New report urges support for Britain’s light rail systems to aid city region’s COVID recovery

Another new report has just been released which urges the government to continue support to not only protect current light rail systems in Britain but also to expand them with the aim that this will help to aid city regions’ recovery from the COVID pandemic. “Leading Light: What light rail can do for city regions” has been produced by Steer Group for the Urban Transport Group and it states that light rail in Britain is instrumental in supporting economic growth, promoting social inclusion and achieving environmental gains in the urban areas they serve.

The report claims that protecting light rail services and maintaining the urban connectivity they provide is key to help towns and cities can recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. With government funding due to run out in April 2022 it urges the government to provide further cash if required to enable this recovery to continue – especially considering there remains huge uncertainty over patronage on light rail systems and how long it may take to reach anywhere approaching pre-pandemic levels.

As well as maintaining current systems the report shows that there are opportunities to not only extend existing networks but also to introduce new systems in towns and cities which have yet to see networks open. This will, however, require a stable policy and funding environment to be introduced.

Stephen Edwards, Executive Director at South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive, who leads on light rail for the Urban Transport Group, said: “Light rail systems play a bigger role in the life of British urban areas now than they have for well over fifty years. This report sets out in detail, and with numerous case studies, why and how light rail has been such a success story for the places it serves. It also supports our wider case to the Comprehensive Spending Review for both continued funding support for our light rail networks, whilst patronage is constrained due to COVID, and, in the longer term, for a more stable and consistent approach to extending the benefits of light rail to more places and passengers.”

Also included in the report is how light rail contributes to the economic, social and environmental objectives of national and city region governments. This includes:

  • Economic benefits – it can support growth in employment and economic activity in town and city centres in a way that minimises the negative impacts that growth in car traffic would bring but that facilitates redevelopment, regeneration and improved public realm. One study has found the Tyne and Wear Metro contributed around £290 million to the Gross Value Added (GVA) of the North East economy.
  • Social benefits – it can contribute to the Government’s levelling up agenda and help those town and city centres left behind by providing better access to jobs, education and training for those living in deprived areas. In an Ipsos MORI study to the impact of the Manchester Metrolink line on Wythenshawe, 84% of people said the tram contributed most to giving them access to a wider range of places with job opportunities. In addition 67% of Tyne and Wear Metro journeys pre-COVID were made by people who had no access to a car.
  • Environmental benefits – it can support the transition to net zero carbon and contribute to cleaner air in cities. This is because light rail is one of the least polluting transport modes (and zero emissions at point of use). Manchester Metrolink and Nottingham Express Transit are powered exclusively by renewable energy and it is estimated that Stagecoach Supertram has helped to saved over 2,000 tonnes of C02 per year.

The report shows how key light rail networks have been in keeping cities moving throughout the pandemic, allowing key workers and others unable to work from home to commute to their jobs, providing connections to healthcare facilities and vaccination hubs and enabling people to go back to the office and head out shopping.

It says: “Light rail has a continuing role shaping the future of our towns and cities. It will help support post-pandemic economic recovery and shape the recovery from COVID so that urban economies follow a more inclusive and more sustainable path.”

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