As Sheffield’s tram-train trial begins, TOM INGALL travels on board one of the new vehicles and talks to principal figures about the history of the project and what happens next
With the Sheffield tram-train trial under way, RAIL travels on a special preview run to discover what happens now….
In the end, the deadline was met. The invited great and good may have needed their coats in the cool October sun, but (at least according to Greenwich) it was still (just) British Summer Time. Summer 2018 was the promised date for the UK’s pilot tram-train service to carry its first passengers. As the ceremonies were duly completed on October 25, there must have been some relief among the partners to have finally hit a target.
Other deadlines have come and long gone. Likewise, budgets have been spectacularly underestimated and benefit:cost ratios have collapsed. The scheme’s very existence has twice been reviewed, its pilot status and the potential to learn lessons saving it from cancellation. This has been a difficult gestation and delivery.
Then, awfully, on the opening day, Tram 399204 was involved in a collision with a lorry on the tram-only section of the network. Fortunately, while the service was busy, only three people received minor injuries with one being taken to hospital. With the whole area around the crash site closed and an accident on the M1, the north side of Sheffield gridlocked. It was nobody’s idea of the perfect launch.
I was fortunate enough to be on board one of the new trams for one of the final ‘ghost’ runs - a service operating as normal without passengers. The tram-trains have been running for some time to add extra capacity to the Supertram network, but this was the first time I’d stepped inside one since seeing the first come off the production line at the Vossloh (now Stadler) plant in Valencia.
The first impression remains excellent - light, airy, and a perfectly level interface between platform edge and tram floor. They are nimble, accelerating and braking efficiently - perfect for a vehicle that will make frequent stops and run longer distances at main line speeds. In total, seven have been delivered.
“It’s been a long time coming, but we’re glad it’s here,” says Steve Edwards, from the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive. Along with Network Rail, the Department for Transport and Stagecoach (which holds the Supertram franchise until 2024), SYPTE is a principal project partner.
“The challenges the project has met have been well-documented. It’s the first time the technology has been used in the UK. There are differences between the tram and rail network. This project has been about understanding those differences and how we can make the two systems work closely together to bring benefits to the population of south Yorkshire.”
The corridor between Sheffield and Rotherham is one of three key focuses for SYPTE. The city and town are already well-
connected - by bus, road and the heavy rail network.
Says Edwards: “You’ll see as we head along here the places we connect - the Parkgate Shopping Centre, the centre of Rotherham, Meadowhall, a University Technical College, Sheffield Arena. It helps with improving congestion, connectivity, and it’s good for the environment.”
In other words, this is about more than serving the two outer destinations - or indeed the so-called ‘seamless commute’ for people who might live in Rotherham and who can now alight in the centre of Sheffield rather than at the railway station. For example, if you wanted to take a journey by rail from Rotherham to Sheffield Arena, you currently need to travel into the city, change trams twice, and get out at the Arena. Now, using tramtrain, you go directly in a few minutes.
Close to Meadowhall South station, a double-track chord line turns sharply to the right, passing under the Tinsley motorway viaduct which carries the M1 above.
On the spur, the vehicle pauses and switches from tram to train mode. The tram radio is disengaged, and the GSM-R is switched on, along with other safety systems including TPWS (train Protection Warning System) and AWS (Automatic Warning System). The double tram track spur singles, then describes an ‘S’ curve to line itself up alongside Network Rail’s metals.
This is the (usually freight only) line between Woodburn Junction and Rotherham. This line is also single at this point, and the world of trams and trains come together at a newly laid point close to where Tinsley East Junction signal box once stood.
While the formation is double-width, the now shared single line continues over the River Don, before doubling and passing a disused siding. Here the catenary marches almost dead straight towards Rotherham, diving under the Midland’s ‘old road’ between Chesterfield and Masborough.
At this stage the trams have the line pretty much to themselves, bar the occasional freight and light engine movement. But just before Rotherham Central, things get more congested. Joining from the left is the singletrack Holmes Chord, used by passenger services which run via Meadowhall station but turn into Rotherham.
Tram-train serves Rotherham by means of low-level platform extensions to the existing facilities. These were among the final pieces of new infrastructure to be completed, and have been numbered Platforms 3 and 4 (passengers walk along the existing heavy rail platform to reach the tram-train service).
