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SkyTran

The trolleybus is a thing of the past, leaving us £27 million down and sending us straight back to the drawing board – so what’s next?

It’s fair to say the trolleybus was an unmitigated disaster. From the plan itself, which was unpopular with residents, to the application, which wasn’t up to par, we’ve been let down. Now it’s time to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start planning a transport system that’s worthy of this city. With that in mind, we’ve turned our attention to the alternatives we’d like to see in Leeds, and the cities that have already implemented them, offering up three options that deserve serious consideration.

An underground system

Leeds Subway

It’ll come as no surprise that one of the most popular options on the table is an underground rail network. The benefits are clear – it would take the pressure off our roads and existing rail networks, and because it’s underground, it would work within the spacial limits of the city centre and the suburbs. We actually considered this back in the 30s and 40s – if it had come about, we’d have a subway station under City Square and significantly less traffic now.

Bilbao did it, making them the third smallest city in the European Union to operate both a metro and a tramway. This is a city that has turned itself around, clawing its way out of decline to become a cultural hub that attracts hundreds of thousands of people to visit every year. But that wouldn’t have been possible without a comprehensive and efficient public transport system – so, in 1988, they commissioned Sir Norman Foster + Partners to design an award-winning metro system.

Bilbao Underground

It was an ambitious plan that would see a network of over 40 stations, spread across 51 kilometres. The metro took 20 years to complete, although parts of Line One were in operation as early as 1995, just 7 years after they began work. The metro initially cost around £829 million to build, but it’s now used by 87 million passengers a year – inflation means the cost would be significantly higher today though.

What’s interesting here is that Bilbao funded the metro with long term loans – so basically, they invested in the future of their city, knowing that a metro system would boost the economy and eventually pay for itself.

If you want an example that’s closer to home, and more akin to funding reality that we’re facing, take a look at Crossrail. With 42 kilometres of new tunnels and 10 new stations, it’s a mammoth project that will increase London’s rail capacity by 10%, helping to reduce congestion and journey times, as well as creating more direct routes through the capital.

Crossrail London

The £14.8 billion budget was signed off in 2010, construction started in 2012 and it’s due to complete in 2019, which is a bit galling, considering that we’ve been fighting for improvements since long before then. But only £4.7 billion of the budget has come from the Department for Transport. In fact, 60% of the project’s funding comes directly from Londoners and London businesses, with various levies and business rates put in place to raise the funds alongside contributions of up to £150 million from major stakeholders, like the Canary Wharf Group.

That’s something that Leeds could actually do – it’s not unlike what happened last year, when businesses were asked to vote on paying a 1.25% levy to set up Leeds BID. But even if we did that, Leeds’ businesses would only raise a fraction of the capital’s – and the £10 million Leeds BID is expected to generate over the next 5 years, is barely a drop in the ocean compared to the costs of an underground system.

It would be a game-changer for Leeds – but it would also take a massive investment to make it happen and £187 million left over from the transport proposals that have already failed won’t cut it. Would the government be willing to cough up the extra dough? Could we source it ourselves through long-term loan arrangements like Bilbao? Would the city’s businesses and residents be willing to contribute to a system that will make Leeds a better place to live and work? It’s time to consider all our funding options.

Light rail & trams

Denver Metro

This is the one we hear most often from the powers that be, and of course, we’ve been down this road before with our rejected Supertram proposals. Light rail has the potential to offer a fast and environmentally friendly alternative to commuters – and because it integrates well with existing transport options, we could build on what we have, gradually and continually improving the city’s transport system.

That’s what they did in Denver, Colorado. With residents choosing cars as their primary mode of transport, pollution levels were at an all time high. Sound familiar? Last year, Leeds’ N02 levels averaged out at 28.09 parts per billion, which is above the EU’s mandated limit of 21 parts per billion. Anyway, Denver’s Mayor, John Hickenlooper, was determined to solve the problem, so he introduced a modern light rail system, one that included, and this one will resonate with you, a direct link to the airport. God knows Leeds could use one of those.

