Greg Mulholland: After trolleybus fiasco, let’s get Leeds on track for future

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SO the NGT trolleybus saga, the latest failed episode in Leeds public transport, has come to an end bar the recriminations.

The whole sorry saga leaves Leeds as the biggest city in Europe without either an underground or a light rail system. Yet what we need now is to look forward, not back.

It is not time for recriminations, though it is clearly shocking and a damning incitement on how we do public transport in the UK that well over £100m has been spent on two schemes that never progressed.

It is time now for leadership. It is time for us all to get behind a truly modern transport system in the Leeds City Region and remarkably we now have the money to do so.

Responses from Leeds City Council leaders, strongly criticised by this newspaper, were bizarre considering that we have been spared a scheme that few had confidence in.

The realty is that no one ever really wanted a trolleybus scheme, even one disguised to look like a modern tram. The only reason that Leeds ever pursued the tram-lite NGT scheme (all the overhead wiring and disruption, but without the modal shift or the transformative impact of light rail) was because Alistair Darling, the then Transport Secretary, disgracefully forbid Leeds from pursuing light rail after he cancelled the Supertram scheme.

Exactly as I had called for, Leeds has – at least – been told it can still have the £173m that the Government made available. This is unprecedented and hugely positive. If we can now determine how it is spent, it is also real devolution.

We now need to get cracking with plans for developing a modern, integrated transport network, to catch up with Greater Manchester and get people out of cars and in to modern light rail vehicles.

The way to do this in the Leeds City Region is tram-train. Prior to the NGT saga, before they were forced to go down the trolleybus path by Mr Darling, both Leeds City Council and Metro were putting forward this very solution.

An excellent presentation was given to the Parliamentary Light Rail Group in 2009 on the Leeds City Region / West Yorkshire tram-train network, starting with conversion of the Leeds-Harrogate-York line, a tram-train link to Leeds Bradford International Airport and street running from the Kirkstall viaduct to City Square to link with Leeds Station.

The network would then be developed in phases, to connect with the “Five Towns” and to Bradford via Shipley utilising existing heavy railway lines.

The presentation showed how Karlsruhe in Germany has developed a system line by line that now has over 500km of tram-train lines. It will take us a while to get to 500km, but once we have one line, we then inevitably will get more – and this is how a system must develop.

Due to the geography of the Leeds City Region and the distances between key centres, tram-train offers a more appropriate solution than light rail. Yet tram-trains, like any form of light rail and unlike trolleybus, have a proven track record of getting people, including commuters and also shoppers, out of their cars and onto modern trams. This is exactly what Leeds and the Leeds City Region desperately need.

Tram-trains also are designed to run alongside heavy rail vehicles, meaning that Harrogate can rest assured that they would continue to have their important London services.

Learning the lessons of both NGT and Supertram, any network is only realistically going to happen by converting an existing rail line. This is precisely how the self-funding and expanding Metrolink system started in Manchester and the obvious first line should be the Leeds-Harrogate-York route.

It also then allows the track to be laid to deliver the link to Leeds Bradford Airport – so the controversial and flawed Leeds Bradford road link plans can and should be scrapped.

Now we need to push the Government to allow us to pursue this, including dealing with Network Rail and the overly bureaucratic transport planning system.

It is time that Leeds City Council, Metro, the Leeds MPs and business leaders all got behind this vision. This is why I have called for a Leeds Transport Summit to bring Leeds City Council together with Metro / West Yorkshire Combined Authority and the Leeds MPs and business leaders to discuss this.

The Parliamentary Light Rail Group also intends to visit Leeds to discuss this proposal in Leeds at a meeting on Friday, May 27.

We now need to seize this opportunity, come together to and plan for a modern transport network that will transform the city and the wider region. The funding in principle is there. If we work together and get behind the right solution, Leeds City Region can have the modern, integrated transport network that it needs and deserves.

Greg Mulholland is MP for Leeds North West and Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Light Rail Group.

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