A 28 km light rail network to open in Croydon in 1999 will greatly improve east-west orbital journeys through south London and alleviate growing road congestion in Britain's eleventh biggest centre

Mike Heath MBE is Tramlink Project Manager for London Transport. Bob Dorey is Chairman of Tramtrack Croydon Ltd

THIS SPRING sees the start of work on the Tramlink light rail network to serve the south London suburb of Croydon. Promoted jointly by the London Borough of Croydon (LBC) and London Transport (LT), Tramlink will be financed, built and operated under a 99-year concession awarded to Tramtrack Croydon Ltd (TCL) on November 25.

TCL comprises local bus operator CentreWest, construction groups Sir Robert McAlpine and Amey, rolling stock supplier Bombardier Eurorail and financiers 3i and the Royal Bank of Scotland. Total cost of the project is put at around £200m, of which £35m will go on rolling stock. The British government has agreed to contribute to the project, with the announcement by the then Minister for Transport in London Steven Norris on July 22 1996 effectively forming the last go-ahead before work could start.

Construction of a light rail network in Croydon has been under discussion for over 20 years, but the present scheme originated in the late 1980s. At that time, LT and British Rail were looking at ways to improve the quality of public transport in south London, and one of the options was to enhance the existing rail network. Croydon was faced with major traffic problems which LBC feared could damage the attractiveness of the town centre.

Over the past 30 years, Croydon has achieved considerable success in establishing itself as the largest commercial and shopping centre in southeast England outside Central London. With over 800000 m2 of commercial office space, the town centre has more capacity than many provincial cities including Sheffield, Newcastle and Nottingham. Retail floor space in the town centre exceeds 250000 m2. Its 320000 inhabitants make Croydon the most populous of the 32 London boroughs, and equivalent to Britain's eleventh largest city.

Developing the network

Croydon's north-south rail links are excellent, with East Croydon station lying astride the London - Brighton main line midway between Victoria and Gatwick Airport. East Croydon is currently London's busiest commuter station, and also sees through InterCity services to the northwest and Scotland.

However, east-west travel in the south London suburbs is much more difficult, as it crosses the radial corridors developed by competing private railway companies in the last century. Road links are also poor, with the so-called South Circular Road more of a concept than a reality. Thus better east-west links were identified as crucial for Croydon's future success.

LT and LBC co-operated on a series of studies between 1990 and 1992 into options for making better use of existing road space. Improved bus priority and bus-only schemes were considered, as well as a more extensive review of the rail network. The crucial factor in determining the viability of any project was the level of ridership that could be attracted and the reduction of car travel and road congestion.

The key advantage of light rail with segregated running is that it gives a fast and reliable service, which encourages people to transfer from cars. In the light of this, and following reviews by a number of independent transport consultants, LT and LBC concluded that light rail was the best option for the borough. They jointly promoted a private Bill in Parliament which received Royal Assent as the Tramlink Act in July 1994.

To meet the needs for improved east-west links, the 28 km Tramlink network is based on a loop in the town centre with three radial branches running northwest, northeast and southeast. Two of these involve conversion of existing railway branches which are under-utilised, and in part will run alongside operational Railtrack routes. The third branch will use part of a derelict rail alignment en route to serve the major satellite residential area of New Addington at the farthest extremity of the borough, which has been served only by buses since it was built almost 60 years ago.

Project Development Group

Although Tramlink pre-dated the Private Finance Initiative, the promoters had already taken on board some of the government's aspirations for private-sector involvement in public investment schemes. A private/public partnership was formed in October 1992 to develop the scope and economics of the scheme. This Project Development Group was formed by LT, LBC and a consortium comprising Tarmac, AEG and Transdev, who provided expertise in construction and project management, railway engineering and light rail operations.

The PDG developed the Tramlink concept through a series of context drawings, to outline the route, impact on shopping centres, and so forth. It also undertook further consideration of the scheme's economics, balancing potential revenues with operating costs. More importantly, the PDG helped to draw up the commercial terms which were essential before the project could proceed - for example defining the responsibility for dealing with utilities diversions.

The PDG then drew up a draft Concession Agreement for discussion with the government, both the Department of Transport and the Treasury. At this stage it became necessary to incorporate details of the proposed risk transfer which would be fundamental if the scheme were to proceed under the terms of the Private Finance Initiative.

