Very Light Rail - a very promising solution to mass transit in towns and cities

Coventry Very Light Rail
Jason Prince

I often joke with colleagues – rather tongue-in-cheek – that we’re ‘living the dream’ every day when we turn up to work and do our best to advocate for better public transport. Well, earlier this month, this sentiment felt entirely genuine as I took a visit to Dudley in the West Midlands to see one of the most promising innovations in urban transport. 

Now, if you’d have told my 12-year-old self (or even a twenty-something Jason studying engineering at university), that I would one day get to pilot a groundbreaking Very Light Rail vehicle (albeit on a test track), I’d probably have fainted. But that’s exactly what happened (not the fainting) during my visit to see Coventry Very Light Rail (CVLR).  

CVLR is an emerging initiative being spearheaded by Coventry City Council, in partnership with our member Transport for West Midlands (TfWM), as well as Dudley Council, Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) at the University of Warwick and Black Country Innovative Manufacturing Organisation (BCIMO). It’s being delivered as part of the West Midlands Combined Authority’s City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement (CRSTS) programme. 

So, if you don’t happen to be a transport geek, why is Very Light Rail (VLR) so exciting?  

VLR vehicles run on tracks designed to sit just 300mm inside the road surface, which lessen the overall impact on having to move under-street apparatus. Another advantage of VLR is that they are battery-operated and capable of negotiating tight corners, meaning no overhead line equipment is required. This combined result provides an innovative transport option - alongside bus, rail and light rail, that contributes to encouraging model shift from private cars and onto public transport, and in turn reducing urban congestion.

Some of the team behind Coventry Very Light Rail
Some of the team behind Coventry Very Light Rail

What I was also struck by on my visit to Dudley was the futuristic look to the vehicle, with its sleek lines and modern interior. The vehicle provided a smooth ride and could hold up to 60 people, ideal for moving people around our towns and cities. 

I don’t think it is an accident that the CVLR vehicle looks good and feels so innovative. CVLR is shaping up to be a British manufacturing success story. The Research and Development project uses the latest automotive expertise developed in Coventry and the wider West Midlands, arguably the heartland of manufacturing in the UK. Harnessing the benefits of a highly skilled workforce is fantastic for the local area. And there is potential for many local jobs in the West Midlands and the UK (there is thought to be a market potential of £2.3bn a year by 2040) and for the technology to be exported beyond our own Borders. 

So, my hope is that that one day soon, travellers in Coventry will be living the dream by hopping on board VLR vehicle to get to where they need to be in the city. And that in the not-too-distant future, this method of transport will be one that transport authorities have the option of deploying in their own cities and towns. 

Jason Prince is Director of the Urban Transport Group