Tram-trains: A mass transit solution for Bristol and Bath

Stadler CITYLINK vehicle in South Wales Metro livery. Tram-trains like this could run in Bristol

Stadler CITYLINK tram-train for South Wales Metro – Image ©Transport for Wales

The West of England Mayoral Combined Authority is currently considering its options for Bristol’s long-awaited Mass Transit system. Various choices are being discussed. Could tram-trains be the solution?

Mass transit corridors

The Joint Local Transport Plan (JLTP4), published in 2020, identified four mass transit corridors radiating from Bristol City Centre: The North and East Fringes, Bristol Airport, and Bristol to Bath.

JLTP4 recognised that it would be difficult to find space above ground for some of these routes. It proposed that underground running may be necessary in some cases. This has become a very contentious issue, with senior local politicians clearly at odds over whether this could ever be delivered. The recent Future4West report appears to suggest a very low benefit:cost ratio for tunnelled sections.

The Combined Authority’s studies continue to be ‘mode-agnostic’, and estimate that a ‘rubber wheeled’ solution would be about 20% less expensive than light rail. But we should be under no illusions about what a rubber-wheeled solution means. At best it would be a gadgetbahn, using incompatible, unusual or untried technology. At worst it would be a bus. Either way it will emit rubber particulates.

Extending MetroBus may be a useful way to tide us over until a light rail system can be delivered, but it cannot be transformative. It should only be seen as a stopgap.

Can we really deliver a light rail mass transit system?

Since the 1970’s Bristol has recognised the need for light rail mass transit. But it has failed to deliver it. Local politics have certainly got in the way, but other problems such as Bristol’s geography and narrow arterial roads have also made it hard to find a viable solution.

So is there a way forward? We think so.

Tram-trains

A tram-train is a vehicle which runs on the existing rail network alongside main line passenger and freight services, but can also run on the street. Unlike conventional trains, they can go round tight corners and up steep hills. This means suburban rail services can be extended at a lower cost.

Battery-electric tram trains will soon be introduced in Cardiff, following successful implementation in other cities. Initially they will run on the existing rail network, but later street running will be introduced so that they can serve the Cardiff Bay area.

Build on what we already have

Tram-trains could allow us to build on the success of MetroWest rail services. We believe that a mass transit system which can be extended incrementally, using known technology, is much more likely to be deliverable than one which relies on novel or untested systems.

Start at Temple Meads

A tram-train system could serve Bristol Temple Meads Station directly. The topology of Temple Meads makes it very difficult to access using road-based transport. Vehicles either stop on Temple Gate, a minimum 250m walk from the platforms, or potentially take a 300m detour into Friary – still leaving passengers 200m from the platforms.

Tram-trains could connect to the existing rail network at Bristol Temple Meads Station adjacent to Platform 1, giving direct interchange with other train services. The JLTP4 routes to Bath and Bristol Airport could connect the existing rail lines at Avonmeads, using a disused railway route as far as Callington Road. Other JLTP4 routes could also make some use of existing rail corridors.

Ditch the diesels

New tram-trains could replace the unsuited and dirty diesel trains currently used for MetroWest services. This could act as a catalyst for electrifying these services, and could be done ahead of the JLTP4 routes.

These vehicles use tried and tested zero-emission propulsion. And their batteries allow tram-trains to operate in areas where providing overhead wiring is difficult.

Experience elsewhere suggests that once a tram system is built and seen to work, it becomes easier to make a case for extending it. We CAN do this!

Thanks to Mott McDonald, whose report Tram Train Principles and Guidance provided much of the background information for this post. We also thank Transport for Wales for additional practical information. We hope to visit Cardiff shortly to see these vehicles in action. Perhaps it would be useful for West of England decision-makers to do so too!


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6 responses to “Tram-trains: A mass transit solution for Bristol and Bath”

  1. James Smithers avatar
    James Smithers

    In my opinion, tram-trains are not the solution:

    1. **Unproven Technology:**
    – Tram-trains involve a blend of street and rail infrastructure, which may introduce unproven and potentially problematic technology. Relying on such untested systems could lead to operational challenges and unforeseen issues.

    2. **Limited Transformative Impact:**
    – Despite their touted versatility, tram-trains may not deliver the transformative impact needed for Bristol’s mass transit. The dual nature of these vehicles may compromise their efficiency in comparison to dedicated rail or street solutions.

    3. **Historical Implementation Challenges:**
    – Bristol has a history of struggling to implement light rail solutions. Tram-trains, despite their differences, may not offer a decisive departure from past challenges, and the complexity of integrating them into existing rail networks could exacerbate implementation difficulties.