When the time came to launch the bidding competition for the concession - which had always been envisaged - it was necessary for all parties, including the members of the PDG, to ensure a level playing field for the competition, which was held under the EC negotiated procedures. Therefore the group was dissolved in March 1995. LT and LBC developed the Information Memorandum and marketing material for the tendering competition.

Concession bidding

The competition for Tramlink was announced by Steven Norris on May 26 1995. Initially, it was difficult to convince other groups to invest time and resources in bidding for a project where one consortium appeared to have an inside track. However, the promoter's investment in promotion and pre-marketing generated eight good prequalifying bids, which arrived in mid-September 1995. Of these, four consortia were shortlisted on October 2 for the formal invitation to tender. Final bids were requested by mid-January 1996.

On offer was a 99-year concession to design, build, finance, maintain and operate the Tramlink network. As a Private Finance Initiative project, the primary risk relating to those tasks must rest with the concessionaire, who will recoup its investment through revenue, either directly from cash-paying passengers or via revenue sharing arrangements for Travelcard and concessionary fares.

While public transport in Greater London remains regulated, the concessionaire will have some protection through LT's duties to co-ordinate public transport. For example, LT will be able to restructure its tendered bus network to complement Tramlink when it opens, whereas in other British cities light rail lines face direct competition from unregulated private bus companies.

From prequalifying right through to selection of the preferred bidder, the competition was judged on a range of criteria developed after extensive discussions between LT, LBC and the government. Essentially, the concession would go to the consortium submitting the most economically advantageous tender. But within that overall concept, various criteria were ranked in descending order of importance:

1. Ability to comply with mandatory project requirements throughout the concession period, including the minimum requirements of the performance specification attached to the invitation to tender and any mandatory contracts with designated third parties.

2. Financial strength of the tenderer and its capability to raise the necessary finance.

3. Lowest call for a public sector contribution to the cost of construction.

4. The degree of risk transfer from the public to the private sector.

5. Use of proven and established technology to construct, equip and operate the network.

6. Quality of the service, equipment and works offered by the tenderer in excess of the minimum requirements of the performance specification.

LT's commercial confidentiality provisions preclude explaining in detail why the winning bid was selected. What can be said is that the crucial criteria, relating to complying with the mandatory requirements and the financial strength of the bidder, were hurdles for all consortia to clear. Other aspects of the tender covered the different bidders' proposals for alternative approaches to meeting the output-related performance specification.

Other essential requirements before a bid could be taken forward included safety, the ability to meet operating requirements, and the ability to comply with undertakings and representations made in Parliament about the environmental impact, passenger comfort, reliability and overall aspects of the scheme, including good practice during construction.

Once the bidders had cleared these hurdles, it was inevitable that a project which required substantial public funding must have as a critical factor the lowest available call for contributions to the construction cost. For the bidders, this is a balance between those costs and the forecast revenues. It is an important element of a PFI project that the ridership risk passes to the concessionaire, and that there are no ongoing revenue subsidies. The remaining criteria balance the risk transfer, the certainty of delivering the project, and the added-value concepts to ensure that the most economically advantageous tender is chosen.

Construction schedule

Croydon's residents have already had their first experience of disruption from Tramlink construction, as one of the main shopping streets in the town centre was shut during October and November for preliminary works. This prepared the way for utilities relocation, which remains the responsibility of LT. Utilities work will continue in phases as necessary for construction to proceed up to the autumn of 1998.

TCL's engineering teams have already begun preparatory works such as boreholes, surveys and site accommodation, giving less than three years before the network is scheduled to open in late 1999. Heavy construction is due to be finished by the spring of that year, leaving six months for commissioning, fine tuning, and test running. The ex-BR branches from Wimbledon to West Croydon and Elmers End to Addiscombe will be closed at the end of May to allow conversion work to begin.

Extensive track refurbishment will be needed on the two rail lines, together with conversion from third rail to overhead power supply. Parts of the Wimbledon - West Croydon route will be restored to double-track.

Street tracks will be laid in central Croydon, providing for the first time a direct link between East and West Croydon stations through the heart of the town. A new reserved-track alignment will be built to carry the New Addington branch through Lloyd Park and Addington Hills, alongside Gravel Hill, and through Addington Village.

Another short section of new alignment will be built along the back of South Norwood Country Park, to connect the Elmers End route to Railtrack's Crystal Palace - Beckenham Junction line. This former double-track route was singled some years ago, leaving space for a second track to be laid on the alignment to carry Tramlink services. Passing places will be provided at Avenue Road and near Beckenham Road to accommodate the planned 10min frequency of service.

