It’s the last The Beauty of Transport before the Christmas/New Year break. Two years ago we went to the theatre for a look at Starlight Express. This year, we’re not going any further than the sofa in front of the television (joined by the rest of the population of Springfield, where the Simpson family lives) to enjoy an episode of animated comedy series The Simpsons.
I studied Transport Management at university for four years. While there was a lot of learning crammed into that course, I sometimes reflect that substantial swathes of it could have been done away with if only I’d seen The Simpsons season four episode “Marge vs The Monorail” at the time, rather than afterwards. In particular, the episode perfectly encapsulates and explains a very odd period of British urban transport development in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The Simpsons has always had a neat line in public transport-bashing, or highlighting the absurdities of public transport that the public transport industry would rather you didn’t mention, depending on your point of view. Much of the plot of season nine’s “Lost our Lisa” revolves around Simpson daughter Lisa’s problems catching a bus to the museum. She knows that the Route 22 will take her there, but instead she finds herself lost in the countryside, forced off the bus when it reaches its terminus.
“But isn’t this the 22?” Lisa asks the bus driver.
“Yeah, Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Tuesday, Thursday it’s the 22A,” comes the reply.
“Then where the heck am I?’ asks Lisa, speaking for every one of us who has struggled through the Byzantine route number complexities of a hundred bus networks designed by bus schedulers and local authority bus planners for their own pleasure, rather than being designed with potential passengers in mind.
“Marge vs The Monorail”, however, is The Simpsons‘ public transport highpoint. The plot runs thus. The town of Springfield, where the Simpsons live, finds itself with a multi-million dollar windfall. At a town meeting called to decide how to spend it, Simpson matriarch Marge suggests repairing Main Street, which is damaged and full of pot holes. She nearly carries the day, until the arrival of Lyle Lanley, with his alternative plan for a genuine, bona fide, electrified six-car monorail. Lanley is a classic shyster, but wins over Springfield’s populace with a combination of glib promises of new jobs, the provoking of civic jealousy over other towns who have already purchased a monorail, and the suggestion that he might otherwise take his proposal to nearby Shelbyville. Notably, he does his sales push through the medium of a big musical number. Observe:
It’s an absolute con, of course. Lanley plans to use shoddy workmanship to build the cheapest possible monorail system, even though he knows it won’t work, and run off with the investment funds. Marge discovers this, not least by visiting a town which has already fallen victim to Lanley’s monorail scam.
More relevantly to urban transport planning concerns though, Lisa meanwhile asks Lanley to explain, “…why we should build a mass transit system in a small town with a centralized population.”
“Young lady, that’s the most intelligent question I’ve ever been asked,” he replies. “Oh, I could give you an answer. But the only ones who’d understand it would be you and me, and that includes your teacher.”
Thus flattered and successfully distracted, Lisa abandons her very sensible line of enquiry. Needless to say, the monorail is built, and immediately goes haywire. The runaway inaugural train is only stopped by the fortunate presence of a giant doughnut. And Leonard Nimoy is in it, and there’s a bit where they try to cut the power to the runaway monorail train but can’t because it’s solar-powered (“Solar power… when will people learn?”). Lanley escapes with Springfield’s money but is caught by the residents of a town he conned earlier. I can but recommend you find a copy of the episode to watch. It packs an awful lot of urban transport planning theory, and a great deal of transport planning good sense, into a little over 20 minutes. It’s also absolutely hilarious.
You might think this all sounds quite ridiculous as a storyline, but I reckon that if you were to ask the residents of Leeds, Bristol or Portsmouth, to name but a few, you might find they wished their own local authorities had been forced to watch “Marge vs The Monorail” before their city had got caught up in the British light rail bubble of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The success of Manchester’s Metrolink light rail system, the first such modern system featuring street-running trams to be constructed in Britain, caused a good deal of envy amongst other UK towns and cities when it opened in 1992. It proved a popular success, carrying more passengers than forecast. It lent a sheen of European mainland modernity to Manchester, before ‘European’ became the dirty word in England and Wales it has of late.
