Report Calls Tram Plans into Question

Rising costs could force government to consider alternatives


An artist's impression of the tram

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Contact details of key figures:
Tim Jones, Project Director, West London Tram Project, 3rd Floor South Wing, Parnell House, 25 Wilton Road, London SW1V 1LW (email:

Councillors John Cudmore (leader) and Stephen Sears (responsible for transport) - both at Ealing Town Hall, New Broadway, Ealing W5 2BY (emails and


A report by the National Audit Office has revealed that, although light rail systems across the country have yielded significant benefits to passengers, they have often failed to meet financial targets or reduce traffic. The report is published at a critical time for the West London Transit System which is entering the final stage of consultation.

The project has attracted criticism from pressure groups like Save Ealing Streets due to plans to close the Uxbridge Road at 'pinch points' in Acton and Ealing and divert traffic onto residential roads. Ken Livingstone and Ealing Council have given full backing to the tram. Both Stephen Norris and Simon Hughes, mayoral candidates in the forthcoming election have said they would scrap the project which is now estimated to cost over £600 million.

The report by the head of the National Audit Office, Sir John Bourn concludes that light rail systems deliver fast, frequent and reliable services and provide a comfortable and safe journey. Their modern look and attractive services have enhanced the image of the cities where they have been built. However, since 1980 only seven systems have been built at a cost of £2.3 billon and they are not attracting as many passengers or delivering as many benefits as they should, several are running at a financial loss and construction costs are rising. The West London Transit Scheme will be the most expensive light rail project ever built in the UK.

Alastair Darling, the Minister for Transport said on the BBC's Today programme "If costs are going to carry on doubling then any government is quite right to say 'well, let's have a look at it and let's see if there aren't other alternatives'.

Cllr Stephen Sears, Ealing Cabinet member for transport and planning said " The council is fully behind the two key transport schemes that will run through the borough - the West London Tram and Crossrail. Terminals and alighting points in the plans for both of these systems will be integrated with other forms of transport and more importantly the alighting points are in busy town centre areas where they will maximise usage. In particular, we are lobbying for a stop on the Crossrail line at Southall, to tie in with current large scale regeneration plans for the area."

The government envisaged that up to 25 new lines could be built by 2010; 12 new lines are being developed but major barriers are preventing further expansion. The costs of proposed new systems are higher than the costs of existing systems and are rising; they must be brought down if many more systems are to be built. Unlike many of the systems that have been built the tram system planned for the Uxbridge Road will not be built on existing rail lines increasing the investment cost.

Although the Department for Transport expects systems to be self-financing, four systems have been running at a financial loss, mainly because passenger numbers and hence revenues have been well below those forecast. Losses are discouraging the private sector from investing in new lines.

According to the report, systems could have delivered more benefits. Systems are not fully integrated with other forms of public transport, especially buses and have had little impact on reducing road congestion. Through-ticketing arrangements are inadequate and not enough use has been made of complementary services such as park and ride schemes.

Systems take too long to be put in place. It takes on average nearly two years for local authorities to be granted the required legal powers. Approval for an extension to the Leeds Supertram system took almost four and a half years. The Department has increased staff resources for handling applications for legal powers and is taking steps to speed up statutory procedures. Even after schemes have been approved by the government it can still take over eight years before they are opened.

The report points out differences between systems in England and those in France and Germany, where there are more systems carrying more passengers. Systems in France and Germany connect major places of activity, such as hospitals and universities – not always the case in England, although new proposals for lines are expected to do more of this. French and German systems are fully integrated with other forms of transport, with buses, for example, feeding the light rail systems as well as serving non-light rail routes. French and German systems are also heavily subsidised by local transport authorities. In France, local authorities also have access to local taxes specifically for transport projects such as light rail schemes.

Ealing Council recently revealed that they will be spending £700,000 to help the project move forward. It is not clear at this stage who will be responsible for any financial deficits should they occur.

April 26, 2004