In the UK, we are seeing trams taking passenger connectivity to new levels, bringing manifold benefits to the environment, the economy and local communities. Passengers seem to agree, with nearly 240 million passenger journeys in 2015 on Britain’s eight light rail systems.

Since falling out of favour in the receding years of the 1900s, recent governments have backed light rail, especially trams, to provide better, smarter municipal transportation at a lower cost per mile, whilst also improving the environment.

Light rail, trams and other rapid transit systems, even trolleybuses, are a key part of an overall strategy to get people out of their cars, to reduce congestion and emissions in our major conurbations. Croydon Tramlink, for example, affected a modal shift from cars of 20 per cent.

The fact that not one tramway system in the UK looks the same is indicative of a mode of transport that can be tailored to fit the specific needs of a community and provide a sensible solution for addressing public transport ambitions. Crucial for local authorities looking to make huge benefits to their public transport networks without making huge dents to their coffers.

The Docklands Light Railway, for instance, has grown into an essential piece of east London’s infrastructure, connecting the City with Canary Wharf and providing connections to the tube network and London City Airport, the Olympic Park and High Speed 1.

Although it was in New York where the first tramway appeared in 1832, Europe now enjoys the densest implementation of light rail. From Germany’s tried and tested U-Bahn system, and the five-line Grenoble tramway, to the Edinburgh Tramway, on which WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff was the designer.

This latter example shows how trams can play a massive part in inter-connecting multi-modality, in this case linking mainline rail with Edinburgh Airport and the city centre. Again, the passengers seem to agree, with nearly five million using it in its first year.

However, rail technology doesn’t stand still for long and communities that are considering new tram systems as part of their public transport solutions should look beyond the well-worn systems for their inspiration.

Indeed, one of the largest advantages of these lighter, cheaper modes of transportation is their flexibility to be modified for the unique applications of each new system.

Equally, modern braking systems feature multiple routes to failure, therefore removing the need for trams to be parked on level ground when unattended. These sorts of considerations, although seemingly small, demonstrate that tram technology is constantly looking to innovate and improve, forcing promoters to keep their eyes on the horizon.

Qatar is upping the stakes further with its Education City tram, built primarily to transport students. Its trams are advancing the traction power system through the use of hybrid-storage capacitors coupled with batteries that provide a catenary-free operation. Its batteries can also be recharged by overhead electrical conductor rails found at any one of the 24 stations/stops via an electrical pick up found on top of the tram (the pantograph).

This innovative approach allows the tram to operate without the risk of catenary wire strikes by vehicles on roads, and also allows partial recharge of the energy storage system whilst stationary in the tram stops. This tram system comes replete with features to allow its electrical equipment and its passengers to cope with the searing, 50+ degrees heat and intense sunlight. The low-floor rolling stock even includes natural colours that will promote calm among its passengers.

The move away from catenary power, as the delivery path for our electric trams, to internal rechargeable hybrid-capacitors and batteries is an area of technology that is the focus of great innovation and improvement.

It is largely inspired by naval, submarine technology, where battery and associated recharge technology continues to be improved, especially regarding power-to-weight ratios. Indeed, the batteries on Qatar’s state- of-the-art 11.5km network will store and re-use the energy that is generated as the tram brakes.

The kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) that adds further green credentials to light rail owes a lot to Formula 1, where it has seen much development.

Looking further afield, our global vision for ‘smart cities’ has transport at its heart. Imagine a smart transport system where commuters are connected to real-time transport information and purchase tickets as they travel, without having to make a physical transaction or queue for tickets.

The powerlines that drive trams are ideal conduits through which to stream large bandwidths of data, which will help cities realise the potential of the ‘internet of things’.

Passenger information systems that are tuned in to traffic and incident management systems in real time are better able to take evasive action and avoid creating congestion spots and exacerbate pinch points.

Trams are getting faster, better and cheaper. As we find ever more sophisticated and innovative solutions to meet the pressing need for smarter public transport solutions, it is not hard to imagine that the golden era of the tram may still be to come.

Written by Sherman Havens, rail technical director at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff.