Recharge of the light brigade

A lightweight minitram, narrow enough to travel through some of the UK’s oldest towns and cities, is being developed by a Warwickshire-based company.

The minitram is an electric vehicle with on-board batteries, capable of providing a service similar to that of light rail or tram systems, but at a much lower cost, said Martin Pemberton, managing director of Transport Design International.

The company plans to develop two versions of the vehicle, a concealed wire guidance system operated by on-board sensors and a variant that runs on shallow-laid tram track. Both still require drivers to ensure passenger safety.

The construction of the minitram is unique, claimed Pemberton. ‘It is a lightweight aluminium structure to compensate for the weight of the batteries, and is built using bonded honeycomb panels. It has a modular design, so if it gets damaged operators can simply replace a section, making it easy to maintain.’

TDI has built a prototype, and is now talking to local authorities and private firms about installing the first system, he said.

Minitram will cost less than £1m per kilometre to install, including vehicles, platforms and ticketing, compared to several million pounds per kilometre for conventional trams.

The vehicle, which can be just 1.75m wide, is likely to be particularly popular with older places such as Stratford-upon-Avon, he said. ‘There are only a finite number of cities that can afford a full tram network, and there are a lot of heritage towns with narrow streets that wouldn’t want to install all the vulgar infrastructure required by those systems, such as overhead wires.’

TDI had hoped to install the first system in Stratford later this year, but this has been delayed due to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s plans to redevelop its theatre. But the firm still hopes to conduct a trial of the system in the town later this year, and a major bus operator is interested in running it, Pemberton said.

Minitram is capable of travelling at up to 50mph, but its basic speed is likely to be around 15mph in pedestrian areas. At such speeds the on-board batteries should last up to a day before being recharged, Pemberton said.

The company is also looking at a rapid charging system, which would allow the batteries to be recharged in a matter of hours.

The rubber-tyred, wire-guided vehicle can travel along shared routes or dedicated lanes, and is suitable for use within buildings.

Some have questioned the safety and reliability of guided systems, as the underground wires can be prone to damage caused by other vehicles. Transport for London abandoned a scheme between Woolwich and the Millennium Dome for this reason. But TDI has been working with the HSE to ensure safety, said Pemberton.