Chris­tian Wol­mar

Rail (UK) - - Contents - Chris­tian Wol­mar

Tram-trains should be pri­or­ity.

IT’S only taken a cou­ple of decades or so, but the UK’s first tram-train has be­come a re­al­ity. At least, there is a trial tak­ing place, and hav­ing writ­ten about the scheme pre­cisely four years ago ( RAIL 764), I thought I would drop in for the first ride.

To say that the scheme has had a che­quered his­tory is to be un­fair to chess boards. And that rep­u­ta­tion was only en­hanced when the tram I trav­elled on was dam­aged in a col­li­sion with a lorry later on the day of the open­ing – for­tu­nately, no one was se­verely hurt, and it had noth­ing to do with the new abil­ity of the tram to run on the na­tional rail net­work.

The idea seems so straight­for­ward. In towns and cities where trams run on the streets, their jour­ney could be ex­tended to places fur­ther from the cen­tre by us­ing heavy rail lines. That could re­lieve busy sta­tions and pro­vide many peo­ple with a seam­less jour­ney right into the heart of big cities.

Sim­ple in con­cep­tion it may have been, but like so many in­no­va­tions on the rail­way, all too dif­fi­cult in ex­e­cu­tion. The ‘trial’ (it is sup­posed to be only for two years, but ev­ery­one con­cerned thinks it will be per­ma­nent) has been be­set by changes in scope, cost over­runs, safety con­cerns, tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties and po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence.

Orig­i­nally, the plan was to have run trams from Sh­effield to Hud­der­s­field, but this seemed fu­tile since the route would not have re­quired any street run­ning. Then, af­ter a cou­ple of years were wasted on that idea, the cur­rent scheme was sug­gested - this in­volves street run­ning from the city cen­tre to Mead­owhall, where (af­ter a short new curve) the tram route joins the main line to Rotherham.

It’s barely five miles of joint run­ning to Rotherham Cen­tral and Rotherham Park­gate, where the tram route ends at the back of a se­ries of ‘re­tail out­lets’ which are ex­pected to at­tract con­sid­er­able traf­fic - although it was felt that pro­vid­ing pas­sen­gers with a covered sta­tion and sign­posts to the shops was an ex­trav­a­gance too far!

In my ar­ti­cle of four years ago, I pre­dicted that the open­ing would be in 2016 and the scheme would cost £50 mil­lion (up from £20m). I was wrong by two years and 50%, since the cost has risen to £75m. Partly that has been be­cause Net­work Rail in­sisted on the po­ten­tial to up­grade the over­head wiring to 25kV (rather than the 750V which the trams used), while as well as all sorts of belt and braces safety mea­sures, there has been a con­sid­er­able amount of project creep.

Nev­er­the­less, de­spite the later mishap, the scheme is off the ground, although it will not amount to much un­less ex­ten­sions be­yond that bleak sta­tion at Park­gate are in­tro­duced. The Welsh Gov­ern­ment will be watch­ing this trial care­fully, given its plans to use a sim­i­lar sys­tem in the val­leys north of Cardiff.

While in Sh­effield, I took the op­por­tu­nity to look at some more tra­di­tional ser­vices and at how parts of the over­stretched rail­way were func­tion­ing. I had been in­vited up by Chris Mor­gan, chair­man of the Friends of Dore and Tot­ley sta­tion (on the Hope Val­ley Line). Sh­effield, as Mor­gan pointed out, has al­ways had a raw deal in terms of rail­way fa­cil­i­ties. In­deed, with the break­ing of the prom­ise to elec­trify the Mid­land Main Line, it again ap­pears to be los­ing out, although it may even­tu­ally get a con­nec­tion with HS2 (many lo­cally do not be­lieve that will ever hap­pen).

If Sh­effield gen­er­ally gets a bad deal, the Hope Val­ley Line con­nect­ing Sh­effield with Manch­ester has suf­fered even worse over the years. Even though, fol­low­ing the clo­sure of the Wood­head tun­nel, it be­came the only di­rect line be­tween the two great cities of Sh­effield and Manch­ester, and car­ried a fair num­ber of freight trains, Bri­tish Rail de­cided to sin­gle a key part of it just east of Sh­effield, re­duc­ing ca­pac­ity and re­li­a­bil­ity.

