YP Letters: Why tram-trains serving Leeds Bradford Airport just aren't viable

A transport expert from the Harrogate Chamber of Commerce has written to the Yorkshire Post explaining why a tram-train link to Leeds Bradford Airport would be uneconomical.

Brian Dunsby expressed support for Leeds City Council's preferred proposal for a rail link to the airport - a new parkway station with park-and-ride access to the terminal.

The Chamber does not support alternative plans that were originally put forward for tram-trains, which would use the existing Leeds-Harrogate line that runs nearby, believing that they would reduce capacity on the route and create bottlenecks.

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The letter reads:-

"In view of recent press coverage we have compiled the attached summary of the relative advantages and disadvantages of tram-trains on the Harrogate Line, especially when coupled with our original proposal for a new Parkway Station south of the Bramhope tunnel, where the line is only 1 mile as the crow flies from the Airport Terminal Building in its current location.

We do not support the use of tram-train technology for any services between Leeds and the Harrogate District or between Harrogate and York. The route needs the affordable capacity, speed, safety and frequency, as now secured for implementation in the next two years via the new Northern and East Coast Rail franchises (i.e. a two-way all day frequency of 4 trains per hour in each direction between Harrogate and Leeds plus new IEP Harrogate-London trains operating at a 2-hourly interval). This 15 minute frequency is the widely recognised benchmark at which modal shift from car occurs quite significantly. When associated with the fast trip times and comfort levels offered by conventional rail, it becomes the most compelling and economically viable option.

With regard to proposals for Tram-trains, we are extremely concerned at the potential consumption of scarce capacity on the Harrogate main line by slow and incompatible tram-train services and the inevitable bottleneck junctions that would be created where services might join and leave the main line. It is clear that some light rail enthusiasts would like to see Tram-Trains run on the Harrogate line and then go on a spur right up to the Terminal building - and even possibly onwards to Guiseley and Bradford. That aspiration is, on the basis of experience elsewhere misguided.

Whilst this may be technically possible it would be at massive cost to the public purse. It would be economically unviable both in terms of capital cost to build and subsequent on-costs of operation particularly if a high frequency and high volume capability is to be achieved. Furthermore it could inhibit the future development of the Airport Terminal Building by effectively fossilizing the exact location of the terminal in its current position, which may not be optimal for future long term development of the airport infrastructure.

In 2015, the Government's Electrification Task Force recommended that the Harrogate Line should be electrified using the standard industry 25kV overhead system. There is a mistaken view that trams and light rail somehow equate to lower costs and higher frequencies. In fact, the evidence we have seen demonstrates the opposite to be true and users simultaneously suffer a diminution of quality and extended trip times. The beauty of the proposed Airport Station is that it can be served by the services noted above as soon as it is built at virtually no additional cost to taxpayers (because the services will be fully funded and staffed). The wider regional market exploited by the facility is also key to its success. However, we remain fully cognisant of the evidence at other regional airports around the UK, which show that rail access to airports outside of London and Manchester will remain at a relatively low percentage of the total. The likely prime beneficiaries will be incoming business users and others wishing to access the business districts of Leeds, Harrogate and York quickly.

In our assessment therefore, the main beneficiaries of the proposed Airport/Park & Ride Station will be the many residents in north-west Leedswho currently have no easy access to rail services into Leeds City Centre. In alphabetical order, the residents of Arthington, Bramhope, Cookridge, Pool, and Yeadon would have very good accessibility to the proposed new Station. These are potential users who also experience some of the most congested road trips into and out of Leeds City Centre. Many of them will no doubt be willing to pay a reasonable parking fee and rail fare if the total cost is competitive with the cost of city centre parking in Leeds. The station would therefore enable trips which are potentially better than those achieved with the current levels of traffic congestion both during the rush hours and the off-peaks.

Rail users already pay to park cars at many locations, including West and North Yorkshire. The use of modest charging is a mechanism by which a business case can be established and funding secured. LBA Management has concurred with the concept that the new station should be served by extending its existing airport car park shuttle buses which frequently operate between the terminal and the various car parks and for which accessing the new station would be a very short extension

When electrified, the Harrogate Line trains could be linked to the Airedale and Bradford Lines to provide a cross-city line. We would also envisage a further increase in frequencies (e.g. to 10 minutes) along with the possibility that the route could also be reconnected to towns like Ripon and/or Wetherby. The proposed LBA Parkway Station would then be directly accessible from large parts of North and West Yorkshireeither directly or by changing at Leeds or York. .None of these possibilities would be compatible with tram-train journeys

It must be stressed that the trains serving the proposed new Airport Station already exist and are thus available at no further cost to the project. It is also a fact that they are committed to be upgraded in terms of frequency, capacity and quality trains at no additional cost to taxpayers through the DfT franchising programme (Northern and East Coast franchises). Overlooking these key points these is perhaps regrettable as it under-sells the proposition in an area that readers and stakeholders will understand. These are constructive and advantageous points and that are both material and committed.

As already noted above, evidence suggests that the number of air passengers likely to use such a rail link will be a relatively small percentage of total LBA passengers - and such users will require a reliable fast frequent and comfortable trip that cannot be provided by a tram-train proposition. Such systems internationally have a low rate of cost recovery through the fare box because of their high cost of construction and operation plus low yield fares that are sustainable because of the trip times, frequencies and comfort levels.

The over-riding advantage of our proposal is that the only cost would be the capital cost of constructing the new Station and associated accesses/car parks.

This is because the existing services which are being significantly increased over the next couple of years irrespective, would serve it without any requirement to procure new dedicated rolling stock or additional staff. (Zero capital expenditure on trains) and at very marginal incremental operating cost.

We therefore endorse the Leeds City Council's decision to pursue our suggested LBA Parkway Station rather than the light rail or tram-train schemes that have been mentioned in despatches from interested parties."