    4. **Environmental Concerns – Rubber Particulates:**
    – The use of rubber-wheeled tram-trains raises legitimate environmental concerns, particularly the emission of rubber particulates. This pollution aspect could have adverse effects on air quality, countering the goal of achieving a sustainable and eco-friendly mass transit system.

    5. **Questionable Cost Efficiency:**
    – While initially touted as a cost-effective option, the long-term cost efficiency of tram-trains is debatable. The potential for unanticipated maintenance costs, technology-related issues, and the need for specialised infrastructure may erode the perceived cost benefits.

    6. **Missed Opportunity for Electrification:**
    – Opting for tram-trains, especially if they continue to rely on non-electric propulsion, may miss a crucial opportunity to contribute to broader electrification goals. Choosing technologies that necessitate electrification can align with environmental and sustainability objectives.

    7. **Complex Connectivity Issues:**
    – The dual functionality of tram-trains may introduce complexities in terms of connectivity with existing rail services, potentially causing disruptions and challenges in providing seamless transport solutions for passengers.

    In summary, while tram-trains offer certain advantages, the potential drawbacks, including unproven technology, limited transformative impact, historical challenges, environmental concerns, questionable cost efficiency, and complex connectivity issues, collectively make a compelling case against them as the optimal solution for Bristol’s mass transit.

  2. Tim Weekes avatar
    Tim Weekes

    Thanks for your comments James.

    Tram-trains are not unproven technology. They are in use in Sheffield, Manchester and at least seven other European cities, and will shortly be rolled out in Cardiff.

    As we clearly state above, we do not support the use of rubber-wheeled vehicles. We advocate battery-electric tram-trains.

    We do not underestimate the complexity of implementing tram-trains, but we do think they could be the best solution to mass transit in Bristol and Bath.

    1. James Smithers avatar
      James Smithers

      Thanks for that, Tim, but I am still not convinced.

      Consider instead implementing a dedicated light rail system tailored to Bristol’s needs:

      1. **Dedicated Infrastructure:**
      – Develop a dedicated light rail network with tracks laid along mass transit corridors identified in the Joint Local Transport Plan (JLTP4). This ensures a clear, efficient route without the compromise inherent in tram-trains.

      2. **Environmental Sustainability:**
      – Embrace modern electric light rail vehicles powered by renewable energy sources. This commitment aligns with sustainability goals, reduces emissions, and provides a cleaner and more eco-friendly mode of transport.

      3. **Proven Technology:**
      – Leverage well-established and proven light rail technology. This reduces the risk of operational issues, accelerates the implementation timeline, and minimises uncertainties associated with untested systems.

      4. **Transformative Impact:**
      – Prioritise a system designed for transformative impact, emphasising connectivity, accessibility, and efficiency. Well-designed light rail systems have a history of significantly improving urban mobility and driving economic development.

      5. **Incremental Expansion:**
      – Adopt an incremental expansion strategy, starting with high-traffic corridors and gradually extending the network. This allows for manageable implementation, adaptation based on demand, and the opportunity to learn from initial phases.

      6. **Community Engagement:**
      – Engage with local communities throughout the planning process to address concerns and incorporate valuable input. Involving stakeholders fosters a sense of ownership, enhances project acceptance, and helps tailor the system to the unique needs of Bristol.

      7. **Seamless Connectivity:**
      – Ensure seamless connectivity with existing transport modes, such as buses and trains. Intermodal integration promotes a holistic transport experience, encouraging more people to embrace public transport.

      8. **Investment in Infrastructure:**
      – Secure funding for robust infrastructure that can withstand future growth and technological advancements. A well-constructed and forward-thinking infrastructure lays the foundation for a sustainable, long-term mass transit solution.

      9. **Accessibility and Inclusivity:**
      – Prioritise accessibility for all residents, including those with mobility challenges. Well-designed stations, level boarding platforms, and thoughtful urban planning contribute to a more inclusive and accessible transit system.

      10. **Public Awareness Campaigns:**
      – Implement public awareness campaigns to inform residents about the benefits of the proposed light rail system. A well-informed public is more likely to support and utilise the new mass transit solution.

      By opting for a comprehensive light rail system, Bristol can address its mass transit needs with a reliable, environmentally friendly, and transformative solution that aligns with the city’s unique characteristics and future growth plans.

  3. Mitchell Cameron avatar

    I have been listening to one of your members at today’s meeting in Keynsham and I like what I heard. I myself have very similar thoughts and I have produced a website detailing what I think can be achieved at a fraction of the cost of the plans currently being investigated. The website is https://mitch-cameron.wixsite.com/bristol-metro-system I would appreciate it if you could take a look and let me know what you think. I have included route details for further expansion, infrastructure details and the types of tram trains we could use. Many thanks.