Other mea­sures such as short­en­ing plat­forms also added to the prob­lems of this key route, given that the road be­tween the two cities is inad­e­quate and at times im­pass­able in what

CHRIS­TIAN WOL­MAR ar­gues that the key Manch­ester-Sh­effield route could have ben­e­fited more from in­vest­ment

the rail­way de­scribes as ‘in­clement weather’.

His­tory, too, has been un­kind to the line, which was orig­i­nally built to trans­port coal and which was only com­pleted in the 1890s, long af­ter most of the rail net­work had been built. Orig­i­nally it had wooden plat­forms and sta­tions, and has ben­e­fited from far less in­vest­ment than such a vi­tal link be­tween two ma­jor conur­ba­tions de­serves.

Nor has fran­chis­ing been kind to users of the line. Ridicu­lously, three dif­fer­ent train op­er­a­tors run ser­vices along it: Tran­sPen­nine Ex­press and East Mid­lands Trains pro­vide the fast ser­vices, while North­ern runs the stop­pers that serve the var­i­ous vil­lages and towns along the way, and which are used by the many ram­blers in the Peak Dis­trict who of­ten are left to dis­cover the de­lights of Pac­ers. As a re­sult, the timetable is hap­haz­ard and the tick­et­ing of­fers for vis­i­tors are con­fus­ing, given the var­i­ous op­er­a­tor-spe­cific of­fers.

Trav­el­ling on a TPE train leav­ing Sh­effield at 1010, there­fore, meant not hav­ing a seat for the 50-minute jour­ney, which (as Mor­gan pre­dicted) turned out to take just over an hour. Partly this was due to wait­ing for a plat­form at Manch­ester Pic­cadilly, where the two high level plat­forms (13 and 14) have be­come a no­to­ri­ous bot­tle­neck as they cater for a wide va­ri­ety of through lo­cal and re­gional ser­vices.

Mor­gan says he had hoped to see new Plat­forms 15 and 16 built, but ac­cord­ing to a se­nior NR source the cost is sim­ply pro­hib­i­tive. They would have to be built as ex­ten­sions of a viaduct, and it would be a nar­row squeeze to avoid mas­sive de­mo­li­tions - for what would be the ad­di­tion of only one ex­tra path per hour (a fig­ure the cam­paign­ers dis­pute).

Mor­gan be­lieves the an­swer does not lie in such big schemes, and in­stead is pin­ning his hopes on a se­ries of mi­nor en­hance­ments to bring about the hoped-for im­prove­ment.

Most no­tably, this would in­volve re­dou­bling the sec­tion near Dore and Tot­ley that was sin­gled, and cre­at­ing a cou­ple of loops nearer the Manch­ester end for freight trains. The work was sup­posed to have been car­ried out by now, but has re­peat­edly been post­poned and is now sched­uled to be com­pleted in 2021 (although there is no cer­tainty over this). In­evitably, the cost has risen from £60m to £80m - and prob­a­bly more.

I sus­pect that in terms of im­por­tance for lo­cal rail users, it was the wrong pri­or­ity to spend around the same amount of money on the new tram-train rather than on the Hope Val­ley im­prove­ments.

That, how­ever, is a char­ac­ter­is­tic of gov­ern­ment - an in­no­va­tion or a shiny new project is al­ways given pri­or­ity over some bor­ing en­hance­ments that will not even in­volve a rib­bon cut­ting and a speech from a min­is­ter.


A trail­ing view of 399204, de­part­ing Rotherham Cen­tral tram Plat­form 3 for Sh­effield Cathe­dral at 1502 on Oc­to­ber 25. It did not reach its in­tended desti­na­tion af­ter a col­li­sion with a lorry at a cross­ing in the At­ter­cliffe area. The front end of the unit was de­railed and dam­aged.

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