Why Galway needs a Very Light Rail system

Galway has the chance to move away from being a car-first, human-second, designed city, but will we take the opportunity?

The prototype Very Light Rail vehicle which has been designed for use in Coventry.

The prototype Very Light Rail vehicle which has been designed for use in Coventry.

In this time of confinement due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many people used their time wisely by making observations to the Galway City Council ‘Our City Our Future’ consultation, which will go towards what will become the Galway City Development Plan 2023-2029.

At the final count, there were 522 individual and group submissions posted online - just 261 were registered back in 2016. The realisation we are living in the extraordinary times of climate change seems to have at last hit home, with the obvious need for a climate action plan to be part of any solution and future planning for the city.

Climate change

Until now, Ireland has been one of the laggards when it comes to tackling the issue. The Climate Action Bill may change all that, assuming it is passed by the Oireachtas, and that its ambitious targets are met. However, the Government is still backing numerous road construction projects - such as Galway’s N6 Ring Road - under Project Ireland 2040, the result of which will likely cause more emissions.

From Insider’s point of view it was gratifying to read the many numerous requests for planners to consider an emissions-free light rail tram to run through the city. This was second only to the numbers looking for regeneration of the seawater pools in Salthill, a project with which Insider absolutely concurs.

Rule out car dependent housing

Calls were also made for better cycling and greenway developments to be part of the next development plan. These issues show that people in Galway recognise we can no longer rely on unfettered use of private cars within the city. It is still quite possible to develop better public transport solutions.

There are, of course, still many who believe Galway needs a bypass, but this showed a decline in support when put alongside alternative solutions which are now being taken very seriously.

Researchers at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy have said that making cities ‘walkable’ was vital to improve health, cutting climate-heating transport emissions, and to building stronger local communities and economies. However, it also said very few cities overall gave pedestrians priority and were still dominated by cars.

The ITDP report also includes evidence that globally, transport is a major carbon emitter. It is associated with significant death, injury, and disease, from air pollution and road traffic accidents, with nearly 230,000 pedestrians around the world expected to be killed in road crashes this year. It also imposes major costs on economies through traffic congestion.

'This ‘urban sprawl’ renders alternatives to the private car far more difficult to implement. Galway became increasingly a car-first, human-second, designed city, with few wide roads and narrow, or no paths'

Irish carbon emissions, per capita, are the fourth highest in the EU, while our cities rank amongst the most congested in the world, according to data collected by INRIX and TomTom. Six years on from Ireland’s original Low-Carbon Development Act 2015, and after declaring a ‘climate emergency’ in 2019, Ireland still has no plan in place to reduce damaging emissions to 2050, and transport is a chief area for concern.

A car first city

Our physical settlement, post Buchanans 1999 LUTS study, saw investment, with market and lifestyle all dictating that we would still funnel our growing economy and population into use of the private car. For decades, Laissez faire spatial planning has allowed the proliferation of one-off housing in the countryside, with low-density suburban and commuter development.

This ‘urban sprawl’ renders alternatives to the private car far more difficult to implement. Galway city became increasingly a car-first, human-second, designed city, with few wide roads and narrow, or no paths, making our public realm more unsafe for vulnerable road users and less comfortable for everyone. When all of these factors line-up it is called ‘lock-in’.

Galway’s future progression as seen by the Gluas Group - which is campaigning for a light rail system for the city, and which is made up of ordinary individuals, academics, engineers, and business people - has consistently argued that if many small European cities, which are of similar size to Galway, can have light rail and operate it successfully, then why would this technology not also work for Galway?

Gluas has found a project which it believes offers an affordable answer to city needs of today, while being capable of expanding as Galway grows out into the future.

What is Very Light Rail?

Very Light Rail is a concept that has been developed by a team of researchers from the Warwick Manufacturing Group, WMG, at the University of Warwick, working together with Transport Design International Ltd.

It has been designing and building the new ‘Very Light Rail’ vehicle for Coventry City Council, which will see a battery powered, zero-emissions, lightweight, rail-based public transport system arrive later this year into Coventry.

A prototype vehicle has just been delivered for testing at a dedicated £25 million test track at the Black Country Innovation Manufacturing Organisation site at Castle Hill, Dudley, in the English west midlands. It will then shortly move onto the streets of Coventry where it is expected to lead to further advancement of light rail throughout the city.

'The proposed VLR network is key to our vision for the future of public transport in Galway. We believe it’s going to revolutionize how we all travel in the city' - Brendan Holland, Gluas chair

The prototype vehicle has been designed by WMG and TDI, with a target of achieving a carrying capacity of around 56 passengers, with doubling up to run in pairs if required. It is envisaged this would be followed by passenger operation of production vehicles on selected routes built in Coventry.

“The Coventry Very Light Rail project will deliver a step change in cost reduction for light rail systems in the UK,” according to WMG associate professor, Darren Hughes. “We are really proud that this marks the beginning of the journey to roll out low cost, rail-based, transport for medium sized cities.”

Brendan Holland. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

NP Aerospace CEO James Kempston said assembly of the prototype “utilises NP Aerospace’s capability in assembling and delivering complex defence vehicle programmes has extended this into the rail and transportation sector”.

Work is also far advanced to develop an affordable trackform that could be installed quickly and cheaply, and which could also be easily removed to allow access for utility maintenance. Engineers from the University of Warwick are working on the track design with Coventry City Council; French civil engineering company, Ingerop Conseil et Ingénierie; and its UK subsidiary Rendel.

A compelling case

VLR is compelling, where the full benefits of light-weighting, self-propulsion, digital control (and ultimately autonomy ) can be exploited. Vehicles allow lower-cost, less-substantial track and infrastructure, with vehicles designed for low cost manufacture allowing lower prices and bigger fleets that allow for five minute headway.

The target cost for VLR is £10 million/Km (€11.25m/Km ). The cost for 20Km would be around €225 million. The Gluas Group thinks this would meet the cost objectives of the Galway Transport Strategy, and indeed, all GTS objectives.

The National Transport Authority in 2016, went 80 per cent of the way to proving that light rail is the most appropriate solution for Galway. Had VLR been modeled and appraised then, Gluas believes it would come out as the most favourable solution.

“This project will be among the first of its kind in the world,” said Gluas chair, Brendan Holland. “It is being led by world beating automotive experience and is using cutting-edge materials. The proposed VLR network is key to our vision for the future of public transport in Galway. We want our transport to be efficient, affordable and most importantly environmentally friendly. We believe it’s going to revolutionize how we all travel in the city.”

Gluas is seeking support from the Minister for Transport, Eamon Ryan, who has committed to fund a feasibility study - as was previously promised when Shane Ross was in that ministerial position, and which was sought by Independent Galway West TD, Catherine Connolly, who collected 24,000 signatures in a petition seeking an independent study.

Online discussion

Gluas is running a free to access webinar on Tuesday April 20 at 7pm, at which speakers from Warwick University and Coventry City Council and Gluas Group will present their advanced project. Galway TDs, councillors, city executives, and the public are invited to participate in the Q&A.

Insider recommends that all who wish to see Galway freed from the tyranny of car gridlock should register at https://www.eventbrite.ie/e/galway-very-light-rail-webinar-tickets-146997446319.

 

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