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The surging case for light rail in Bath: an interview with BATA

9 min

After removing its tram system following the Second World War, Bath, like many cities across the UK, has become choked up with private cars, hampering wider economic and sustainability goals. But what if a tram system was to be reintroduced? And what if that tram system did not just reduce car usage, but was green in and of itself? Quadrant Transport sits down with David Andrews, chair of the Bath Area Trams Association (BATA), to find out more about ambitious plans for the city

The opulent city of Bath: like many cities across the UK and Western Europe prior to the Second World War, Bath’s tram system was a steady build from the horse-drawn trams of the late 1800s, through to a full electric tram system until 1939. A handful of factors, including the expansion of the bus network utilising tram routes, and the growth in demand for space for the private car, slowly drove out the tram networks by the time of the 1950s; but in recent years locals have been clamouring for a return of light rail in the Roman city.

The Bath Area Trams Association (BATA), a pro-tram lobby association, recently announced it has engaged in preliminary talks with TIG/m, a U.S-based wire-free light rail manufacturer, and consultancy firm TenBroeke Engineering, on the feasibility of a battery-powered wire-free tram system. An ambitious goal, but something which supporters of light rail see as an opportunity to creat a greener transport sphere in Bath.

“You have a number of interlinked problems with transport in Bath,” David Andrews, chair of BATA, tells Quadrant Transport. “Like all cities, except those with trams, the commercial areas with shops are suffering. The reason is that you have a choice. You either get on the bus with all of your family, it gets stuck in traffic, and it can be expensive to use one, or you drive in.”

Dave Andrews, chair, BATA

In Bath, car is most definitely king: earlier this month, a national survey of towns and cities by auto-retailer Robins & Day found that Bath was the worst place for drivers in England – even worse than London, taking into account factors such as the ease of navigation around the city, congestion levels, and availability of infrastructure such as electric charging points and petrol stations.

From an economic perspective, David laments that the difficulty in getting around the city – of which he believes 80% of journeys involve city-dwellers driving from one point in the city to another – combined with what he described as a “failed” bus service is hampering the financial potential of a tourist hotspot like Bath.

“It can take you an hour to get across Bath by bus,” David explained. “People don’t do that, they drive. So that’s the main reason why Bath is fogged with traffic and pollution, because people won’t use the buses. The people who use the buses are the ones who haven’t got any choice.

Like all cities, except those with trams, the commercial areas with shops are suffering

“What we say is if you put a tram in, people would use the radial routes to come in, change trams, and go out again. You can come in from the south of the city where I live, into the city centre, then off to the hospital, for example. That is a feasible route using two trams – and that’s why you need trams in Bath.”

The light rail solution – in any fashion

Whilst the hydrogen-battery hybrid tram solution might be one of the greener modes of travel for light rail, any light rail solution would be welcome for David and BATA. BATA produced a supporting dossier four years ago to persuade the West of England Combined Authority – WECA, the combined authority managing the transport budget in the region – of investment into a tram feasibility study. Yet following a changing of regimes in the governance of the region, it could be said that the idea has gone off the boil. David and pro-tram supporters in the city hope these ambitious new plans will revitalise both public and private passion in a light rail network for Bath.

The latest installation of a wire-free tram system in Doha c. TIG/m

The hydrogen-battery wire-free tram, which was announced to be a main option in BATA’s announcement in late August, has a variety of selling points: compared to the overall cost of a heavier, wired tramline, costing £25m per/km, total costs for wire-free renewable system would be “nowhere near” that figure, David explains, as well as removing the OLE system which some find unsightly and costly to maintain.

With experience in producing wire-free systems around the world including its latest in Doha, TIG/m has yet to produce a tram in this fashion – one that is primarily battery-powered, but utilises a separate hydrogen power source to climb hills and supplant heavier passenger numbers. Its latest installation, a hydrogen-powered wire-free tram In the Msheireb district of Doha – which began operations on 30 December last year – highlights the capabilities of a renewable tram solution in Bath and cities around the UK.

