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Docklands Light Railway - link to picture

There are eight tramway/light rail systems in the UK—in Croydon, London's docklands, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle, Nottingham and Blackpool. Other new light rail schemes are in the planning stage in South–Central London and Edinburgh. Systems are also proposed in Leeds and Liverpool, although funding has been refused by the government, making them unlikely to proceed; for the same reason plans for schemes in Bristol and Portsmouth have been abandoned.

Modern trams are quite different to the first generation of trams which served our towns and cities from the Victorian age until the middle of the last century. In the early part of the twentieth century nearly every city and major town of any size, and quite a few of no size at all, had trams. Only one of these original systems survives, in Blackpool. What first-generation and second-generation tramways have in common is that they can both run through streets to provide a more convenient transport service than heavy rail, which is segregated from, rather than part of, the urban built environment, while being able to deal better and more efficiently with high traffic corridors than buses.

map of tramways Manchester's Metrolink - link to picture

Two of the systems mentioned in this site are properly termed Light Rail rather than tramways, as they feature no street running, but they do share much in common in terms of vehicle and infrastructure construction. Tram and Light Rail systems use lightweight vehicles, which operate at lower speeds than conventional rail vehicles, and stops or stations are usually less substantial than heavy rail stations—some of the stops on the new Nottingham Express Transit are little more than a raised kerb and a next-tram indicator. This makes such systems cheaper and quicker to build and extend. Lighter vehicles means faster acceleration and shorter stopping distances, which in turn means stops can be placed close together. Another advantage of light rail technology is that stops or stations can be closer to the places they serve, and to other modes of transport at interchanges, than heavy rail routes.

Sheffield's Supertram - link to picture

The first of the modern light rail systems to open in this country was the Tyne & Wear Metro in Newcastle, in 1980. This uses light rail technology but is closer to heavy metro in operation, with no street running and substantial stations set quite far apart, largely inherited from the rail routes it took over. There underground sections and stations in the city centre, and the system also shares some track with heavy rail services on the recently-opened route south to Sunderland.

In 1987 came the Docklands Light Railway, which was a mixture of innovative new viaduct construction and reuse of long-abandonded railway alignments. This system is still light rail rather than tramway, with no street running and substantial stations, but many of the stops are much closer together than you would expect with conventional heavy metro, and there are plenty of tight curves and steep gradients which would be unmanagable for conventional railway vehicles.

Birmingham's Midland Metro - link to picture

The DLR was constructed primarily to serve the redeveloped docklands area of east London, which has changed beyond recognition in the years since the system opened. In the central part of the docklands development, around Canary Wharf, the urban landscape has evolved around the DLR, with stations at the heart of new developments, rather than the transport system having to fit in around existing structures. Another interesting aspect of this system is that it is fully automated and driverless.

The first of the second-generation street-running tram systems was Manchester's Metrolink. This opened in 1992, using former railway alignments for much of its route, but with a section through the streets of the city centre. The system has since been extended, and after a hard fight to obtain funding, a substantial expansion of the system is planned. When Metrolink was opened 'tram' was considered to be a dirty word, and the system was referred to as Light Rail or 'hybrid', and the vehicles as 'Light Rail Vehicles' rather than trams, but Metrolink's position has softened as it has become clear that people actually quite like trams, and don't see them as old-fashioned.

Croydon Tramlink - link to picture

The next milestone was the opening of Sheffield's Supertram in 1994, with extensive street running, both shared use and reserved track. The system was ambitious, with three lines radiating from the city centre. Supertram ran into heavy financial difficulties, due partly to its planning and partly to heavy competition from deregulated bus services, and could easily have spelt the end for new tramway construction in this country; more recently, however, usage has increased. Planned extensions to the system have been abandoned due to lack of central government funding

Birmingham's Midland Metro opened in 1999. It is a single line, serving one transport corridor out of many in the West Midlands, the country's second largest metropolitan area. Most of the line uses a former railway alignment, with a short section of street running in Wolverhampton. In Birmingham the tramway uses platforms in Snow Hill main line station, although there are plans to extend the line on-street through the city, which will help the system begin to fulfill its potential. Extensions to other parts of the West Midlands are also in the pipeline.

Nottingham Express Transit - link to picture

Then in 2000 came Croydon Tramlink in south London, a network of three lines (one with a short spur) radiating out from Croydon, where the trams run in a loop around the town centre on the street. This system was more successful than Sheffield, and there are plans for several extensions. There are also two more tramway systems under consideration in London, one of which could potentially connect with Croydon Tramlink to enable trough trams to run between Croydon and Central London. Trams are only one of a number of transport modes in Greater London, which is also served by extensive heavy rail routes, an large heavy metro system (the London Underground) and a vast and comprehensive bus network. Croydon is a significant local centre, and is a major destination in local travel; Tramlink filled the gaps where some local areas were poorly served by existing transport.

The latest tramway to open (2004) is Nottingham Express Transit, which once again combines the use of former railway alignments with extensive street running. Since its opening NET has been very succesful, and is significant in being the first modern light rail project outside of a Metropolitan County. Extensions are already planned.

Blackpool and Fleetwood Tramway - link to picture

Still running, after nearly 120 years, Blackpool's tramway is the last remaining first-generation street-running tramway in the UK. There is talk of converting it to a more modern light rail system, but for now traditional single-and double-deck trams still provide an important public transport service between this busy seaside town and Fleetwood, just up the coast. The system involves street running in Blackpool and Fleetwood, with tram stops that are often no more than a bus stop-style sign. Between the two towns the tramway runs on reserved track with stops further apart, similar to more modern interurban tramways.

SystemFirst section openedRoute length (miles)Extended since openingExtensions plannedStreet runningFormer rail alignmentsNumber of vehicles
Tyne and Wear Metro198047.5yesnonoyes90
Docklands Light Railway198717yesyesnoyes93
Metrolink (Manchester)199224yesyesyesyes32
Sheffield Supertram199418nonoyesyes25
Midland Metro (Birmingham)199912.5noyesyesyes16
Croydon Tramlink200017noyesyesyes24
Nottingham Express Transit20049noyesyesyes15

More facts and figures.

page updated 12/10/07

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