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Creating a stronger future for UK Light Rail

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Alistair Gordon, CEO of public transport operator Keolis UK, explains why light rail can no longer be less strategically important to our transportation networks.

Let me begin by saying how proud I am of everyone who is continuing to keep our cities moving during these challenging times. Over the past few weeks there have been instances where a small minority of the population have been abusive, rude and have even spat at our staff, but our dedicated teams continue to rise above this and carry on doing their jobs – and most of the time with smiles on their faces.

Urban transport networks are a crucial element of our society, helping key workers get to work and home again safely, and moving people around who need to complete essential tasks. We rightly thank health and care workers, but we should show similar respect and support to those running our transport networks and keeping our supermarkets open. They are the unsung heroes.

The importance of community

We are all learning lessons during this pandemic. With Keolis operations in Shanghai, as early as  January our group head of safety in France began a weekly conference call for all of the cities in which we operate. Countries are obviously at different stages in their timeline in dealing with COVID-19 and that resonates on what are often difficult calls.

As the most advanced in this crisis, our Chinese colleagues began by offering advice on cleaning and hygiene, social eating and social distancing. As the nation is now coming out of lockdown they’re sharing information on how traffic is moving, as well as network data as systems are gradually bringing people back to work. This is invaluable information for our future planning.

In the UK, most networks are now at 50% or lower service and with passenger demand down by up to 90%. By contrast, Australia is only seeing a 75% drop-off in demand. In Hyderabad we’ve closed the metro down completely and are now formulating plans to look at opening it again in the coming weeks. Yet in Norway, we’re actually running more trams than normal as they haven’t imposed a lockdown but are still practising social distancing.

We’re also talking to the PTAs we partner with as they’re very interested in how other authorities are dealing with the crisis; we are happy to share that information. Some may find themselves in an extremely perilous position financially if the lockdowns continue into May and with an emergency of this size it all comes down to the response of central governments. Only they have the resources to  handle all the risks of lost patronage and lost revenues and provide essential support.

‘These are extraordinary circumstances, this is what we need’

In the UK, the Government came in very quickly in terms of heavy rail. When the lockdown was announced on Monday 23 March we were given ‘emergency management agreements’ to sign that Friday. The Government is now absorbing all the revenue risk on the rail network for the next six months. It has delivered similar packages to some bus operators and is now sorting out Transport for London, which has bigger funding issues, but we haven’t seen anything for light rail systems – yet. Sadly, that leaves so much uncertainty for our tramway systems exactly when they need clarity and leadership the most.

Each authority is having to deal with this on their own and I think that exposes a weakness in our sector’s structure in that we lack a strong centralised body and are still treated as something of a fringe industry. It is clear from this crisis that must change. We need clear and swift intervention to support networks at times like these and currently we do not have a strong authoritative voice making our case, saying ‘these are extraordinary circumstances, this is what we need’.

What the future holds depends on governments’ resolve. The UK is in better shape than a lot of other nations as we carry less debt, but every country is going to face difficult decisions. However, we don’t need to do what we were doing before and we now have a real chance for change. Of course a lot depends on how long the lockdowns last. If countries get back to ‘normal’
after a couple of months, I’m not sure the reset will happen. But if our travel restrictions last into the summer, this crisis will have profound effects on people’s long-term behaviour.

Re-thinking our transport strategy

Companies and individuals are recognising that you can be efficient working at home more and that you don’t need to be in the office all the time, so I just can’t see people buying season tickets or rushing to board busy peak-time services five days a week. Some of our long-distance travel demands may take a long time to come back and international travel could well be affected for years as borders will likely be one of the last things to open up.

This forced experience should therefore feed into our thinking when we come out of this. We will need to seriously think about the future of our transportation networks and their strategic role. For example, do we need the full extent of HS2 quite so quickly? If we determine that we don’t, can that money be spent elsewhere on light rail for cities and city regions that need better and more resilient transport?

I’ve been pushing for a while that when they complete the Williams Rail Review, we should put light and heavy rail together with a dedicated, responsible agency to look after both – now could be the right time for this to happen.

A big advantage of this approach would be that there are parts of the UK rail networkmaintained to heavy rail standards but very lightly used or expensive to maintain. Some of those lines could be converted to LRT, like they’re doing in Cardiff now and have already done in Manchester and the West Midlands. If the Government is still interested in re-opening lines that closed under Beeching, these could be re-opened as light rail services as well.

We have a product that works incredibly well for the communities it serves. It’s good for the environment and customers really like it; yet we still don’t have a pipeline of schemes going forward. Too many cities are having to  do a lot of the work on their own with no support from the centre, so maybe this is an opportunity to take the critical situation being faced today to see how we can make ourselves stronger tomorrow.

>  As CEO of Keolis UK, Alistair Gordon oversees strategy for the UK and Ireland. Keolis operates in 16 different countries and has been in the UK since 1996, today employing over 13,000 people across a number of light and heavy rail franchises including London’s Docklands Light Railway, Greater Manchester’s Metrolink, Nottingham Express Transit.


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