Without much apparent regard to the actual public transport requirement for a light rail scheme, but a great deal of civic pride apparently being under threat, several projects were already being developed by other cities as Manchester constructed its scheme, and many others sprung up once Metrolink proved to be such a success.
It got to be absolutely ludicrous towards the end of the 1990s. At one point, the UK government said it was aware of 50 schemes being proposed around the country. Yet you’d be hard pressed to think of 25 towns or cities in the UK that could seriously justify the expense of a light rail system compared to the likely patronage and revenues that might be expected. Heck, at one point even my then home town of Hastings, East Sussex, had articles in the paper seriously proposing the return of the town’s trams. Light rail was flavour of the month, and a tram scheme proved your urban area was at the cutting edge, the kind of place you would want to live in, or invest in.
As the new light rail networks came into service, however, it became clear quite quickly that even in large cities light rail schemes weren’t intrinsically successful. You could build them, but that didn’t necessarily mean the passengers would come. Patronage on Sheffield’s Supertram (which opened in 1995) suffered from bus competition, or to be more accurate it suffered from the fact that tram travel was more expensive than local buses and didn’t provide a compelling travel advantage over them.
Birmingham’s Midland Metro was probably the most embarrassing new British light rail project. Having originally planned a three-line network but kicked plans for the second and third lines into the long grass (from where they have yet to emerge even today), promoter Centro pressed ahead with line one between Birmingham and Wolverhampton. It opened in 1999 but was under construction when I was at university in Birmingham, not that you’d have noticed. Largely built along a disused railway line, often deep in a cutting, and terminating well short of Birmingham city centre, line one had the advantage that few people would be disturbed by its construction. As a wise lecturer on my course pointed out, if your new urban light rail scheme doesn’t upset residents during construction, it’s probably too far from residents to attract sufficient ridership. And so it proved, falling far short of its patronage targets, and generally being invisible along most of its length.
The whole thing smacked of Birmingham wanting a light rail system to show that it wasn’t a poor relation to Manchester (the two cities have been locked in a decades-long argument about which of them is England’s second city). Such misadventures caused some people to begin asking whether the money spent on new light rail lines might not be better spent on improvements to existing urban transport networks. This was, as you might term it, the Marge Simpson Proposition.
Some of the towns which promoted light rail schemes appeared fundamentally unsuitable to the light rail systems they were proposing, also known as the Lisa Simpson Quandary. Bristol’s never seemed to make a lot of sense, and the local authority promoters spent a great deal of time disagreeing with each other even over such basic issues as where their tram line should actually go at the north end. Arguably, however, the worst offender was South Hampshire Rapid Transit. Desperate for a trophy scheme which would show it wasn’t being left behind in this brave new world of urban light rail, but hampered by Portsmouth’s location on an isthmus, Hampshire County and Portsmouth City Councils proposed a scheme which featured a vastly expensive underwater tunnel allowing trams to connect Portsmouth with Gosport and Fareham, on the other side of Portsmouth Harbour. As I said, cities were desperate for their own light rail scheme, to the extent that no-one ever seemed to stop to ask whether they were affordable or feasible propositions, taking into account local demographics and geography.
But still the schemes kept on coming, encouraged by the publication in 2000 of deputy prime minister John Prescott’s legendary 10-year Transport Plan, which proposed funding 25 new light rail lines. The 10-year Transport Plan soon collapsed in on itself, but Liverpool, South Hampshire, Bristol and Leeds pushed forward with their plans. Although they won initial development funding from the government, slowly they all fell by the wayside as the government refused to fund them at the final hurdle. Dodgy patronage forecasts, inflating cost estimates, and concerns over technical feasibility all played their part, the government having come to the (quite understandable) conclusion that light rail schemes were expensive, and far from guaranteed to be a success (see this BBC News story on the subject). Bristol gave up on its tram scheme in 2004 in light of projected costs increasing. South Hampshire Rapid Transit was rejected by the government in 2004 and again in 2005 after £10.5m was spent just on revising details of the 2004 scheme, because projected costs were sky-rocketing. Merseytram in Liverpool failed in 2005 after – again – significant increases in cost estimates which the government was not prepared to underwrite.