    1. James Smithers avatar
      James Smithers

      **Key Reasons Why Mitchell’s Proposed Solution May Not Be Ideal:**

      1. **Unrealistic Timeline:**
      – The claim of having mass transit up and running within one to two years seems overly optimistic and raises questions about the feasibility and thorough planning required for such a significant infrastructure project.

      2. **Potential Disruption:**
      – Introducing new tram lines and modifying existing infrastructure can lead to significant disruptions in the city. The proposal should thoroughly address potential challenges, including construction-related inconveniences and impacts on local businesses.

      3. **Cost Assessment:**
      – The proposal suggests a lower cost compared to an underground system but lacks a detailed cost breakdown. A comprehensive financial assessment is crucial to ensure transparency, feasibility, and to prevent unforeseen budget overruns.

      4. **Integration with Existing Services:**
      – The proposal describes an overall network, but it’s essential to fully clarify how the new mass transit system integrates with existing rail services to optimise efficiency and passenger convenience.

      5. **Zero-Carbon Claims:**
      – While the aim for a zero-carbon system is commendable, specific details on the technology and energy sources powering the proposed mass transit system are necessary. Transparency about the environmental impact and sustainability of the system is vital.

      6. **Public Engagement and Consultation:**
      – The proposal should emphasise the importance of public engagement and consultation. Involving the community in the planning process is crucial to understanding local needs, addressing concerns, and ensuring broad support for the proposed mass transit system.

      7. **Scalability and Future Expansion:**
      – The ability of the proposed system to scale with the city’s growth needs careful consideration. A well-designed mass transit system should be flexible and allow for future expansions and adjustments to accommodate changing urban dynamics. Mitchell does lay this out to a certain extent, but much more detail is needed.

      8. **Comparison with Other Successful Systems:**
      – While the Tyne and Wear Metro is cited as a successful example, it’s essential to draw specific parallels and understand the unique challenges and opportunities in Bristol. A comprehensive analysis of similar systems and their adaptability to Bristol’s context is needed.

      9. **Regulatory and Permitting Challenges:**
      – The proposal should address potential regulatory challenges, such as obtaining necessary permits and approvals. Failure to navigate these aspects could lead to delays or even project abandonment.

      10. **Economic Impact Assessment:**
      – A thorough economic impact assessment should be conducted to understand how the proposed mass transit system could influence job creation, local businesses, and overall economic development in Bristol.

      In summary, while the proposal envisions an ambitious solution to Bristol’s traffic problems, careful consideration of timelines, costs, public engagement, environmental impact, and scalability is necessary to determine its viability and long-term success. A transparent and well-communicated plan will be crucial for gaining the support of both residents and decision-makers.

      1. Mitchell Cameron avatar

        Hi James, thanks for the reply. My replies are below.

        1. **Unrealistic Timeline:**
        – The claim of having mass transit up and running within one to two years seems overly optimistic and raises questions about the feasibility and thorough planning required for such a significant infrastructure project.

        Reply – If we start with the existing train lines, either by electrifying the lines, or by using battery powered tram trains, phase one could definitely be ready to go within 18 to 24 months. This is the starting point. Expansion is started with the henbury loop and portishead, which already has a lot of infrastructure in place, so is relatively straightforward. This would actually cover a fairly large area of the city and beyond, connecting bristol and the surrounding areas.

        2. **Potential Disruption:**
        – Introducing new tram lines and modifying existing infrastructure can lead to significant disruptions in the city. The proposal should thoroughly address potential challenges, including construction-related inconveniences and impacts on local businesses.

        Reply – The initial phase one as listed above, will have minimal disruption. Of course there will be disruption when tram tracks are fitted, this cannot be helped but it is a neccesity to get it done and it will only be temporary, especially if we use battery powered tram trains which do not need overhead power lines. Re-routing is something we do on a daily basis because of roadworks but forward planning should minimise this.

        3. **Cost Assessment:**
        – The proposal suggests a lower cost compared to an underground system but lacks a detailed cost breakdown. A comprehensive financial assessment is crucial to ensure transparency, feasibility, and to prevent unforeseen budget overruns.

        Reply – This will obviously be cheaper than an underground. We would be starting with a very large amount of existing rail infrastructure already in place which will minimise costs and planning. The expansion through east and west bristol is where the costs could rise due to the high density housing etc and yes, a full calculation would be needed.

