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Light rail is an environmentally friendly form of mass transit, popular in towns and cities across Europe and elsewhere in the world. Many cities and regions across Great Britain have plans to introduce new light rail systems or expand their existing networks.

What is light rail?

Light rail includes traditional trams and metro systems through to more modern very-light or ultra-light rail systems.

Light rail vehicles, such as trams, are lighter than those used for mainline rail services and operate at lower speeds, which means they can be integrated within an urban environment. Light rail services often run on a road or on public rights-of-way. For example, tramways, a specific type of light rail, run, at least in part, through areas the public can access.

Like other vehicles on the road, drivers of a tram are expected to drive at a speed from which they could stop within the distance they can see ahead. This is known as line-of-sight control.

Benefits and costs of light rail          

Light rail is a relatively environmentally friendly mode of transport. For example, the Urban Transport Group (UTG), which represents city region transport authorities, outline that one of the benefits of light rail is that it has zero emissions at the point of use.

Light rail systems can also help encourage people to use their cars less. According to the UTG, 30% of tram users in Nottingham switched from using their cars, whereas 29% of Manchester Metrolink users reported that they would use a car if the tram was not available.

Even though light rail offers many social and economic benefits, it is expensive to install, with costs typically around £20-30 million per kilometre but as high as £133 million per km.  The Public Accounts Committee’s inquiry in 2005 into improving public transport in England through light rail found that the costs of building light rail systems were driven up by a lack of standardisation in the design of vehicles and networks and the need to divert public utilities such as water and gas.  

Light rail in the UK

There are 9 major schemes in the UK, including in Birmingham, Blackpool, Edinburgh, London (in both the Croydon and Docklands areas), Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, and Sheffield. There are numerous proposals to introduce light rail systems in other cities across the UK, which are at different stages.

UK Tram, which represents the light rail sector, has highlighted that light rail is a popular mode of transport in the UK cities with these systems, providing high satisfaction rates of 87-97% across the UK. Nevertheless, statistics published by the Department for Transport show light rail only accounts for a small share of the journeys within towns and cities with a light rail or tram system.

Most UK light rail systems experienced regular growth in the last decade. However, like other forms of public transport, the use of light rail within the UK has been significantly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Overall, there were 271 million light rail passenger journeys in the UK in 2019/20. This dropped to 83 million in 2020/21.

The Government and light rail

In July 2021, the Government’s transport decarbonisation plan, Decarbonising Transport: A Better, Greener Britain, described light rail as an “existing zero emission choice” of public transport, which supports the UK Government’s aims to encourage more people to use public transport as well as walk and cycle.

The Government is still analysing feedback from its call for evidence in February 2019 into the opportunities for introducing light rail, and other rapid transit systems, in towns and cities in England. In its transport decarbonisation plan, the Department for Transport said it is incorporating analysis from its 2019 call for evidence “to inform future policy”.  Even so, the Government has recently announced funding for light rail schemes. For example, the Autumn Budget and Spending Review in October 2021 included funding for schemes such as the renewal of the Sheffield Supertram and the extension of the West Midlands Metro.

The powers required to implement and operate a new light railway are obtained through an order made under the Transport and Works Act 1992 (the TWA). Collating the necessary information and undertaking the process to obtain a TWA order can take scheme promotors 3-5 years, although if approved there are few grounds for appeal. 

Safety within the light rail sector is regulated by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) under the Health and Safety (Enforcing Authority for Railways and Other Guided Transport Systems) Regulations 2006 (as amended). Established in 2019, the Light Rail Standards and Safety Board (LRSSB) provide guidance and standards for the sector, with support from the ORR and the tram industry body UK Tram.


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