An EU scheme could use “smart streetlights” to cut energy bills and create Wi-Fi hotspots

Image: Skitterphoto at pixabay.

There are at least 60m streetlights in Europe. This, of course, is a good thing: they make roads safer and far more pleasant to walk along, and do much to minimise the chance of something horrible happening to passers-by.

But most of those street lights – as many as three-quarters – are at least 25 years old. And until relatively recently, lighting technology wasn't very efficient. As a result, the need to light up the streets can cost local government anywhere between 20 and 50 per cent of its energy bills.

Lucky for councils, then, that the EU is on hand to ride to the rescue. Even at this very moment, the European Commission’s “European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities & Communities” (or EIP-SCC, if you prefer something snappier) is working to replace 10m streetlights across Europe with new, low-energy models.

That means more LED bulbs, which can cut energy costs by 50 to 75 per cent, mounted on lightweight poles, made from fibreglass or wood. Emissions-wise, replacing 10m streetlight bulbs with LEDs is equivalent to removing 2.6m cars from the road.

There’s more. The lights could also be raised or dimmed centrally – if an incident was playing out over CCTV and security needed a better view, for example. Some of the streetlights also have “smart” features, such as air quality monitors and Wi-Fi hubs: after all, since these things are inevitably going to be all over the place, we might as well use them.

Of course, replacing millions of streetlights is a pretty expensive business – so the initiative will be based on what Graham Colclough, the partner at consultancy UrbanDNA, who’s leading the project, calls “open component-based design”. That basically boils down to encouraging manufacturers to produce different parts which could combine to make street lights smarter, without the need to fully replace millions throughout Europe.

Late last year, representatives from different European countries met to discuss how to put the plan, which was launched early in 2014, into action. “ Ministers get it, leaders and mayors get it,” Colclough says. “Lots of smart city ideas are quite abstract, but street furniture is something you see and use every day, so the benefits are much clearer and more immediate.”  

And, he says, the challenge has also been taken up by designers and manufacturers: “Nine months ago, if you searched Google for images of streetlights, you just found pictures of bog-standard models. Now, the results page is full of new, funky designs.”

Without finalised designs, it’s impossible to say how long it’d take for energy savings to pay back smart streetlight investment. Estimates from the Green Investment bank, however, show that the switch from standard to low-energy lighting generally pays for itself within five to 15 years.

Maintaining the lights would be cheaper, too: LED bulbs offer around 100,000 hours of light, as opposed to the 15,000 hours supplied by a standard bulb. And because LED streetlights use collections of bulbs rather than just one, the street wouldn’t be plunged into darkness when one went pop.

These “smart” streetlights would be more appropriate for some roads than others, of course: Oxford Street has greater need for Wi-Fi and air quality sensors than residential areas would. For village roads and country lanes, meanwhile, we’re still rooting for those bioluminescent tree streetlights

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

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Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.