        4. **Integration with Existing Services:**
        – The proposal describes an overall network, but it’s essential to fully clarify how the new mass transit system integrates with existing rail services to optimise efficiency and passenger convenience.

        Reply – As stated in the concept I have produced, a new terminal would be created next to temple meads…fully connecting the rail network. The bus station will be connected on the airport line (as will the city centre), bringing all transport solutions together.

        5. **Zero-Carbon Claims:**
        – While the aim for a zero-carbon system is commendable, specific details on the technology and energy sources powering the proposed mass transit system are necessary. Transparency about the environmental impact and sustainability of the system is vital.

        Reply – Of course a full environmental consultation would be needed, but leaving it as it is, is not really an option. Running diesel trains within the city and outer limits is not an option. Battery powered train trams, using green electrified energy should be the ultimate goal.

        6. **Public Engagement and Consultation:**
        – The proposal should emphasise the importance of public engagement and consultation. Involving the community in the planning process is crucial to understanding local needs, addressing concerns, and ensuring broad support for the proposed mass transit system.

        Reply – I am not a city planner and of course a consultation would be needed, but do you honestly think there would be objections to creating an electric/battery powered mass transit system, using existing train lines? The airport, east and west Bristol lines would need a full consultation, but this could be done whilst phase one work is being carried out. Seperate the phases, but with a joined up expansion goal.

        7. **Scalability and Future Expansion:**
        – The ability of the proposed system to scale with the city’s growth needs careful consideration. A well-designed mass transit system should be flexible and allow for future expansions and adjustments to accommodate changing urban dynamics. Mitchell does lay this out to a certain extent, but much more detail is needed.

        Reply – Of course, and I think I have shown how expansion can be carried out to the network. This isnt just about bristol, this is also, and possibly more importantly, about the surrounding areas. Thornbury, Yate, Bath, WSM, Clevedon, Burnham on Sea……We need to get people from all of these areas out of their cars and onto green, affordable and reliable transport.

        8. **Comparison with Other Successful Systems:**
        – While the Tyne and Wear Metro is cited as a successful example, it’s essential to draw specific parallels and understand the unique challenges and opportunities in Bristol. A comprehensive analysis of similar systems and their adaptability to Bristol’s context is needed.

        Reply – My son lives in Newcastle. The metro has been there since the 70’s and was constructed using existing train lines, with the exception of the city centre where it goes underground. Its not a perfect system, and it doesnt cover the whole of the city but it is still a good enough system for a city of its size, and I know they are exploring options to expand. Newcastle is a very similar city to Bristol. Very hilly, a river running through it and with thousands of people coming into the city everyday for work and leisure. I believe that Bristol could have a very similar system after phase one, and when all of the phases are completed, it could be better than most UK cities.

        9. **Regulatory and Permitting Challenges:**
        – The proposal should address potential regulatory challenges, such as obtaining necessary permits and approvals. Failure to navigate these aspects could lead to delays or even project abandonment.

        Reply – Of course. I am not saying start tomorrow without a proper consultation, but by breaking it down into phases, it can make a complex issue slightly easier.

        10. **Economic Impact Assessment:**
        – A thorough economic impact assessment should be conducted to understand how the proposed mass transit system could influence job creation, local businesses, and overall economic development in Bristol.

        Reply – Absolutely. The system i have proposed, allows for modular expansion as the population grows and new suburbs are built. It allows for people to move freely around the city, without necessarily having to go into the city. For example, if you live in severn beach, you can get a tram train running east and connect to yate or thornbury, without the need to go into bristol itself. By allowing the free movement of people into and around the area will only encourage business’s, investment companies, tourists and new travellers to the area.

        Conclusion – Bristols needs mass transit and buses are not the answer. We already have a good base structure of rail lines in the area, and this should be the starting point, followed by the expansion phases laid out in the proposal. The airport line is needed, the airport, unfortunately isnt going anywhere but I believe the cost of the airport line should be a 50/50 split between weca and the airport. We should be looking for private investment to help with the costs but we need a full, detailed and costed plan to move forward. Bristol itself is becoming a laughing stock. The roads are at a standstill, its becoming dirty and people are becoming embarrasesd to call our once great city home. Many people wont come into the city because of traffic, tolls and parking issues, and prefer to visit cribbs causeway instead. We need affordable, efficient, and reliable mass transit now, not yesterday…now, and the people that run the city and beyond, need to pull their finger out, get their heads together, stop the infighting, forget their own agenda and act for the good of the city and surrounding areas NOW. The proposal is here https://mitch-cameron.wixsite.com/bristol-metro-system

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