Trams Or Light Rail: Transport For Life

Tram in Central Croydon – supplied by the author

Thames Gateway Tramlink

There is a current proposal to join up Gravesend and Ebbsfleet/Bluewater Park in Kent with Purfleet, Grays and London Freeport at Tilbury by means of a tram network. Trams would cross the Thames via a new tunnel between Ebbsfleet in Kent and Grays in Essex. The tunnel would be an Immersed Tube Tunnel, similar to the Medway Tunnel on the A289. The proposal triggered a conference recently which offered convincing arguments about how trams are the answer to so many environmental concerns.

Employment Imbalance

The need for such a scheme is highlighted by the fact that the Gateway developments referred to above provide more opportunities for employment than there are people to take advantage of them. However, across the River in North Kent, there is a scarcity of jobs and plenty of people ready to work. But the River Thames is a serious barrier.

At present the only route from one bank to the other is through or over the Dartford Crossing. A tram would provide a number of considerable solutions.

But would Commuters Use the Tram?

Experience, it seems, proclaims a resounding “Yes!” In those parts of the country which have already embraced a form of Light Rail, eg Manchester, or the West Midlands, commuters readily abandon their beloved cars for the quick journey to work on the tram. These same parts of the country, having overcome the initial inertia associated with the first adoption of light rail, are busy investing in new lines and extending their networks. And here are some of the reasons why.

Metrolink tram at MediaCityUK, Manchester – picture by G-13114, used under CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

High Efficiency

Trams are efficient in a number of ways. They generally have priority over other vehicles at junctions, making them speedier than cars. They use electrical energy more efficiently, even more than the expanding fleet of electric vehicles. This is because there is less friction between steel wheel and rail than there is between rubber tyre and asphalt.

Buses may transport 60 or 70 passengers at a time, but a tram can accommodate up to 300 or 400. Even with car-share, that’s probably 200 or so fewer cars on the road.

Low Emissions

Vehicles powered by petroleum derivatives, however well designed, still contribute greatly to the amount of CO2 added to our atmosphere. But because they are powered by electricity, trams emit no greenhouse gases at the time of use. CO2 produced by the generation of power will be more and more reduced by the use of renewable sources.

But motive power is not the only source of pollution from rubber-tyred vehicles. The wheel’s contact with the Tarmac causes rubber particles to be rubbed off. These then add to the fuel particulates in the air or to rainwater run-off into our streams and rivers.

Part of an Integrated System

There was one message which was repeated by speaker after speaker: the importance of integrating any transport system. This comprises two facets, interchange and ticketing.

First, interchange. As far as possible a network should be designed to allow for a seamless transfer from one mode of transport to another. As one speaker put it, “If you follow a commuter to work in [named city] and ask them how they coped with all the changes, they will respond with, ‘What changes?’ ”

Second, ticketing. The best systems have a unified charging system for the whole network. So far as I can see, the nearest that we have to such a system in the UK is London’s Oyster Card. But there may well be others.

Transport For Life

At the end of the conference* I was more convinced than ever that tramways are the urban transport of the future. In its displacement of private cars, its greater efficiency than any bus, its lack of emissions, it is truly the Transport for Life. That is human life, and indeed the life of our planet.


* The conference took place on 11 September at South Essex FE College in Grays, Essex. It was arranged by a consortium, including the College, led by the Light Rail Transit Association. The organizer was Gordon Pratt, Managing Director of Thames Gateway Tramlink Ltd.