THE British city of Coventry, just 30km away from its better-known neighbour Birmingham, is famous for its motoring heritage. Having produced the first British car in 1897, the city went on to become a major automotive manufacturing hub and picked up the title of the British Detroit. Those days are long gone for both cities, but Coventry is on the cusp of a new transport revolution.

Next year Coventry City Council, working in partnership with regional transport authority Transport for the West Midlands (TfWM), aims to have a working demonstration of the Very Light Rail (VLR) mass transit system it has been pioneering for around a decade. An 800m stretch of mainly double track will run from Warwick Road, close to Coventry station, to Corporation Street, north of the city centre. A single battery-powered demonstrator vehicle (see panel below) will run on the tracks and will carry invited guests, though not fare-paying passengers.

As a demonstrator line that will not be open to the public it can avoid the lengthy planning procedures, including obtaining a Transport and Works Act Order, that a fully-fledged light rail system would have to go through, although it will still need planning approval to operate on public roads – an application was submitted in February. The demonstration line will include a segregated cycleway to enable testing to focus on interaction with road vehicles.

The main purpose of the demonstration line, however, is to prove in real-world conditions that Coventry’s recently-patented track system can be installed speedily. The innovative track, developed in partnership with the nearby University of Warwick’s Warwick Manufacturing Group, is designed to be laid in a trench just 300mm deep and with curves as tight as 15m radius.

The fundamental aim of Coventry VLR (CVLR) has always been to significantly reduce the cost of building an on-street light rail line in a city centre. This is largely due to the need to divert existing utilities, a process rendered unnecessary by the CVLR low-depth trackform. Determining whether the original goal of achieving a construction cost of around £10m per km, compared with £25-100m per km for conventional light rail, will be met will be one of the key outputs of the demonstration project.

The CVLR concept originally arose when Coventry realised that it, along with similar towns and cities with a population of 300,000 or less, could simply not afford conventional light rail solutions, even though passenger numbers are high enough to warrant them. Since its inception, CVLR has been funded by the public sector and the current phase of development, costing around £15m from a total budget of £40m, is being funded by the Department for Transport (DfT).

Before construction of the demonstration line can begin, the DfT has asked an independent review panel to assess the project’s viability. “We will provide evidence to the panel that the project is technically sound, can be delivered within the cost envelope that has been set, has an appropriate safety case and that the vehicle and track are fit for purpose,” says Ms Nicola Small, TfWM programme director for VLR, who is hopeful that the project will be approved later this summer, allowing construction of the demonstration line to begin before the end of the year.

IRJ was invited to sample the CVLR prototype in March 2024 on the test track at the Black Country Innovative Manufacturing Organisation’s National Innovation Centre in Dudley. The wide 900mm doorway made accessing the vehicle easy and the interior felt spacious, even when all seats were occupied.

The ride was exceptionally smooth, even around the 15m balloon loop, when not even the slightest steel-on-steel squeal normally associated with traversing tight curves was audible. The vehicle easily reached a speed of 40km/h and felt stable at all speeds.Although its maximum service speed is 70km/h, it will be limited to 32km/h when in operation on the Coventry demonstrator line, the maximum speed for all vehicles in the city centre.

Visibility is good throughout the vehicle and the public address system worked well, with announcements easy to hear. The overall feel was of a high-quality product, matching any current conventional light rail vehicle.

DfT approval will unlock a £16.5m funding package that will not only build the demonstration line, but also provide other city-centre traffic improvements for Coventry, including the segregated cycleway, which will enhance the journey experience for all types of users, from pedestrians to car drivers. “The next phase of funding also covers the operating cost of the prototype vehicle that we already have and adapting it to run in a live environment,” Small says. “We’ll be focusing on areas like crashworthiness, to make sure that it can safely withstand getting hit by a bus or a car.”

With procurement of an operator for the demonstration line already underway, and assuming that the timetable outlined above runs to plan, test running could start in 2025. “this is our opportunity to make sure that future iterations of the vehicle meet public needs and to showcase it to other cities that might be interested, as well as potential private-sector investors” Small says.

The accurate data that the demonstration line will provide will help to build future business cases not only for Coventry but also for other similar-sized cities. Completion of the line will release a final £8.5m of the current budget that will allow the compilation of an outline business case for the first full-scale route in Coventry, as well as the start of work to build a digital twin of the next-generation CVLR vehicle.

The long-term aspiration for Coventry is for four CVLR lines radiating from the city centre in a four-leaf clover configuration – see map, right. The first route to be built would likely connect the city centre with University Hospital Coventry and Warwickshire, and ultimately a park and ride site at Ansty, in two phases. This line, that has already been costed at around £189m, would require 20 next-generation vehicles. Small suggests that an outline funding case for this route could be submitted for the next public-sector funding round in 2027, offering the possibility of the first CVLR vehicles running in passenger service before the end of the decade.

The timetable for this first line could be accelerated if a private-sector partner decides to invest in the project. Small says that Coventry has already held preliminary discussions with potential candidates. “But we always get to the point that we need to build a demonstrator, because every conversation we have had leads to that conclusion,” she says. “They think it’s a cracking idea, but at this stage it’s still an idea and they want to see a proof of concept they can invest in, as they’ve already acknowledged it has global potential. So we’re confident that the city-centre demonstrator can attract private sector investment.”

CVLR’s global appeal could be substantial. Because the patented track form is compatible with standard light rail track, VLR vehicles could run through to destinations on existing conventional light rail networks. Even more intriguing is the possibility that conventional light rail vehicles could run on VLR track, providing a considerably less expensive alternative for extending existing light rail networks.

A steady stream of visitors has been heading to see the CVLR in test operation at the National Innovation Centre (NIC) in Dudley, with recent domestic interest coming from London, Oxford, Portsmouth and West Yorkshire. Delegations from further afield include parties from Canada and Thailand.

“I’m sure we’ll continue to get plenty of interest,” Small says. “But I think seeing is believing, isn’t it? And that’s why we’ve just got to deliver this demonstrator.”

Although CVLR vehicles will initially feature drivers, autonomous operation is planned.

CVLR’s battery vehicle prototype

CVLR’s prototype lightweight battery vehicle, owned by Coventry City Council, was completed by Transport Design International in 2022 and was moved to the Black Country Innovative Manufacturing Organisation’s National Innovation Centre test track at Dudley, where it is housed in its own building. The vehicle body panels are made from lightweight composites so the total mass per linear metre is just over 1 tonne.

The prototype CVLR vehicle undergoing wheel wear testing on the Dudley test track balloon loop in March 2024. The bogies are normally covered by protective skirts.

Unladen, the 11m-long vehicle weighs around 11 tonnes and when fully loaded weighs 16 tonnes, resulting in an axleload of 4 tonnes for the twin-bogie design. The vehicle is 3.17m high, 2.65m wide and can carry 70 passengers with 20 seated.

The prototype, designed for a service life of 20 years, has a maximum speed of 70km/h and can traverse gradients of up to 5%. All axles are driven by a 750V 54kWh lithium titanate underfloor battery, delivering a continuous power rating of 175kW. Its range between charges is around 35km, though this varies considerably according to temperature, load, and other factors.

The battery can be charged overnight from a 20kW shore supply and, during the day, receive rapid charges taking 3 min 30 sec from a 200kW supply, as well as being charged during regenerative braking.

This year the vehicle has been undertaking load and wheel wear tests at the Dudley test track.