Critics of light rail projects in North America and the UK frequently question whether their benefits justify massive outlay of public funds. It’s an argument I recently made reference to in my post about national press attention for the successful Portland Streetcar system here in the USA.
In that spirit — keeping in mind the case made by those like Randal O’Toole, who argues against spending taxpayer funds to subsidize transit projects geared toward serving narrow interest groups — comes news of progress on a private-sector tram plan in Preston, England.
According to this Sept. 9 report in Preston’s Lancashire Evening Post, the Merseyside-based Tram Power Limited wants to build a demonstrator line in Preston over a section of disused railway line in the Ribbleton area of the city. After several years of discussion, LEP reported that experts were due out along the line this week, “carrying out ‘preliminary surveys’ and assessing how much repair and improvement work needs to be done to the Network Rail track which once carried trains between Preston and Longridge.” Some clearance work has already begun, the paper reported.
Preston (pop. 131,900, according to its city council) is an industrial city in Lancashire, located in England’s North West. It’s also seat of Lancashire County Council and a growing collegiate town, thanks to the University of Central Lancashire with more than 30,000 students.
It also is an important railway centre. Preston’s cavernous late-Victorian station is served by numerous regional routes as well as the mighty West Coast Main Line. Adrian Bradshaw’s Preston Station, Past and Present website is a comprehensive resource for photos and history about the station as well as associated routes and rail equipment passing through over the years. While it’s not tram-related per se, Adrian’s site does offer a detailed look at the tram proposals here.
Tram enthusiasts also have several reasons to remember Preston fondly. LEP described the former tram system (closed 1935) in this May 30, 2007 article, and a nice selection of historic photos can be found on this page maintained by Flickr user Nog Tow. Also, the city once was home to a thriving tram-building industry — its products continue to run in Blackpool — and more on that subject can be seen here.
Back in the present day, the initial, 1.25 km demonstrator LRT line and a 1.75 km extension would form the initial segment of a project known as the “Guild Line,” apparently a modest four-route network that’s slated to be operational by — wait for it — 2012. The £100m system would serve several park and ride lots using seven trams, and serve as the core of a larger regional system extending out of Preston City Centre.
An exciting, if ambitious vision. Two factors make it seem less crazy than it sounds: Opportunities for private backing and the 2012 Preston Guild.
Officials with Tram Power are actively seeking private sector financing for the modest initial system, which would use seven of its own custom-built trams. In a Dec. 18, 2009 LEP article, Tram Power director Professor Lewis Lesley said: “This would be our present to Preston for the 2012 Guild, it would not cost a penny to the public purse as we are seeking private investment to the tune of £100m.”
The company already has experience building low-cost LRT overhead (catenary) and track components, and has built a demonstrator vehicle (seen above) which in an earlier form underwent testing in Blackpool and on the heritage line in Birkenhead. More information on the vehicle can be found on Tram Power’s web site here. Plans are to build the vehicles at a local facility, as outlined in this May 4 LEP article. Another overview of the project can be found in this Jan. 19 Liverpool Daily Post article.
The second factor in Tram Power’s favor: September 2010 marks the two-year countdown to the 2012 Preston Guild. Held once every 20 years, the massive civic celebration traces its origins back to 1179 and the original town charter from King Henry II, which gave Preston’s burgesses guild merchant status. The 2012 celebration will be the first since Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II granted Preston city status during her golden jubilee year of 2002. A new tram system would be the icing on the civic cake.
Can it happen on time, and with no use of public funds? That is the £100m question.
The company’s hope is to get the demonstrator project running soon to create interest among investors for financing the larger system, as indicated in this June 12 LEP article — which, with the photo above, introduced the first new tram to Preston readers.
As quoted by LEP, Tram Power business development manager Lincoln Shields said: “We have got a handful of people with serious money which are interested, but they want to see the company set up and the demonstrator vehicle running before they make any serious commitment.” Mr. Shields had, the paper pointed out, described one potential backer as a “mega rich” individual.
If these financiers are as enthusiastic and willing as officials contend, that is one big hurdle cleared. The availability of disused railway right-of-way for an affordable lease agreement is another major benefit. But getting a light-rail system financed and built is only the first step: Operating, staffing and maintaining it over the long term is another question altogether.
Yet Tram Power’s Prof. Lesley, as quoted in the Dec. 18, 2009 LEP article mentioned above, believes he can break the mould: “We can show the amount of profit an operational tram network in Preston will make will far exceed the costs of creating it and running it,” he told the paper.
One possibility suggested in that same article is for the former railway right-of-way to be used overnight for freight service to an area industrial park. Shared use of tracks by LRT and freight trains has been successful elsewhere, notably in San Diego.
A little more about Prof. Lesley’s research and ideas can be found here. This experiment bears close watching.