The government has recognised this enthusiasm by making a commitment to double light rail passenger numbers by 2010. Light rail is a definition that includes systems such as London's Docklands Light Railway as well as trams; £2.6bn of public and private money is to be invested in up to 25 new lines. A system in Nottingham is currently under construction and new schemes have been approved for Leeds, south Hampshire and Bristol. Extensions are either planned or under way for the Docklands Light Railway, the Tyne and Wear Metro, and the Birmingham system. Such is the success of Manchester's Metrolink that £500m is being invested in three extensions to the existing network. And Hastings will get a light rail scheme instead of the bypass that was recently cancelled.
Light rail schemes are very popular with the public. Rod Wood, operations manager of the Whitgift shopping centre in Croydon, says of the Tramlink service: "I've not heard a single criticism of the tram; it's extremely reliable, it's very convenient and it's safe. People are surprised by the difference between the tram and the bus. It's a quantum leap in service."
Wood also reports that when the service opened in May last year, the centre saw an immediate 8.5% increase in customers. He believes much of this was due to Tramlink.
Tramlink has carried 16 million people in its first year of operation, a figure that is increasing at a rate of 1.5% a month. People are leaving the car at home; the council reports a 6% fall in demand for parking in Croydon's town centre. Property values have gone up too, says Ian Vernon, manager of estate agent Bairstow Eves in Croydon: "Without a shadow of a doubt, Tramlink has had a dramatic effect on commuting times and has had a positive effect on values."
Given the success of these schemes, perhaps the government should be devoting more than £2.6bn in light rail – it works out as less than 1.5% of the total planned spend on transport of £180bn. Carlton Robert-James, director of technical affairs at the Institution of Highways & Transportation, says: "The institution felt the balance was about right. What is important is that we see the real benefits on the ground quickly."
Without a shadow of a doubt, Tramlink has had a positive effect
Ian Vernon, estate agent manager, Croydon
In any case, light rail cannot be viewed in isolation. Robert-James believes a holistic approach is needed; light rail should integrate with other forms of transport, including park and ride, trains, bus services, footpaths and cycling.
Tony Young, an independent planning and development consultant who has worked on several schemes both in the UK and abroad, believes Croydon's Tramlink has been particularly successful because it was planned as part of an integrated transport system; publicly controlled London Transport manages the buses in the Croydon area.
He says: "In Sheffield, trams have to compete with private buses; it would have been more successful if it operated as an integrated system. It's nonsense if a lot of public money is going into a scheme that is in competition with private buses."
Even if the government decided that light rail was the answer to all its prayers, it would be hard to deliver the benefits overnight. There is a real danger that by the time this knight in shining armour arrives, its polish will have tarnished.