Very Light Rail in Coventry

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It is perhaps rather bad timing to be examining the Council’s plans for very light rail when the Government is advising everyone to avoid using public transport. But we have to look to the future and there is no future in continuing the growth of car travel, so we need to look at the alternatives. New trams in Manchester, Sheffield and nearby in Birmingham have revolutionised the image and accessibility of these cities. So why not in Coventry?

But Coventrians of a certain generation will remember the embarrassment of the last time Coventry put its foot in the water on tram travel. An image of trams passing up Earlsdon Street, all looking nice and tidy, was shown to be fraudulent. When the correct sized trams were super-imposed it was clear that it just was not going to work in tight built urban areas.

So, is “Very Light Rail” (VLR) the answer?

What is it?

Very Light Rail (VLR) is a new technology which is being developed in the West Midlands with Coventry as one of the key partners.

The project will deliver a lower cost lighter weight tram solution. The vehicles (which are currently referred to as shuttles to avoid any confusion with trams) are battery powered so they do not need the overhead power cables required for a traditional tram system. The batteries are supported by a rapid charging technology.

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The design is light weight, with axle weights of about 4 tonnes which is in the same ball game as a medium sized lorry. This means that the tracks don’t need deep foundations that would be required for a traditional tram system and tracks can be laid over existing utilities (electric cables, sewerage, gas and water pipes, telecommunications etc.).  The track sections can be built off site and then delivered and installed with minimum disruption. The proposed system also allows the track to be quickly lifted for repair or replacement of services.

The plan is to design a system that will provide a frequent service where passengers can just turn up and go with only a few minutes wait between shuttles. The novel bogie design allows tight turning circles.  The shuttle can share space on roads as well as running on segregated tracks away from the roads.

The idea is to link the routes with “Park and Ride” so that people can park on the outskirts of the city and travel the rest of their journey on a quick and frequent travel system.

vehicle

Ultimately the shuttles will have autonomous operation, although in the early years the units will be driver operated. Each shuttle can carry 50 passengers.

Why is it being developed?

Put simply the idea is to get people out of their cars and onto public transport. However, the use of buses has been declining and they are not seen as an attractive alternative to private cars.

The system is designed to contribute to the reduction of CO2 emissions and improve air quality in the urban environment. It is described as an attractive and affordable alternative to the motor car. It will contribute to the city’s economic development and Industrial Strategy and help to make the city and attractive place to live, work, study and invest.

The strategy is to use the city and region’s engineering expertise to develop the concept with a view to the region benefitting industrially as the concept is rolled out over the country and internationally. The idea is for the West Midlands to become the country’s “VLR Centre of Excellence”. It is argued that the region’s expertise in vehicle technology is transferrable to this new sector.

What will it cost and who is paying?

The average cost of a conventional tram system is £35m-£60m/km. The target cost of VLR is £10m/ km. I have not been able to identify the total cost of either of the planned routes.

The project has so far secured £14.66 million from the West Midlands Combined Authority Devolution Deal (£12.2 million) and Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership LEP Growth Fund (£2.45 million).

Who is involved?

As this is a research and development project there are a significant number of partners involved.

Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG), based at the University of Warwick, is responsible for the research and development efforts related to the vehicle and track form. French firm Ingerop Conseil et Ingénierie was recently selected to support the track development phase of the project.

Transport for the West Midlands (TfWM) will handle system operations, passenger information and communications. An expert from TfWM is involved in providing technical support and guidance for the project and ultimately will approve the system as being safe for public transport services.

WMG chose Transport Design International (TDI) for developing the vehicle design. TDI has completed the prototype design. Tikab & Arogus will undertake the design and supply of the bogie along with the control system, while RDM will manufacture the vehicle upon completion of the design. Transcal is responsible for metal fabrication works, seating, and interior fittings.

Coventry City Council intends to establish a joint venture to undertake the design and construction of the first route once the shuttle and novel track form projects are concluded.

A VLR innovation and testing facility is being developed in Dudley and the shuttle and novel track form will be evaluated at the centre.

What routes are planned?

Two potential routes have been evaluated:

  • City Centre to Warwick University via the railway station
  • Railway station to University Hospital Coventry and Warwickshire (UHCW)

These routes connect major employment sites, development sites and potential strategic park and ride sites with the city centre and the railway station.

At present the intention is to construct the route to UHCW first.

Ultimately the city council want to construct a four route system connecting the major residential, industrial and commercial areas across the city, as well as a direct connection to the HS2 station near Birmingham Airport, the latter passing through the new Eastern Green housing development.

The timetable

The current plan is for the first route to UHCW to open in late 2024.  There are plans to exhibit the shuttle vehicle in Coventry at some point during the City of Culture celebrations in 2021.

Conclusions

The project looks very positive for the city and it now appears likely that it could be built. Public transport has taken a knock over the past few weeks and the project will not be economically viable unless people are willing to travel closer together again. The problem with tracked transit systems is the lack of flexibility – a bus can go anywhere so long as the roads are wide enough but a tram has to  follow the rails – so we will have to continue to use buses for most public travel in the city. That said, the permanent ways along which trams travel do attract a lot of economic growth and construction, something that does not occur with buses.  The University Hospital route is predicted to carry 9m passengers and VLR is an attractive way of connecting UHCW to the city centre.

John Payne, Secretary of the Coventry Society

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