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.