Roger French: How Leeds trolleybus millions could have been spent

THEY wanted a Supertram. They were told No. Then they wanted a trolleybus. Now they've been told No again. Two costly '˜Noes' at that '“ £72m of public money spent in pursuit of these Leeds vanity projects, to say nothing of Government costs.

The Leeds trolelybus scheme has been ridiculed by former bus boss Roger French.
The Leeds trolelybus scheme has been ridiculed by former bus boss Roger French.

West Yorkshire Combined Authority reckon £10m can be clawed back selling land purchased which is no longer needed, although I’m wondering what they were doing buying up land in the first place. If a trolleybus needs that amount of bespoke land, surely that in itself indicates something’s not quite right with the basic economics?

What really is infuriating about this decision is the considerable passenger benefits which could have been provided by spending £62m of public money more wisely by now.

When I see local authorities up and down the country cutting back on expenditure on much valued tendered bus routes due to their severe financial constraints, and people becoming isolated from public transport, it just adds to the frustration seeing public funds wasted in this reckless way.

Leeds NGT (New Generation Transport to give it the buzz name it does not deserve) is a scandal of cable-car-across-the-Thames proportions.

Do these handsomely paid people in the public sector not have any sense of guilt and remorse at frittering away millions of pounds of scarce public funds? Not a bit of it.

According to Councillor Peter Box, the chairman of West Yorkshire Combined Authority, it was a “bad day for Leeds”. Transport committee chairman, Coun Keith Wakefield, reckoned it’s 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”.

Well, thank goodness for independent planning inspectors is what I say following the trolleybus public inquiry. When it comes to spending public money in these times of austerity, it’s jolly good that someone is able to put a brake on these crazy schemes. Quite why it took from October 2014 to May 2016 to pick over the evidence presented during the 72 days of public inquiry is a mystery only aficionados of the ways of the Civil Service will be able to answer.

Perhaps it had something to do with the sheer ludicrousness of the scheme. It shouldn’t have needed a Government-appointed inspector listening to hours of evidence, and pouring over reams of documents, to conclude that “the NGT scheme would deliver improvements on a relatively small part of the Leeds transport network and could result in poorer public transport services in other parts of the city”.

Sitting down here in Sussex with only a basic knowledge of the A660 and where Holt Park, Headingley and Stourton are in Leeds, I was able to work out this £250m scheme wasn’t going to do much for the folk of Moortown or Morley, Roundhay or Rothwell.

The inspector identified various concerns about the reliability of the data used and assumptions made by the trolleybus advocates regarding transportation and socio-economic benefits as well as patronage forecasts.

The “relatively poor integration with other public transport” was also highlighted in his report as trolleybuses were not going to use the same stops as buses in the city, nor access Leeds bus station.

This demonstrates the sheer insanity of the scheme. Why would passengers want to forego the convenience of waiting for buses or a trolleybus along a corridor at the same stop just because the ego-filled proponents of trolleybuses reckon they should be differentiated from ‘bog standard’ buses?

Except buses aren’t ‘bog standard’ any longer. They’re over-brimming with quality features: sumptuous seats, free wi-fi, usb charging points, stylised interiors and here’s the clincher: they’re using less and less diesel as engines become more efficient and clean.

I had to smile at the underplay in the inspector’s observation that he was “unconvinced that overhead wiring should be regarded as a positive feature”.

I’ve heard this spurious argument before from trolleybus proponents; that the wires and gantries somehow add to the architectural heritage of a city and to the idea of a fixed and therefore reassured permanent mode of public transport.

What absolute nonsense.

I also see the trolleybuses were likely to have just 40 seats and 120 standing. Do these people ever travel by bus and understand what ‘quality’ means?

After all, Leeds Council and others get to keep £173m of Department for Transport funding to spend on something else. And guess what they’re talking about now? Tram-trains. You couldn’t make it up.

Meanwhile every time I go to Leeds, I struggle to find the basics such as attractively produced timetable leaflets for the improving – and intensive – bus network already on offer.

Roger French is the retired MD of Brighton and Hove Buses. This is an edited version of an article first published by Bus and Coach Buyer magazine.