These extensions will doubtless be watched closely during the pilot. Do they encourage trespass, or could passengers be exposed to hazards from the exposed running gear of passing heavy rail vehicles?
A low-level fence has been installed between the two running lines, to discourage passengers from stepping off to reach the other side - as they might be tempted to do on the traditional tram network. In the first four weeks, staff will be stationed here to watch passengers’ behaviour.
Leaving Rotherham, the tram-trains accelerate through the raised platforms and continue for another mile, before turning onto a purpose-built single-track spur which terminates adjacent to an out-of-town retail park. Here the vehicles can offload passengers and prepare to reverse without holding up through traffic on the main line.
When ready to depart, the driver presses a button on his console to alert the signaller. Assuming the path is available, the signal at the end of the platform clears. Now the driver can move off, and at the end of the spur is a crossover enabling the vehicle to regain the Sheffield-bound line. Back at the connection between the two networks, the driver pauses again to change modes and check in with control.
It is by no means a long extension, but it does allow a number of facets of the principle to be tested - different densities and types of traffic, for example. It also breaks Supertram out of Sheffield for the first time.
However, the increasing costs and delays have led to intense scrutiny. In summer 2017, I reported for RAIL on the harsh questions asked and the investigations held into tramtrain.
The National Audit Office examined the modifications to the heavy rail network, to facilitate light rail vehicles running on it. They were expected to cost £15 million, but the real cost is near £ 75m. That doesn’t include the cost of the vehicles, nor the compensation paid to Stagecoach because the new service is late starting. In total, when some rail renewal costs on Supertram are added, it is costing around £125m.
Network Rail has had to pull forward funding from Control Period 6 (2019-24), to deal with the cost overruns caused by extra work to the infrastructure. Because heavy and light rail have differing technical and safety standards, bringing the two together has presented challenges for the pilot. In practice, this has meant looking at signalling, wheel profiles, different loading gauges, the ride quality of the lighter tram-train vehicles, and (crucially) the traction power supply for the new Class 399 vehicles.
Also on board the vehicle is Network Rail’s Simon Coulthard.
“I’ve been the sponsor responsible for the project since it started in 2009,” he says.
“We’re excited for its prospects here and also in other city regions across the UK. The National Audit Office did their investigation which we fully accepted. It highlighted some of the issues around changing specification, the electrification, and how we came to choose the system we did. Pilots are there to some extent to learn for the benefit of the future. We underestimated the cost of the scheme.”
The tram network is energised at 750V DC. While the Class 399s can operate with that and also with the normal main line 25kV AC, a decision was made to wire the main line at 750V DC, with NR instructed to futureproof the catenary should a switch to 25kV AC be made in the years ahead. This meant developing a whole new set of overhead line equipment, which is where the timescales really slipped and costs escalated.
Hindsight is an exact science, so what advice will NR be giving to others interested in tramtrains?
Coulthard replies: “The things we talk to other city regions about tend to revolve around the system interfaces, which are key to get right - the wheel rail interface, the train platform interface, the choice of traction power. These are all areas where we have a massive amount of learning which we can share.
“The pilot, by its nature, tested things that other systems might not ever need to consider. That made it more complicated than it might otherwise have needed to be. One of the things we have talked to stakeholders about is: do you want electrification? The technology in terms of stored energy is advancing all the time - batteries, super-capacitors, that sort of thing. The light rail industry is making greater strides in that than heavy rail.”
Do you wish you’d put your foot down as Network Rail, and gone with 25kV AC throughout, or a diesel solution?
“I am happy with what we have here. Ultimately it was the thing that made the project run longer than we anticipated it would, but what we have delivered and the
legacy for future schemes is all the better for it.
“The really uplifting thing for me personally is to work with other city regions - Glasgow, Manchester, Cardiff. Local transport authorities are asking us today to help us develop their own strategy and understand where tram-train fits in. It’s really encouraging to see they are not dissuaded, as some might be on the face of it by our experience here.”
By now, we’re gliding over Network Rail metals. A Pacer whips past on the adjacent line. The visibility from the large glass windows affords a better view of passing traffic than I’m used to. It’s both a shock and yet completely normal in the same breath.
