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Bright sparks solve our transport woes

Is a "state of the art bus system" a contradiction in terms? Leeds's transport supremo Kieran Preston insists not. He met Rod McPhee to mull over new plans which could really give the city something close to our loved and lost Supertram.

IT'S been billed as the Son of Supertram but for most Loiners men-tion of the word 'buses' merely infers a poor cousin.

But the trolleybus system currently being devised will be very similar to supertram in several ways. It will effectively follow the three main routes from the city centre to the north, east and south and run on overhead cables, mostly in dedicated lanes devoid of any other traffic.

Except while the trams would have run on tracks, these will run freely on good old-fashioned wheels. But they'll still boast key benefits of running on electricity – they're quieter, faster, greener, smoother – but, above all else, installing over-head cables offers an intangible effect most of us wouldn't even consider.

Kieran Preston, chief executive of Metro, the organisation with responsibility for maintaining West Yorkshire's transport network, is more than aware of it however. He's the man heading up a team currently drawing up the system of NGT – New Generation Transport.

He said: "We call it the sparks effect." The what effect? "Well, it's hard to pin down but you see it in other cities where they have transport systems of this kind.

"When you install these overhead cables you install a sense of permanency, some sense of a reliable and unchanging system that's in place with clarity about where they run from and to.

"And the overhead cables just add a sense of a big city feel to the place, it's something you can't quite quantify but it works.

"With conventional buses you have the grinding of gears, the revving of the engine, the smell of diesel, with this it's such a smooth, quiet but speedy ride and it's been shown that people love that.

"Just look at the Airedale and Wharfedale train lines – where we put electric trains in it was an amazing transformation. We started with something like two million journeys a year, increasing by about 10 per cent a year up to something like six million journeys a year."

Supertram – which gained provisional approval in 2001 but was later axed by the Government due to escalating costs – was a far better scheme than the trolleybus. Preston openly admits this.

The tram would have removed an estimated 4.5m car journeys from the city's road every year and created something like 6-7,000 jobs, the trolleybus system will only remove around 3m car journeys and create around 4,000 jobs. But Preston is convinced those benefits are still worth pursuing.

"We're talking about those people who may well find they live very close to one of these lines," he said. "A couple, say, who both work and commute who may, because of the trolleybus, reconsider getting a second car or even think twice about having any kind of car.

"But it's not just about cutting congestion. Remember a lot of our transport network runs into and through developments in the city centre and you don't necessarily want noisy, smelly, ungreen vehicles coming through; you want something sleek and quiet."

A positive difference is cost. While Supertram, according to the Department of Transport, could have cost anything up to 1 billion this has a price tag of a comparatively small 270m – about 250m of which, Preston insists, is virtually in the bag.

This time the scheme has already been allocated funding before they submit their plans to the Department for Transport, which is expected to be in five months time. Work could start in 2012 with the system up and running by 2015.

But there are other hoops to jump through. If the case isn't convincing enough we may have to settle for non-electric buses simply running on semi-dedicated lanes around the city.

For Preston and other civic leaders this would be a huge disappointment. They're now going for broke on the trolleybus scheme and, rather than build in two stages as they have previously suggested, are now planning to construct the entire scheme in one section.

"We got over the hurt of Supertram," said Preston. "They challenged us to come up with the next best thing and we accepted it. We're saying, 'Let's go for it.'

"And if they turn this scheme down? I don't think we could contemplate it. It would just send a message that Leeds isn't going to get the invest-ment that's necessary. In our minds the Government just didn't have the money to pay for Supertram, this time round they do and this scheme is much more affordable.

"It's also an amazing investment. For an initial cost of 270million we've worked out that it will bring in something like 850m."

Preston and other Metro team members who visited a string of European cities like Amsterdam and Lyons to sample their trolleybus services.

Fundamental to the look will be the low level of the vehicles – all high-spec and contemporary with alighting stations which are similarly plush and modern.

They will look and feel almost like a tram, with bodywork that makes the wheels – the only real difference – virtually impossible to see.

But, most importantly, Metro have factored in costs which will mean they can secure the necessary smooth road covering which offers as gentle a ride as if the vehicles were running on rails.

The 20-mile network would require the construction of a south Leeds route between the city centre and a 1,500-space park-and-ride site near Stourton. Also a city centre loop and an eastern link to St James's Hospital and, finally, a third line to Lawnswood.

Preston and Metro want to make a step change in the transport infrastructure, rather than merely tinker round the edges.

This has proved crucial in trying to sell the NGT plan B to key players in Leeds and he now hopes he can win over the public.

"What happened with Supertram being turned down was that it took away people's confidence in the council and Metro," he said. "After that how do you go back to the drawing board and say, 'Ah well, never mind, we'll do something else'?

"How do you tell business leaders and investors and the people of Leeds that once supertram was the answer and now this new scheme is the answer. I understand the reaction from people. They're going to say 'Why should we have any more confidence in you now'?

"But what people also have to understand is just how good a scheme NGT is, that it will form part of a rolling, flexible programme which means that we can continue to build lines to different parts of the city.

"It means it is easier and cheaper to maintain and improve and maybe, years down the line it may even lead the way towards replacing it with some of the original plans we had for Supertram."