At the end of last year we reported on the Very Light Rail plans which it is hoped will provide a cheaper and more energy efficient option for public transport across the UK. The brainchild of various academics with support of the Department for Transport and Network Rail amongst other partners at the time it was said that the first vehicle would be ready by this year with a planned route in Coventry following soon afterwards. At the time the exact details of where that route would go hadn’t been announced but the latest update has given this information plus confirming that they plan eventually the vehicles will be self-driving. If everything goes according to plan – and as we all know things seldom do! – they will be running by 2024.
The first route has been selected to link Coventry Railway Station and University Hospital Coventry and Warwickshire (UHCW) via the city centre with Coventry City Council filly on board with the project. Researchers from the University of Warwick are working with Transport Design International to bring the plan to fruition and they have said they plan that eventually the vehicles will be self-driving.
Whereas last year it was hoped the prototype vehicle would be ready this year the latest update has revealed that this is delayed until 2020. It is planned that it will be tested soon after completion on a special test track. Artists impressions of the tram show a short and two-ended vehicle is being produced with capacity for 50 passengers. It will be built using materials including aluminium, steel and composites. The tram will initially be fully driver operated but the group are also said to be developing self-driving equipment – and are hopeful that this will be trial fitted to a tram on West Midlands Metro before being transferred to Coventry.
The line will be built without overhead with the trams fitted with batteries for operation which it is hoped will help keep construction costs down.
Cllr Jim O’Boyle, Coventry City Council cabinet member for jobs and regeneration, explained why Coventry were keen to get on board with the project: “We have not really had a transport system that is unique or different in Coventry and I thought why not. Coventry and Warwickshire are at the forefront of some of the most revolutionary technologies. UHCW is one of our biggest log-jams as anyone who has recently gone there and tried to park will know. That seems to us to be the obvious place to launch and that will be our first route.”
Regarding the plan for autonomous operation Nick Mallison from WMG at the University of Warwick commented: “Ultimately we would like to see autonomous operation. I am not going to say whether it will be five year, or ten years, or whatever but we are going to run a third project alongside the vehicle and the track projects. The idea is that system will go on to a Birmingham tram. It won’t be controlling the tram, it will shadow the driver – the driver will be in control. After a couple of years we hope to be able to say the system is safe and we will transfer it to Coventry. When the time is right we should be able to press a button and the system is autonomous.”
This project has been in gestation for several years with most of the progress going on behind the scenes but if this latest update can be believed we will finally see some progress in the coming years. Whether it does remains to be seen.