New bridges will be needed to carry Tramlink over Connex South Central tracks at two points: the Sutton - London line near Mitcham Junction, and the Sutton - West Croydon line near Waddon New Road on the approach to Croydon town centre.

Another major tranche of work covers the refurbishment of three sections of tunnel on the disused railway alignment between Sandilands and Coombe Lane.

The choice of signalling and communications systems has been left to TCL, although the specification stipulates that whatever is provided must satisfy the requirements of HM Railway Inspectorate. The trams will be controlled using a combination of 'line of sight' driving and appropriate signalling systems, for example at passing loops on the single line sections.

Rolling stock

Tramlink will be worked by a fleet of 24 low-floor LRVs supplied by Bombardier Eurorail's Prorail arm based in Wakefield. This will provide 21 cars in daily service plus three spares. The CR4000 design is derived from the 120-strong fleet of K4000 cars being supplied to Köln by Bombardier Eurorail's plants in Brugge and Wien. The six-axle articulated vehicles will be of low-floor design, 30 200 mm long and 2 650 mm wide.

The concession agreement specifies that at least two doors on each side of the vehicle will provide level access between car and platform, to ensure accessibility by unassisted wheelchair users. There must be a minimum of two wheelchair spaces on each car. Total capacity will be around 240 passengers per vehicle, of which 74 will be seated. Existing platforms along the converted rail routes will be lowered to suit the tram floor height, and new low-height platforms will be built at the other stops. Power will be supplied by conventional 750 V DC overhead catenary.

The fleet will be based at a new maintenance depot at Therapia Lane on the Wimbledon line, where normal servicing, light maintenance and routine repairs will be undertaken.

Passenger services

A comprehensive range of information and communications systems is envisaged. CCTV cameras will be provided at each stop, linked to monitors in the control centre. Passenger information displays on every platform will provide 'current' and 'next' tram information, including destination and estimated time of arrival at the stop.

Each platform will also be equipped with a Passenger Communication & Assistance System, with alarm buttons and a two-way speech link to the control centre. Radio links will carry voice and data messages between the control centre and the vehicles, allowing conversations between the drivers or passengers and controllers.

For fare collection purposes, the concession agreement requires Tramlink to conform with LT's London-wide zonal ticketing system. Travelcards and Concessionary Permits will be accepted. The level and structure of fares will be proposed by the operators and determined by London Transport. Tickets will be issued by multi-fare vending machines at all stops - at least one per platform. They may also be sold from TCL's central Croydon office and other agencies. Tickets will not be sold or validated by the tram drivers.

Routes, service frequency and journey times will all be subject to agreement between TCL and LT. Three main routes are planned: Wimbledon - Elmers End, Croydon - Beckenham Junction, and Croydon - New Addington. The typical journey time from the town centre to Elmers End would be about 14 min, and to any of the other termini about 20 or 21 min. During the week, daytime frequencies of six trams/h are envisaged to Wimbledon, Elmers End and Beckenham Junction and nine trams/h on the New Addington branch. This will give a combined service of 20 trams/h each way on the core section between East Croydon and Sandilands, and in Croydon town centre. There will be scaled-down service levels in the evenings and on Sundays.

Flagship system

Whilst some disruption during construction is inevitable, the effects will be minimised through close liaison with the affected boroughs of Croydon, Bromley, Merton and Sutton, and by ensuring the public is kept informed at all stages of the project. The long-term benefits of this major improvement to public transport and the subsequent boost to the local economy will outweigh any short-term concerns.

Tramlink will be seen as the flagship for the southeast in terms of a modern, environmentally-friendly and integrated public transport system.

  • CAPTION: Road closures to allow diversion of services clear of the tram tracks have begun in central Croydon
  • CAPTION: At present Connex South Central operates an irregular service between Wimbledon (above) and West Croydon, with a two-car EMU covering this under-utilised route about every 45 min. Tramlink will not merely improve service frequency, but also give direct connections at East Croydon
  • CAPTION: Preparatory work just east of the main line station at East Croydon requires road traffic diversion. Construction of Tramlink will provide the first direct rail connection between here and West Croydon. The Tramlink consortium is drawing on the experience of Britain's other modern tram construction projects in keeping the public informed about the benefits which will follow construction (inset)

TCL shareholders

  • CentreWest
  • Sir Robert McAlpine
  • Amey
  • Bombardier Eurorail
  • 3i
  • Royal Bank of Scotland

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