Light Rail in Britain and France: Study in Contrasts, with Some Similarities

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Subject Area

organisation - regulation, mode - rail, mode - tram/light rail


United Kingdom, Regulations, New Starts Program, Light rail transit, Implementation, Great Britain, France, Dedicated funding sources, Cost recovery, Case studies


Great Britain and France have experienced a dramatic resurgence of light rail in the past two decades. Beginning in the early 1980s, following a 30-year abandonment of street railways in favor of motorbuses, cities in both countries developed new light rail transit systems as a response to declining transit ridership, faded downtowns in need of revitalization, and the high construction costs of heavy rail and metro. Britain and France have pursued greatly different approaches to the implementation of light rail. The purpose of this paper is to point out these differences and, through the use of case studies, draw conclusions as to the efficacy of each approach. A few cities in each country were studied with secondary sources. Commonality within each country was observed with great divergence between the two countries. In Britain, the requirements for light rail are onerous: a specific act of Parliament is needed for each new start. Each system must achieve full recovery of operating and maintenance costs and contribute toward capital investment while competing against unregulated buses. That some British systems have been built and successfully attract traffic is to the credit of their proponents. France has a more uniform approach published in government circulars. All French cities of substantial size must have a “versement transportes,” a 1% to 2% tax on salaries and wages dedicated to regulated and coordinated public transport. French new starts, which have no need to attain 100% cost recovery (the versement transportes covers operating losses), have been implemented in about half the time of those in Britain.