Deutsche Bahn

Suburban to City Centre travel: Is tram-train the solution?

Elaine Greenwood: "we have DAS fitted onto 82 class 158 and 159 cabs and the fitment of the class 458 fleet has just started."

Elaine Greenwood, Head of Sales, ESG Rail says: "The popularity of trams in the UK is growing, with light rail usage at a record high and more and more regions deciding that the tram might be the solution to their congestion issues."

So, why am l qualified to talk about trams? As a former Light Rail Sales Director for Bombardier, I was responsible for various light rail schemes across the UK, including Manchester, Docklands and Blackpool. I also learnt a lot about other tram systems operating around the world. This experience has, I believe, made me a light rail expert.


The press is currently full of stories about the Sheffield to Rotherham tram train pilot and this raised the idea that similar systems could be built across the country, in places such as Glasgow, between Derby and Nottingham, Edinburgh South and Leeds to Bradford Airport. Whilst the tram train certainly does have many advantages over conventional trains, I would advise anyone considering the merits of such schemes to seek professional guidance from a light rail expert.


What is a tram train?

Tram trains are vehicles that can operate in two transport modes, the first as a tram on an urban tramway network on a street and the second as a train on a mainline railway alongside heavy rolling stock. There are several tram train schemes in operation across Europe, including in Germany (Karlsruhe, Kassel and Saarbrucken) and in France (Mulhouse). Although Manchester Metrolink has some tram train characteristics, with it using both railway and tramway infrastructure, the first official tram train scheme in the UK will be the Sheffield to Rotherham pilot.


So what are the benefits of tram trains over traditional transport modes?

Passengers benefit greatly from the tramtrain. With the vehicles travelling on both heavy and light rail, they are more convenient, as the public do not have to change transport modes at railway stations. The vehicles are lighter than trains and are said to be more energy efficient, with faster acceleration and deceleration when compared to mainline rolling stock. The Regio Citadis tram train (built by Alstom) for Kassel is claimed to be 4 times more economical than a bus and 10 times more economical than a private car. The scheme is said to have transformed public transport in Kassel. Tram train schemes are also said to be cheaper to build, as they run, in part, on rail infrastructure that is already built, usually freight lines. This means that less new track has to be laid. So with so many benefits, why do I urge caution?


Complexity of tram train systems?

The design, planning and construction of tram train projects is very challenging. With the UK on a different loading gauge to the rest of Europe and having different safety standards and legal rules, the UK unfortunately cannot simply use vehicles that are proven and in service in other countries. A tram train is a very expensive and complex vehicle. The wheel profile design is very important as it needs to work on different rail types. The car body needs to be lighter than a conventional train and is therefore not compliant with the requirements for rail rolling stock. There is also a danger of a tram train not being detected by track circuits, switches and on crossings. The low weight can result in insufficient electrical contact between the wheel and the rail, and this increases the risk of derailment. These safety concerns have to be addressed.  The vehicles have to incorporate train qualities to allow them to mix with heavy rail traffic. They need to be low floor for street levels and high floor to work with railway platforms. They are difficult beasts to design, approve and test. The Sheffield project is running late because of design work complications, the pilot was originally due to commence in 2015, it was put back to 2016 and now it will be at least 2017 before it starts. There is currently no new date for the introduction of this scheme, with Network Rail struggling to approve the bespoke electrical equipment needed for these vehicles.  The UK is waiting with bated breath to see how this pilot performs. Such a scheme could certainly be the right solution for some cities, however a normal tram scheme may be better, easier and cheaper. Expert advice should be sought to determine the best option.



For Light Rail advice, contact Elaine Greenwood -