Will £250m trolleybus scheme solve Leeds’s transport woes?

GOING FORWARD: An artist's impression of the trolleybus in action.
GOING FORWARD: An artist's impression of the trolleybus in action.
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Leeds stands on the brink of the biggest transport network shake-up in decades with the planned NGT trolleybus scheme. As consultation begins, Neil Hudson asks whether the scheme will cure congestion or become a white elephant.

This time last year the NGT (Next Generation Transport) trolleybus scheme was little more than a paper alternative to the much vaunted cure for congestion the city had set its sights on, but which it was so spectacularly denied in 2004: Supertram.

History records how the then Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling, scrapped the Leeds scheme for being “too expensive” after its projected costs rose to £1bn.

He later approved permission for a similar tram scheme in Edinburgh.

It is perhaps ironic that while the Edinburgh scheme is still only partially built, its projected costs have risen to £1bn, which is officially what stopped the Leeds scheme in its tracks.

In the interim period, Leeds has limped on without any real solution to its congestion nightmare. Until, that is, Deputy Prime Minister Lib Dem Nick Clegg appeared in the city as part of a whirlwind visit to deliver news the Government would fund £173.5m towards not Supertram, but NGT trolleybus.

His visit on July 5 came one day after Leeds North West Lib Dem MP Greg Mulholland submitted an early day motion calling for the Government to fund NGT.

Political synchronisation aside, the trolleybus is not without its share of critics, and many are concerned it will leave the city worse off.

Opponents claim it will be outmoded even before it is introduced in 2018, that it will cause massive disruption while the infrastructure required to carry overhead electrical cables is installed, and that parts of Headingley, Hyde Park and Woodhouse Moor will be forever altered as trolleybus cuts through already congested streets.

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Don Townsley is among those who say the money could be better spent, in particular on a light rail system.

A former Leeds city councillor for Halton in the 1980s and 1990s and now an honorary alderman, he is also a chartered engineer and transport consultant with over 50 years in the industry.

He cast his eye over the trolleybus scheme and gave us his assessment.

“The transport problem in Leeds is not a political one but a practical one, but politics has got us to where we are today. It’s something everyone in Leeds is aware of and something everyone wants a solution to. Unfortunately, spending £250m on trolleybus is not that solution. It won’t cut congestion across the city.

“In practice, trolleybus would produce nothing that could not be achieved by conventional double decker buses in well-maintained condition on good roads.

“Bendy buses, diesel or trolley, increase congestion because of their 80 per cent increase in length with no increase in payload, and a diesel bendybus is roughly twice the cost of the double decker.

“The trolleybus is dearer still, partly on account of the smaller production volume.

“Mainly used in former Russian and Eurasion states, the penalties in this country of using small, isolated fleets with regard to spares and operating costs should not be underestimated.

“There are none in Britain and relatively few in Western Europe.

“The timescales are also ridiculous for the solution of a problem that exists now.”

So, what would Mr Townsley like to see?

“In my view, an integrated transport policy linking a park-and-ride scheme with the Trans-Pennine rail line would be far better.

“The thing that really sticks out about the NGT plan is it does not go from anywhere to anywhere.

“Leeds was offered half the money for a transport scheme but I never thought the NGT scheme would get the green light – I thought common sense would prevail. You have to look at what you are getting for your money and if it’s value for money.

“A park and ride at Thorpe Park (Junction 46 on the M1) would be the ideal solution. There is space for a railway station, which could link with the Trans-Pennine line.

“The guided bus lane on York Road (A64) has played its part. In my view it should be used to build a tramway, which would be cheaper than starting from scratch. That way they could run a tram service from Thorpe Park to Eastgate, starting with 12 five-section trams.

“An underground would be too expensive in my view to begin with but when our imaginary tram system gets to Eastgate you could then take advantage of the natural inclination and put a cut and cover section which would run under the soon-to-be-built John Lewis store.”

He added: “Metro are saying we cannot use the trolleybus money for anything else but would any secretary of state refuse to divert money to a scheme if it could be proved it was more beneficial and cheaper?”

A spokesman for West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Authority (Metro), which is backing the NGT bid, said: “Results from events held along the route in 2009, before the scheme was put on hold due to the Government’s spending review, show levels of support approaching 77 per cent.

“Since the project re-started in July 2012, we are finding people come to engagement events having heard rumours or misinformation such as NGT is going to ‘cross Woodhouse Moor’ which are simply incorrect.

“When we explain NGT will not encroach upon Woodhouse Moor but that there is an option to use and enhance part of the currently-unused Monument Moor to the east of Otley Road, they are understandably relieved.

“They are also reassured when we show how that rather than creating disruption and congestion in Headingley, as a few people claim, one of the key reasons for building NGT and also one of the key criteria for ministers giving it the go-ahead, is reducing congestion and journey times.

“The reason the NGT trolleybus has been planned to run through Headingley is that it is one of Leeds’ most congested corridors with no rail alternative.

“NGT does of course pass right by the Leeds Rail Station giving rail users easy access to the system.

“Running NGT on the A64, which already has the guideway used by the majority of services on the corridor, despite original guideway financial backer Arriva’s withdrawal due to technical problems with their vehicles, would be a waste of resources, although updates for this key east Leeds route may be a possibility for the future.

“NGT should not be seen in isolation. Metro has broader plans for transport across the Leeds city region and West Yorkshire which the introduction of the new West Yorkshire Plus Transport Fund could help make possible and Leeds’ employment areas such as Thorpe Park and the Aire Valley are key elements of those plans.

“Technical specification of vehicles will be key to the success of NGT and, while we are not yet at the stage to contact any vehicle manufacturers, we will be embarking upon a market engagement exercise with companies interested in building the articulated, 200-passenger vehicles needed for NGT and wanting to operate the system.

“While the technology surrounding them is developing, notably with local bus builder Optare, introducing electric buses would not provide the sense of permanency that comes from the infrastructure required for a trolleybus or tram system, sometimes known as ‘the sparks effect’.

“It is this sense of dependability that will give passengers, who have seen bus routes and services come and go, the confidence NGT will be there next month, next year, in 10 years.

“We will be setting up a ‘Myth-busting’ section in addition to the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) section on the NGT website at www.ngtmetro.com, which will addresses a number of these issues.”