Whenever that has happened in Britain, there’s been a clamour: there’s lots of people that say they don’t want trams, and then the first one had been built, they say ‘this is marvellous, can we have some more please?’

“It’s well understood that the hydrogen route is not very efficient compared to the battery-only route,” David said. “If you had a purely hydrogen tram and a purely battery tram, you would need a lot more renewable energy to achieve the same end, because you’ve got the inefficiency of going to hydrogen, and you lose a lot of energy.

“However we’re not just running this tram on hydrogen; it’s purely an assist. So it’s not such a big factor, that’s an important thing to understand.”

What a fully implemented light rail system in the city could look like c. BATA

In terms of feasibility of tramway routes around the city, 11 lines were surveyed by BATA, and a study by WS Atkins found that at least four of them were likely to be viable. David told Quadrant Transport that whilst the routes surveyed by BATA are preliminary, the most practical method would be to establish a single line, build it to budget, and bring to the public the capabilities of a fully-functioning tram network in the city.

“Ideally you would just build all of them, but certainly just build the one to start with,” David argued. “Whenever that has happened in Britain, there’s been a clamour: there’s lots of people that say they don’t want trams, and then the first one had been built, they say ‘this is marvellous, can we have some more please?’ This is what happened in Manchester and Birmingham and Nottingham.”

The tricky funding question

Mammoth infrastructure projects such as Crossrail going tediously over budget, paired with the potential of HS2’s final bill reaching more than £100bn, has resulted in understandable public apprehension towards major transport schemes both nationally and regionally. And, with local authorities around the UK facing a greater and greater squeeze to national government grants, public investments in transport must be value for money.

Should WECA decide not to fund a tram system itself, BATA states that TIG/m could carry out a full “turnkey” design, installation, and operation, from its own financing. This turnkey approach, BATA continues, avoids extensive costs associated with the traditional tendering process used in the UK – which David explains often result in duplication and triplication of design work, adding to the final bill. Yet if the network is in complete operation by TIG/m itself, would the city of Bath receive any of the fare payments that come with it?

Tram network in Manchester City Centre c. Franz Peeters, Flickr

“We haven’t thought that far ahead. Over the long-run – forty years – the cost per passenger per/km of tram is about half of that of a bus. So there is money in there, potentially. On the other hand, you want to keep it as cheap as possible to encourage people to come in.

“It could be arranged that there’s some revenue. But they would get much more revenue from people coming into the city. The shops would do more business; the rents would go up, because the councils own the retail buildings in Bath, and everyone would be happy.”

Reparations from the tram service itself aside, the pitch from BATA for now is on the holistic impact a tram network could provide to the people of Bath. And it makes no particular difference in what fashion these trams are powered, either: it can be from a propane engine, natural gas, biomethane, or from a hydrogen-battery powered solution as mentioned earlier. David added that BATA has been in conversations with Coventry’s Ultra-Light Rail project also to assess feasibility from technologies there also.

The Very Light Rail tram option being developed in Coventry c. University of Warwick

“All we want is a tram,” David proclaimed. “Because that is the best option. But I can see that it’s likely to be a mixture of batteries and some form of onboard generator.

“The cleanest is in hydrogen: I don’t think it would make much difference in the cost if it was a hydrogen, or a gas, or a biomethane – you can make arguments for all of them.”

The resounding argument of a light-rail system in any form or fashion highlights the exasperation of mobility proponents in Bath at its clogged city centre. Tram networks developed in Manchester, Nottingham, and Edinburgh, have all been largely successful – not just in removing cars flowing in and out of the city centre, but developing suburban hotspots along the routes and stimulating local economies.

Increasingly in times of Coronavirus when workers are moving away from the city centre, a tram network in cities like Bath can bring up huge opportunities to create an agile transport network which encourages greener, active travel. Not only this, but encouraging investment into renewable travel can harness the brilliant innovation and development ongoing from industries in the UK. Whilst budget-holders and decision-makers in local government mull over what the future of transport could look like in inner-cities, in Bath, the calls for a greener mobility sphere are getting louder and appear to be here for the long haul.