Light rail and tramways

Light rail is an urban rail transportation system that uses electric-powered rail cars along exclusive rights-of-way at ground level, on aerial structures, in tunnels, or occasionally in streets. The operation is under full signal control and the current UK systems have full automatic train protection.

As the name suggests, the term light refers to operations carried out under a less rigorous set of regulations, using lighter equipment at lower speeds than those used by heavy rail, such as services provided by train operating companies.

A tram system, tramway or tram is a railway on which streetcars or trolleys run. It is typically built at street level, sharing roads with traffic, but may include private rights of way especially in newer light rail systems.

Many older tram systems do not have platforms, which enables integration with other forms of transport and pedestrians making simultaneous use of the streets.

Light rail and tramways operating in the UK

Some are both light rail and tramways:

How do we regulate light rail and tramways?

We have responsibility for health and safety on light rail and tramways. There is no specific safety legislation for these systems. Both infrastructure and rolling stock safety are assessed using the same criteria for heavy rail, but tailored for light weight, lower speed operation. However, there is legislation relating to highways which affects light rail and tramways.

Safety issues on individual systems are normally dealt with by our field inspectors. They are supported by a small team of specialist inspectors with light rail experience who also consider new and modified works proposals.

Key issues

The following are key areas of interest for light rail and tramways:

  • proposals for the application of driver licensing to light rail and tramways;
  • the applicability of European urban transit Directives on interoperability to light rail and tramways;
  • the applicability and relevance of other railway safety initiatives to light rail and tramways;
  • requirements for disabled access to railways, and their application to light rail and tramways;
  • supporting the UKTram industry groups in their work to produce guidance for light rail and tramway systems;
  • research into safety critical issues in light rail and tramways where these differ from mainline railway practice, such as wheel/rail interface; and
  • review of the regulatory regime for light rail and tramways.