The Bristol Cable
New technology means trams could be a practical, cost-effective and green solution to Bristol’s mass transport problem, according to a new report by campaign group Moving Bristol Forward. 
Visualisations: Mike Whelan Creative Services

Clean, speedy, efficient trams criss-crossing Bristol? You’ve probably heard that story before. Old schemes that never got going mean folk with long memories regard trams for our city as pie in the sky.

But building a tram network is entirely possible. New, lighter tram systems are easier and cheaper to build than existing lines elsewhere. Opting in to trams now offers Bristol its best chance to cut carbon emissions from transport, improve air quality and ease the choke-hold of cars on our roads.

These are the main conclusions of a new report commissioned by Moving Bristol Forward (MBF), our campaign group pushing for a 21st century transport system. 

The fact that the city has lagged behind comparable cities in the UK means that it now has the opportunity to leapfrog the second-generation technology which they have employed,” says the report, produced by transport consultancy Lightweight Community Transport and Light Rail UK. They estimate the new tram technologies could have costs per kilometre as much as 50% cheaper than earlier tram schemes.

This is important because so many people recognise that Bristol’s transport system is a dreadful tangle – Mayor Marvin Rees has been pushing forward plans for a multi-billion pound mass transit system, featuring an underground. But trying to work out how to improve it feels like picking at a knot that has been tightening for too long to ever loosen. Envisioning where the working tram system could go helps us see how the way we get around could actually be improved for everyone.

The work that went into the report, partly supported by the Foundation for Integrated Transport, maps three routes in detail. The consultants looked at passenger demand, reallocation of road space from private cars to public transport and active travel, and network management – with Public Transport Pathways (PTPs) that always make cars wait for larger passenger vehicles, and multi-purpose tram stops.

The report highlights three potential main lines, which would be linked by a “carousel” tram circuit in the city centre:

  • Along the A38 North from a proposed Park+Ride near the M5 to the city centre
  • From a proposed Park+Ride at the Globe Inn on the A4 Bath Rd to the city centre
  • A third radial route along the A38 South to the airport
Tram stops are spaced every 400m and within cycling and walking distance of substantial residential, retail and employment areas, and connected to other transport.

The report concludes that demand will be high, and that there are no engineering or traffic management issues that would bar on-street tramways on any of the routes. Modern signalling and monitoring systems mean buses, cars and trams can share space.

So the tram network outlined is entirely feasible, technically and economically. And any of the three routes could make a great choice for Bristol’s first new tramway. Smart planners elsewhere have found that if you build one line, when people may still be sceptical, most are quickly converted and calls for additional lines and extensions follow. MBF believe a first line could be running less than a decade from now.

It’s important the report finds no “showstoppers” in our hilly city with its old street plan. There are no gradients the new trams can’t cope with, no curves too sharp for modern tram cars. And there is room for trams on all the roads, with a bit of planning. There would be two-way tracks along almost all the new lines, with one-track running in a few stretches where space is tighter, as is common in other cities.

This work strengthens the case that building trams could be the key move that stops Bristol transport being a zero sum game, in which every new initiative seems to make something else worse (E-scooters on pavements, anyone?). Experience in other cities shows that trams, but not new buses, can get people out of cars. Prioritising tram routes on the street helps keep them reliable – vital for commuters. Trams are free of exhaust emissions, and steel wheels on rails also eliminate particle pollution from tyres, which buses contribute to heavily.

What is happening already in Bristol?

The old Bristol Tramways Carriage Company building at the junction of the A38 with Zetland Road, 1936. (Photo: Best of Bristol)

The report shows again why local decision-makers are poised to develop new proposals for mass transit lines, but points in a different direction from some current thinking in Bristol Council and the actual transport authority, the regional West of England Combined Authority, WECA.

Bristol’s recently re-elected mayor Marvin Rees reaffirmed during this year’s election campaign that that he saw underground sections – far more expensive than trams, especially new generation trams – as necessary in any new transport routes.

WECA, which is responsible for getting large projects approved by the Department for Transport, tends to emphasise new bus routes that rely on dedicated (no cars) ways to keep them reliable. But WECA’s new Labour mayor, Dan Norris, has been careful not to endorse Rees’s underground idea, though he hasn’t rejected it either. We don’t really know how this might play out because no-one knows what the actual draft plans are at the moment.

Somewhere, there is apparently a list of 19 options for mass transit schemes that the Department of Transport are considering, and which will form the basis of a more detailed bid for central government funding. We now need details of these options – and of route appraisals Rees has repeatedly referred to but never published – to be opened up to scrutiny. It’s going to be our transport system, and our money, so the least we can expect is for decision-makers to show their working.

It may be that the MBF report provides a basis for critiquing the Bristol City Council or WECA plans. Or it might  fit in with them neatly, or suggest a cheaper, faster way of achieving some of the same goals.

Before the election WECA committed to a formal consultation on “how mass transit can best connect the four areas within the West of England, and what routes and technologies may work best for our region”. There are no details of that yet, either, in spite of the Authority putting £1.5m into developing the case for mass transit investment. The consultation was originally set for this Summer, but WECA now says it will happen in “late 2021”.

MBF sees their report as an early contribution to this consultation. It is not a final answer to the mass transit question, and tram lines for mass transit will only yield their full benefits along with other transport schemes, especially traffic management and promotion of active travel. But it does point to one way forward that could produce a real transformation of how we get around, as it has in a host of other comparable cities. Why wait?

Read the full report and a summary here 

Jon Turney is a science writer in Bristol and a director of Zero West CIC, who are instigators of the Moving Bristol Forward Project along with Transport for Greater Bristol.

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  • MALCOLM ROBERTS says:

    This is Bristol where working for the collective good is very difficult because of deep political divisions. I worked on the Manchester Metro when work started in the 80s – look at that system now.

    It is correct to say that no obvious barriers to a new system exist and certainly the rolling stock can be lighter. What is needed is political will and finance.

    As for an underground — no chance.

    • John Calver says:

      I agree , I was a student in Newcastle late 70’s . The Metro was built , it transformed transport in the Region . Bristol is behind most major cities by 40 to 50 years . Time to start catching up . NOW

  • tony wilson says:

    I helped re-introduce trams into Dublin some twenty years ago, transforming that city’s transport system. There is is no excuse other than intransigence for not planning for trams in Bristol.

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