The Word from the UK
The British Department of Transport released a paper in September, 2011, that should get wide attention in this country. Titled “Green Light for Light Rail,” it directly addresses the greatest threat to the light rail renaissance in the U.S.: escalating costs.
In the paper’s foreword, Undersecretary of State for Transport Norman Baker puts it bluntly: “past experience has shown that implementing light rail solutions has been too expensive.” The Executive Summary notes the price paid for excessive costs: “The high capital costs have meant that in practice, even where passenger forecasts may justify its consideration, light rail has often not been seen as an affordable option for local transport authorities to pursue.”
Of particular importance is Chapter 5, “Reducing the barriers to further investment in light rail.” The chapter offers many practical suggestions for cutting capital costs. The first is standardization. As in the U.S., every British city wants its own, unique light rail vehicles. The study notes, “Standardization has been a recommendation made by all of the Parliamentary Inquiries into the costs of light rail.” One easy way to standardize vehicles in America would be to start building PCC cars again. Their design was so superb that they are essentially timeless.
Chapter 5 also addresses the bane of American light rail, over-specification. It correctly notes that “More optimally designed systems might be lighter and less technologically advanced and so far cheaper to procure and maintain.” The study also identifies an important reason for over-specification, aka gold plating: “There is a perceived over-reliance on expertise and procedures from the heavy rail industry.” We have seen this repeatedly in this country, in the form of track and overhead that appears to be intended for the Shinkansen.
Most important of all is the last sentence in Chapter 5: “The Department would not expect any funding to be provided for any light rail system unless it follows a more standard and uniform core design taking advantage of lower cost specifications.” Hurrah! When will FTA lay down the same policy here? Instead of saying “Build it cheap or do without federal money, our FTA is planning to fund a streetcar line in Houston, Texas that will cost more than $100 million per mile.
This brings up what may be the most interesting page in the entire interesting study, page 26. Page 26 is devoted to Table 4.1, Capital costs of English light rail schemes. At the same time the British government is working to bring down costs, we find that by American standards, many British systems were remarkably inexpensive to build. The average per-mile construction cost for British light rail systems, excluding underground sections, and at 2010/2011 prices (converted into dollars at a rate of $1.60 to the pound) was $40.6 million too high in my view. But the Croydon Tramlink was built for $23.8 million per mile. Midland Metro (Birmingham) for $23.4 million per mile, Manchester Metrolink for $18.7 million and the Sunderland Extension to the Tyne & Wear Metro (Newcastle) for a remarkable cost of only $16.6 million per mile.
It is time and past time for FTA to set a should cost figure. Instead, the federal watchmen are asleep and the consultants and contractors are looting the store. $100 million plus for a streetcar line? Bah! Humbug!
The Study “Green Light for Light Rail” by the UK Department of Transport can be accessed (and downloaded as a .PDF document) at: