Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Trolleybuses in Leeds: My grudging support

According to Metro, the Passenger Transport Executive in West Yorkshire, before the announcement of the details of the United Kingdom coalition government's cuts, explained that:

"In June 2010 the Department for Transport announced that all major transport schemes (including the NGT trolleybus scheme) were to be reviewed as part of the wider government Comprehensive Spending Review".

Claiming that:

"Promoters remain confident that the scheme will continue to be supported by the Government following the ongoing spending review, particularly given that the Department for Transport has previously acknowledged the benefits that NGT would provide". (NGT official website)

Was its confidence misplaced? Probably. The funding outcomes of the cuts upon major capital projects in the transport sector, announced here, do not leave the NGT in the category of transport schemes that receive definite funding. Instead, it is among projects that are eligible for possibly receiving funds from a £600m pot, along with 22 others:

"The department will conduct some further analysis... and invite best and final funding bids from this pot".

Given the NGT was elegible for £235 million of funding before the spending review, it's a few inevitable cost increases from requiring close to half of the funding available. This makes it difficult to be too optimistic about its ability to gain funding while up against 22 similar projects.

I find myself extremely lukewarm about this project. Why? Because it is taking mode fetishism to the extreme. I wrote about that here. Now, while there are quite a lot of cases of making local service on rails (trams and light rail) as separate and as different as possible from local service on rubber tyres (buses), this is making buses that run off electricity as different as possible from buses that run off diesel.

The trolleybuses will first and foremost serve different stops. In many cases new bays are being built to get diesel buses out of the way of trolleybuses, despite bus bays making it difficult to pull up to the curb for easy access and reducing ride quality. Some bus lanes, including the two truly useful ones in the scheme (that one which parallels the congested centre of Headingley, and that one which allows buses to avoid a considerable deviation and two long red lights between the University and Leeds city centre), will be only for trolleybuses and not diesel buses.

It is up to the whims of Leeds's more-or-less monopolistic private operator, First, whether to change routes to feed the NGT or to permit fares integration, and as the bus operators in Newcastle do not do this with a serious metro system, doing it for a trolleybus with occasional priority seems even more unlikely. As the trolleybuses will end their routes at park-and-ride sites short of the full length of the corridors they serve, passengers traveling for the longest distances will ironically have to continue to endure an inferior services.

The Trolleybuses will tend to stop about every 600-800 metres, and as such will have one stop for every 1-3 bus stops. They therefore will stop short of being a true rapid service, which might have been the one justification for a highly differentiated bus service. Instead, there will be two different services doing similar things, but that are designed as if they're serving entirely different people. When making a journey, one will have to choose whether one is a trolleybus person or a bus person, and wait at the right stop and buy the right ticket - unless one lives somewhere where bus is the only choice, of course.

I'd propose instead incremental improvements instead, working with the incumbent First Bus to introduce new high-quality vehicles and more priority to the full corridors, along with simple branding, a common numbering scheme and maybe a special livery. I'd propose that the North Leeds bus routes that have the strongest suburban draw (the 1 and the 96) be converted to true rapid routes that only stop at the University Steps, Headingley town Centre and Churchwood Avenue for Headingley Campus, with the existing rapid X84 to Otley being brought into line with those stopping conditions. And I'd suggest that the new buses being hybrid-powered might be a way to provide some of the ride quality benefits of electric vehicles to the whole corridors, not just a short wired section.

Nevertheless, I will come out in full support of the NGT project. I will do that because this convoluted way of delivering transport improvements is the best that can be hoped for while the British government is fanatical about bidding for funding, and justifying the bids with economic assessments that favour being able to say that you can immediately, with the project built, provide amounts of monetised benefits (principally based on savings in travel time) vastly outweighing monetised costs. And while that's the game that has to be played, I'd rather Leeds get something half-decent than the money goes to a road scheme, or somewhere that hasn't been quite so neglected and starved of any serious transport investment in respect of its size and traffic problems.

Nevertheless, Metro, the West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive, are for the most part a good organisation that know what they're doing, and I'll dream of the day when they're given a steady drip of funding to spend on whatever incremental improvements are best for transport in Leeds (and West Yorkshire) as a whole.


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