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Trolleybus Leeds

The Leeds trolleybus scheme has been kicked out, but the £173 million Department of Transport funding will remain in Leeds. Are you celebrating or raging?

Today, the Inspector’s report on the Leeds trolleybus scheme was revealed. Inspector Martin Whitehead LLB BSc (Hons) MICE recommended that the order shouldn’t be made – knocking back the attempts to improve the city’s transport woes for the third time and leaving commuters with an even longer wait before they see improvements.

It’s fair to say that the trolleybus scheme was controversial. For every person who stood behind it, another stood against it – and the Inspector fell on the side of the latter. It was his job to decide whether the benefits of the trolleybus scheme would outweigh the harm it would cause, and to be patently honest, he discounted most of the benefits before he even got started on the cons.

It was always destined to fail

Trolleybus Leeds

The one thing everyone agrees on is that Leeds desperately needs an improved public transport system, and no one’s arguing with the goals of the trolleybus scheme. What the Inspector has actually said, is that the scheme won’t meet those goals.

His report stated that the trolleybus would only affect a very small part of the Leeds transport network and could actually make things worse in other parts of the city. And while the trolleybus would have been quicker than buses, he found no proof that it would help with congestion.

What’s more, it wouldn’t help the most deprived areas of the city, the areas with the highest unemployment or those that are focus of the city’s regeneration efforts. Nor would it improve access to jobs, as it’d offer less stops, in limited areas, with little integration with other forms of public transport.

Because of this, he didn’t think it would facilitate future employment or population growth, which was, of course, one of the aims. And rather than being an environmentally friendly alternative, he found that it would actually increase CO2 emission.

This isn’t a case of the cons outweighing the pros, what we’re actually seeing here is that benefits we’ve been sold on were never going to happen. So even before we get onto the route, which would see us losing public spaces and listed buildings, he’s already disregarded the viability of the trolleybus.

Something is seriously wrong here

Trolleybus Leeds

West Yorkshire Combined Authority (known as METRO when they initially made the application), would have you believe that the big bad government have stood in the way of progress.

“Today’s news is a frustrating reminder that despite the government’s emphasis on devolution, we still find ourselves subject to decisions made remotely in Whitehall on local matters,” West Yorkshire Combined Authority Transport Committee Chair Cllr Keith Wakefield told us. “The government has admitted in the decision letter published today that NGT represented good value for money. The letter states the Department for Transport confirmed Programme Entry in July 2012 and the ‘decision to allocate funding for the scheme was based specifically on an assessment of the value for money, affordability and deliverability of the scheme.’”

Maybe they read a different report to the one we did. It’s carefully worded, but it feels like we made this decision very, very easy for them, as both the accuracy of the application, and competency of those who created it, is put into question.

The Inspector found that they hadn’t effectively reviewed the alternatives, neglecting to consider the fact that other forms of technology have been progressing a-pace, while trolleybus technology has not, nor has it been widely adopted in recent years. Whitehead said they hadn’t given enough thought to the impact of over-head wiring, nor had they adequately considered the possibility of alternative locations or indeed the fact that there might now be a more cost-effective solution available.

Trolleybus Leeds

And they completely failed to take into consideration the alternative solutions put forward by the opposition. You might remember that First West Yorkshire submitted their own scheme, which would see new hybrid buses combined with improved bus stops, signal priorities and bus lanes to offer a better service? It was found to be a better proposition than the trolleybus, offering improved services and greater flexibility for a lower price, with less disruption and environmental harm.

But of more concern, is the fact that the quality of the data was put into question, to the extent that the Inspector had ‘very little confidence’ in some of the forecasts provided, suggesting that previous projects, like the Park & Ride, had been similarly over-estimated. From patronage to cost estimates and even journey times, their entire model was put into question.

Worse still, the Inspector felt that their estimated costs were likely to escalate, while potential revenue was optimistic, concluding that the trolleybus scheme would not attract the funding necessary to maintain it, even with the commitment that had already been made.

What does it all mean?

Trolleybus Leeds

Well, obviously the trolleybus scheme is a no go – the Secretary of State has decided not to make the order, and with good reason.

“We are disappointed the local authorities cannot proceed with the Trolleybus but £173 million of DfT funding will be retained so the right public transport scheme in Leeds can be developed as quickly as possible,” A DfT spokesperson told us. “We will now fully support Leeds City Council and West Yorkshire Combined Authority on those next steps as the government continues to invest in Yorkshire and helps deliver the Northern Powerhouse.”

So the money is staying with us, but we’re back to square one… or are we? The Inspector clearly showed a preference for the First West Yorkshire plan, so could this be the next step in our efforts to improve Leeds’ transport problems? It’s not as ambitious as we were hoping, but it would be quick and all-encompassing, which means we’d start to feel the benefit much sooner – and that benefit would be felt by more people, in more parts of the city.

Time is certainly of the essence here. We’ve already waited long enough, for a decision on the Supertram in 2005 and now for one on the trolleybus – we have transport problems now and we need a solution fast.

It’s an opinion that Councillor Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, shares. “It’s a relief to everyone concerned that a decision has finally been made, although the length of time taken to get there has been very frustrating. I’m pleased Leeds will still be allocated the funding and look forward to working with our partners to bring forward the public transport improvements Leeds so desperately needs as quickly as possible.”

The First West Yorkshire plan isn’t necessarily the answer, there might be an even better solution out there, like a London-style bus system with quality partnership scheme, but we’re with the Inspector on this one – it deserves consideration.

What do you think the £173 million should be spent on? Tell us in the comments…