Their plan was all-encompassing, including both commuter and light rail, with services designed to link outer north, south, east and west Denver to the centre. It was estimated to cost around £3.2 billion, but is now expected to reach £4.5 billion by the time it’s complete – and was funded by residents, who agreed to a one cent increase in sales tax in order to make FasTracks happen. If we trusted the people in charge of our transport system, would we be willing to pay some form of levy ourselves?

Train Tram Sheffield

Light rail has seen significant innovations over the last decade or so, with the UK’s first Tram-Train expected to launch in Sheffield in 2017. As the name suggests, this option has the ability to run on both tram and train lines, allowing for a fully integrated public transport system – something the inspector found wanting in our failed trolleybus scheme. So there’s definite potential to create a light rail system that uses new innovations to future-proofing our transport system.

But again, it’s not going to be cheap. We lost funding in 2005 because estimated costs for the Supertram had risen from £500 million to £1.3 billion, and we didn’t get it back because the government felt rapid transit buses had a better benefit to cost ratio. But buses can only do so much when the roads are jammed with traffic, so if we’re going to offer up a light rail solution, it needs to blow the competition out of the water (which means it’ll have to be a damned sight better than our last application).

A monorail

 

Space is a pretty serious issue when it comes to Leeds’ public transport system, which why the underground is such an appealing proposition, but it’s not the only option. Somehow, monorails feel both dated and futuristic, but they’re having something of a resurgence, as cities to look to build public transport systems that fit around the existing infrastructure.

In fact, a multitude of monorail systems have been launched over the last couple of years, with Daegu, Mumbai and São Paulo all getting in on the action, and even more are expected to open in the future. As you can imagine, it’s not quick win – if we went down this road, we’d have a long wait for our traffic woes to be over, but while the construction is slow, the monorail itself is not. Depending on the model, they can reduce journey times by up to 83% – yes, you read that right.

Lagos is set to get a new monorail by 2020, courtesy of a NASA Space Act company SkyTran. The futuristic tech will see two and four people cars suspended twenty feet above ground level and will travel at speeds of 155 miles per hour, cutting 2-hour car commutes down to 10 minutes. Add to that the fact that it’s incredibly energy efficient and is estimated to cost just £224 million for the entire 40 kilometre network, and you’ve got what SkyTran CEO Jerry Sanders calls ‘game-changing technology’.

However, not all monorail systems are as efficient as SkyTran’s new tech, which is yet to be tested in a city environment, and there are a few red flags to go along with the success stories.

Bombadier Monorail São Paulo

Take São Paulo for example. They commissioned a new 17 station monorail that stretches over 24 kilometres in 2009. When complete, it’ll have fifty four trains, each with seven cars, and is expected to be used by up to 500,000 people a day – and that’s not even the best bit, because the new monorail will halve journey times, cutting a 2 hour car journey down to just 50 minutes.

Sounds good, right? Except that it was meant to be complete in time for the 2014 World Cup, but seven years after it started and two years after it was due to finish, it’s still in construction. Two stations opened in 2014, with the rest to follow and the project is estimated to cost £1.1 billion – that’s a hell of a lot more expensive than the futuristic tech SkyTran are peddling.

Meanwhile, the Mumbai Monorail, which started at the same time and opened in 2014, has a different problem. Only 16,000 regularly use the 17 stop service, which means it’s losing approximately 850,000 Indian rupees a day – that’s the equivalent to £8,682.

If we went ahead with a monorail, it would be a UK first, and although you’ll find them in theme parks, they haven’t been adopted as a serious transport option here. The new SkyTran technology certainly looks like the future of travel, but is it too big for Leeds? We’re starting to think that maybe bigger is better – at least then it would be a solution the whole city could get behind, and if we’re going to be fighting for something, it should be worth fighting for. This definitely would be.

Cover image copyright SkyTran.com. Underground. First image original Leeds subway plans. Second image of Bilbao metro copyright Jason Paris licensed under creative commons for commercial use. Third image copyright Crossrail Ltd. Light rail.First image of Denver metro copyright James Hernandez licensed under creative commons for commercial use. Second image of tram-train copyright South Yorkshire Passenger Transport. Monorail. Image copyright Bombardier São Paulo monorail.