A ‘ghost stop’ at Rotherham Central, and two minutes later we’re pulling into the Parkgate terminus. As work always expands to fill the time available, contractors are drilling and sawing, finishing off the new pathway which connects the platform to the shops. Three departures every hour will operate from here, running into the evening (except on Sundays).
The four weeks of empty stock test services have operated completely without incident, to the point where even a practice failure could be staged for training purposes. A tram-train was recovered from the freight-only section of Network Rail.
“We’re confident everything is ready to go,” says Supertram Managing Director Tim Bilby.
“The first two years of running is funded by the Department for Transport as part of the pilot. Those two years will be spent looking at how passengers interact with the service, and learning from that.
“However, it is not a question of it not carrying on. We have committed to running for another three years after that, which goes up to the end of our concession. As far as we are concerned this is an extension [to the network] that is going to continue. We are sure it will be successful.”
Bilby believes there are many different journey possibilities which will attract new riders: “Commuting flow at peak times, people coming for leisure and shopping - there will be a good spread of loadings through the day.”
Tram-trains’ birth, although protracted, comes at an interesting time in South Yorkshire politics. Dan Jarvis, the Labour MP for Barnsley Central, has recently been elected as the region’s first ‘metro mayor’. He’ll serve in both posts simultaneously.
“We’re currently rearranging the governance that underpins the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive and its link with the combined authority,” he says.
“I will take personal policy lead on transport. It’s important. We’re lagging behind, with a transport infrastructure which is not fit for purpose. It hasn’t been designed for the requirements of the 21st century, and it needs significant updating.
“I am drawing together a transport strategy for South Yorkshire, and we’ll publish that by the end of this year. Tram-train is part of that. I am confident it will be a positive step forward for commuters and people travelling about in South Yorkshire in the longer term.”
Is it irretrievably tarnished by the negative headlines in the past few years?
“I don’t believe so. People should make a judgement on the success of the service from when it begins, not from the life of the project. Let’s see how it practically performs. Let’s draw out the lessons from that.”
Jarvis is also a fan of active transport. Secure cycle shelters are expected to be fitted at Parkgate, which may encourage people from further along the Don Valley to cycle there before boarding.
Unsurprisingly, after so much build-up, the opening services ran full with passengers who had come especially to try something new. There was an atmosphere of celebration, and some had even brought entire families along. Word of mouth will be crucial as the service seeks to establish itself.
The unfortunate accident happened at around 1530 on October 25as 399204 crossed Staniforth Road in Sheffield. Pictures show the lorry halfway across the road - the tram-train has been dragged from the rails.
The Rail Accident Investigation Branch has commenced an investigation, but some have already noted how intact the front of the vehicle is. The ‘crashworthiness’ of the ‘399s’ was another key part of the trial - they need to be light enough to run on tram tracks, but heavy enough to withstand an impact with a heavy rail vehicle. In the aftermath, track was repaired and services resumed two days later.
From here, after years of talk, graft and misfortune, the Sheffield tram-train project has two years to prove itself. The UK is watching, and future transport strategy may be decided on what happens next.
People should make a judgement on the success of the service from when it begins, not from the life of the project. Let’s see how it practically performs. Let’s draw out the lessons from that. Dan Jarvis, Barnsley Central MP, and Sheffield City Region Mayor
Having called at Platform 4, Tram 399204 accelerates away through the heavy rail Platform 2 at Rotherham Central, passing a Leeds-Sheffield stopping service operated by Northern 158903 at Platform 1.
Stationary on the Supertram network connecting spur, the driver twists the switch to change the vehicle from tram to train mode.
Journey’s end for Tram 399203. Having run from outside Sheffield Cathedral, the vehicle turns off the Network Rail main line, following the overhead wires onto the dedicated terminus spur at Rotherham Parkgate. The station can just be seen in the distance. This is the rear side of the Parkgate out-of-town retail park, and a new walkway connects the platform to the shops.
Tram meets train; the view from the driver’s cab of an approaching stopping service just north of Rotherham Central. This was the last of the ‘ghost runs’ before the service began.
An illustration of a tram-train’s versatility. Tram 399205 stands at the Malin Bridge terminus, ready to work a blue line service to the southeastern ‘corner’ of Sheffield. This won’t include any running on Network Rail metals, but shows how they can be used to provide extra capacity on the current tram system or cover for regular trams in maintenance.