Self-driving shuttles, very light rail, and the future of local transport

Projects in Sunderland and Shrewsbury are signs of a growing focus on developing new clean and cost-effective travel modes.

‘SAMS represents a significant leap forward in our efforts to embrace innovation and improve the quality of life for our residents,’ says Patrick Melia, chief executive of Sunderland City Council. 

Beginning trials this month, the North East authority wants to see whether a state-of-the-art self-driving shuttle might help improve accessibility and connections, without contributing to congestion. Three autonomous vehicles are now set to be deployed onto public roads, running a route between Sunderland Interchange, the University of Sunderland City Campus, and Sunderland Royal Hospital. 

The project has received £3million in Government funding, matched by investment from private industry, and is one of deven successful Connected and Automated Mobility (CAM) Deployment UK projects that won a Connected Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) Deployment competition. Running on a single transport corridor, it is hoped that if successful it will bring the technology one step closer to commercial deployment. 

With a total of £81million handed out in grants, the self-driving projects include the first full-size autonomous bus for Edinburgh, developed by Stagecoach, University of West England, and Edinburgh Napier University, which was given £10.4million. Meanwhile, Hub2Hub by HVS, ASDA, and Fusion Processing have £13.2million to develop a new zero emissions automated delivery vehicle for the UK market. 

Other examples include a remote driving control hub to operate autonomous vehicles in Solihull and Coventry, self-driving taxis in Cambridge, a self-driving shuttle service for Belfast Harbour, and a second remotely piloted HGV trial is taking place, also in Sunderland. 

Further south, a rolling stock project is also underway south to ascertain if a new ultra-lightweight form of rail travel can increase accessibility and provision in rural and low density areas. The Revolution VLR [Very Light Rail] is a single-carriage, low-weight design aimed at extending the reach of railways while lowering operational costs, can reach speeds of up to 104km/h and is currently being tested in Shropshire. 

Optimised for short operations on segregated branch lines feeding mainlines, it can seat up to 56 passengers, plus one wheelchair space, and thanks to its reduced mass causes far less wear and tear on infrastructure. As a result it could provide an opportunity to reopen some routes without the need to replace and update old lines. 

‘We see it very much as a component of a joined up public transport system that could for example have buses at one end, then travelling on Revolution, then travelling on the mainline railway, with everything integrated and time so it makes for a convenient and fuss-free journey,’ Tim Burleigh, head of External Relations at Eversholt Rail, which is behind Revolution VLR, tells the Shropshire Star in a recent interview.

More than 450 stakeholders have visited the test programme, which is being conducted at Ironbridge, Shropshire. Based on input from expert visitors, and learnings from recent weeks, a new iteration is set to begin trials in 2026. This will see the battery-diesel hybrid propulsion system replaced by an all-battery alternative which utilises existing line-side charging technology.

More on local transport: 

Car clubs could save Londoners £6,000 per year

Dublin plans to ban cars not bound for city centre

Major upgrade to Leeds City Bikes active travel scheme



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