We’re not going to get a tram in Leeds yet and here is why!

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Mention the state of the transport system in Leeds and it isn’t long before someone turns the topic towards trams or light rail. Leeds has made two attempts at mass rapid transit and both have failed during the development stage, causing immense frustration for Leodensians. As a result of these setbacks, any work to start constructing anything that remotely looks like a tram has been pushed off the agenda for a good 3-5 years. There are a number of reasons for this, which are summarised below.

They cost a lot more than what we have in the bank today

The main reason that we are not going to get a tram system soon is cost. Leeds doesn’t have enough money to put towards this project. £173.5m is a lot of money in many cases but when it comes to large scale, city changing transport infrastructure, it really doesn’t amount to very much. Even when someone aware of local political finances starts dragging money out of other pots of infrastructure, they only manage to get to around £350m. To get any higher requires a contribution from government, which are currently in short supply. Even £350m is a tiny amount compared to the costs per mile of extensions that have been undertaken to other UK light rail systems in recent years.

The main reason for the expense is the amount of change required to support trams. Compared to 45 tonne HGVs, a tram has a much heavier point load because they are heavier and focus it on a smaller area. The tram track itself is also heavier than a standard road surface. As a result, you have to dig to put in robust foundations that support the weight of the tram. The problem with digging is that it is expensive particularly where there are existing roads and utilities. The tram project foots the bill for changing drains, sewers, electricity cables, phone lines, gas pipes and water pipes. All of this comes at great expense.

Folding our arms and stamping our feet over the billions being placed into Londons transport network misses the point (no matter how irritating we find it). Our proposals need to stand on their own two feet. Today, our only feasible proposal is to enhance what we already have. We need time for the relative authorites to generate a feasible plan and anyone aware of the problems facing transport in Leeds know that we just don’t have time.

Their construction is disruptive

The inconvenient closed roads part that tram construction requires. People still need to get around, affecting areas nearby

Local shops and residents will howl. Motorists will wail. And there will be no movement from those work sites for at least 12 months as tram construction is not just expensive, it is time consuming. All of the proposals that have been put forward will see a tram line passing through the doughnut of peak hour traffic congestion that surrounds Leeds every day. The only way through for the organisations building the tram will be a total closure where it pushes through. Any incident on the inner ring road already brings Leeds to a halt. Can we afford 12 months continual disruption?

We need to create the space for them once they start operating

You don’t fit a 30-50 metre aluminium and glass anaconda through a junction without causing some disruption to everyone else.

Trams are disruptive when they operate as well. To navigate a city centre, they require special phases in traffic lights. You don’t fit a 30-50 metre aluminium and glass anaconda through a junction without causing some disruption to everyone else. And whilst the tram is making the reassuring woosh of steel wheel on steel rail, nothing else moves. That removes capacity for everything else trying to move through the junction. Any scheme needs to reduce the number of these junctions so that air pollution and delays to other people are minimised. In a city with congestion problems already, work needs to be undertaken to create as much capacity as possible before we start working on a tram. We need as many people as possible to be transferred away from low density transport such as the private car and taxi or we are all going to be stuck in a jam. Hedging our bets that the tram will be the game changer from day one is a reckless decision that could sink any chance that the tram line would have of success.

It will only help one corridor

Multiple trams in Vienna. Many people have a vision that the tram will serve them. Leeds will need to start small and then expand.

Then there is the tram vision. The problem with this vision is that people assume that the tram will serve them. Unfortunately, a good 90% of Leeds won’t be served by the initial tram route. The current vision being championed has a city centre loop plus a branch. Most people who travel into Leeds not be served by the tram. This won’t solve the transport problems that affect the city.

There are comments made about networks. Manchester has a tram network and they still have hundreds of buses around their city centre. So do all of the other cities with massive tram networks. There is also the comment that from small acorns grow giant trees. The problem is that the water that a tram network needs are eight figure sums of cold, hard cash.

Finally, trams require a lot of paperwork to implement. I know there are plenty of people shouting “gerron with it”, but if you ever want any money, you need to demonstrate it will be succesful. There are plenty of hurdles where a project can fall over and no progress is made on the ground. Leeds has already been bitten twice with Supertram and the Trolleybus. We cannot afford more years of delay chasing a vision that can be decimated because of a paperwork issue that we were unable to avoid.

In a city with not enough money to build a tram today and too much congestion to cope with building one, we need to focus the available money and time on getting the best out of our current transport system. Leeds needs has a city wide transport problem and needs a city wide solution. Transport corridors into Leeds need to be developed so that people can get a real alternative to the car today rather than in five plus years time. Buses may not be as attractive as a tram but with some integrated design into a bus network that £173.5m can afford, they can have a transformative effect.

This will create the space that we need and time to get the paperwork sorted for a mass rapid transit system that we can all unite behind. Leeds will then be tram ready!

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