Even two light rail schemes planned for London – the West London Tram and Cross River Transit – collapsed in 2007 and 2009. The former was shelved by London mayor Ken Livingstone partly due to opposition from the London Borough of Ealing, which was concerned about congestion caused by trams, can you believe? The latter was shelved by London mayor Boris Johnson (for whom this blog has little love, as you know) in the face of Transport for London needing to make budgetary savings, rather than anything being technically wrong with the idea. But if you couldn’t make the case for a tram stack up in London, then where could you?
In devolved Scotland, Edinburgh’s plans for a light rail system pushed on, beset by gargantuan cost and deadline overruns, until finally delivered as a truncated yet still over-budget scheme, opening in 2014.
You have to feel most sorry for Leeds though. Its Leeds Supertram scheme was turned down by the government in 2005 after years of development. Promoter Metro was told to develop a bus based scheme instead, and it duly spent several years and a great deal of money creating the Leeds New Generation Transport trolleybus scheme. The government turned that down earlier this year, after an unfavourable report from a Transport and Works Act inquiry.
Meanwhile, a lot of transport consultants had made good money assisting local authorities develop their no-hoper light rail schemes. Sound familiar? You have to wonder how much money spent on unbuilt light rail schemes could instead have been diverted to bus-based schemes. That’s what Fareham and Gosport ended up with, as the Eclipse bus service opened in 2012, running on a dedicated busway built along the closed rail line originally earmarked for the much more expensive South Hampshire Rapid Transit project. It’s been a great success, slashing journey times and boosting public transport passenger numbers along the corridor, at an affordable price much more in scale with local demand.
As if all this wasn’t ridiculous enough, the desire for trophy transport schemes got so bad in the late 1990s that Guildford and Portsmouth (the latter at the same time as developing South Hampshire Rapid Transit), were also considering, wait for it… monorail systems. I’m serious – when I started work at Surrey County Council’s Passenger Transport Group in 2002 there were drawers full of files relating to the Guildford monorail. The same promoter was behind both the Portsmouth and Guildford monorails, promising to deliver entirely privately-funded schemes. Although both Portsmouth City Council and Guildford Borough Council/Surrey County Council seemed somewhat wary of the monorails, it took them a very long time to finally decide that monorails weren’t for them. Presumably the monorail promoter had mused to the local authorities in both places that perhaps this was more of a Shelbyville idea.
Both monorail proposals eventually collapsed (in 2000 in the case of Guildford and as late as 2006 in the case of Portsmouth), as you would have expected through the application of even the smallest amount of transport planning sense, say about the amount shown by absolute non-experts Marge and Lisa Simpson. That left Portsmouth and Guildford with the much more appropriate and affordable solution of developing their bus networks in partnership with local bus operators, with varying degrees of success.
The UK government published Green Light for Light Rail in September 2011, claiming its belief in light rail. Not a single new light rail system has been authorised since this ‘green light’ was given. But if you think the fun of the UK’s quintessentially mis-managed development of light rail is all over, you’ll be pleased to know it isn’t. Check out the Sheffield-Rotherham Tram-Train pilot scheme, vastly delayed and being used to test technologies which have already been proven for years in mainland Europe. So why is this project being undertaken? Oh, I could give you an answer. But the only ones who’d understand it would be you and me, and that includes your teacher…
So, no The Beauty of Transport next week while we celebrate Christmas and New Year in the UK. If you’re celebrating too, then best wishes for a peaceful and happy time. If you’re not, then please excuse the break in service. All being well, I’ll see you on 4th January 2017 for a visit to Great Malvern station.
Bibliography and Further Reading
House of Commons Library briefing note on light rail systems, giving a good overview of the (non)-development of widespread light rail in the UK, and government policies over the decades: download it here
…and anything linked to in the article above. Which seems to be a lot, this time round.