preston Trampower of its prototype low floor articulated model (all-British) seen here at Starr Gate in green and yellow colours - cooperation between Blackpool Transport and a UK tram developer. Photo : John Woodman

Spanish group CAF were the supplier of the West Midland tram system in its entirety - following early withdrawal of the initial fleet built by an Italian company. The latter also experienced problems needing continual repair, although it is understood those faults were electrical in nature. With the West Midlands light rail network in an expansion phase much like Manchester's Metrolink system in recent years, the need for reliable trams is paramount. This new debacle may justifiably put a halt on further contracts from CAF as a supplier with its factory in Zaragoza; quite apart from throwing into question the reliance on imported trams for new light rail lines in the UK.

Made in Zaragoza, Spain - and coming unstuck in Birmingham. An example of the CAF fleet in the previous pink, white and grey fleet livery adopted by West Midlands for this new fleet - the design didnt last long. Photo by John Woodman

Interestingly this month has also seen a public unveiling of new rolling stock for the Piccadilly line being built by Siemens at a brand new assembly plant in County Durham. Transport for London is intending to reequip the entire Piccadilly line with new, cars all of which will be sourced in the UK, with further rolling stock renewal for the Bakerloo, Waterloo and City, and other underground lines being anticipated.

This Blog has previously pointed to the illogic of UK light rail systems being almost wholly reliant on imported equipment, the Manchester Metrolink being an extreme example. Loss of high value assembly jobs, skills training, and lack of UK competitive sourcing are notable blemishes on the UK light rail sector. Blackpool's contract with Bombardier is but a small footnote on the list of orders subsidised by British taxpayers and government funding. The UK market (modest as it is) was formerly kept 'in hock' to a handful of foreign manufacturers under cleverly finessed EU tendering criteria. This has thankfully been junked when the UK tore up its membership of that club.

Its high time for the light rail sector to wake up and enter the real world, outside of the warm coterie of 'experts' closeted in London and the Home Counties, together with amply rewarded 'Advisors and Consultants' ever hovering around Westminster offices to hoover up pending tenders. Like Transport for London's robust approach to London Underground's upgrade and procurement, with a firm grip on strategic sourcing issues led by Mayor Sadiq Kahn - Transport for North, UK Tram or whatever topical names the sector's influencers go by these days, now need to bring back light rail rolling stock development and manufacture to these shores immediately. Possibly a motivated politician will step up to the plate, like Mr Kahn has done for TfL

Having British tram operators in proximity to UK equipment suppliers has to be the logical step, if only to avoid a wholesale closure of services resulting from manufacturing imperfections on a scale now witnessed in the Midlands. A UK company based in Preston which has been persistent in its efforts to secure a tram development and assembly business in the north of England - has thus far found sparse support in the circles frequented by the usual corporate suspects. Only Blackpool Council and Blackpool Transport have been forthcoming in providing practical cooperation, with GEC Traction previously finding the same cooperating partnership for testing trial equipment in the 1980s. Creating a light rail equivalent of the Transport for London setup in the northwest has to be a fundamental objective for UK tramway revival; beyond new paint schemes, designer rebranding and ever more European imports. The US approach to procurement of rolling stock from foreign companies provides pertinent lessons to be learned. Manchester City Region take note please.

Action this day.


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