It’s only taken a couple of decades or so but UK’s first tram train has become a reality. Well, there is at least 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 seriously damaged in a crash with a lorry later on the day of the opening – shades of Huskisson, though fortunately no one was severely hurt and, of course, 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 there are trams running 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 into 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’, for it is supposed to be only for two years but everyone concerned think 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 rather futile since the route would have not required any street running. Then after a couple of years were wasted on that idea, the current scheme was suggested, which 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 among the backs of a series of ‘retail outlets’ which are expected to attract considerable traffic, though 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 the opening would be in 2016 and the scheme would cost £50m, up from £20m. Well I was wrong by two years and 50 per cent since the cost has risen to £75m. Partly that has been because of Network Rail insisted that there should be the potential to upgrade the overhead wiring to 25kv rather than the 750V which the trams used and as well as all sorts of belt and braces safety measures, there has been a considerable amount of project creep. Neverheless, despite the later mishap, the scheme has got off the ground but 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 how parts of the overstretched railway were functioning as I had been invited up by Chris Morgan, the chair of the friends of Dore and Totley station which is on the Hope Valley Line. Sheffield, as he pointed out, has always had and rather raw deal in terms of railway facilities and, indeed, with the breaking of the promise to electrify the Midland Main Line again appears to be losing out, though it may eventually get a connection with HS2, though many locally don’t believe that will ever happen.
If Sheffield generally gets a bad deal, the Hope Valley line connects Sheffield with Manchester has suffered even worse over the years. Even though with 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 what is a key route given that the road between the two cities is inadequate and, at times, impassable in what the railway calls ‘inclement weather’. History, too, has been unkind to the line which was originally built to transport coal and 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 benefitted 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, there are three different train operators running services along it; TransPennine Express and East Midlands who provide the fast services, though in very different rolling stock the latter has more seats and Northern which runs the stoppers serving the various villages and towns along the way used by the many ramblers in the Peak District who often are forced to discover the delights of Pacers. The timetable, as a result, is rather haphazard and the ticketing offers for visitors are confusing given the various operator-specific offers.
Travelling on a TransPennine Express train leaving Sheffield at 10 10, therefore, meant not having a seat for the 50 minute which, as Morgan predicted, turned out to be 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 Network Rail 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 does not see the answer in such big schemes but instead is pinning his hopes on a series of more 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 been repeatedly postponed and is now scheduled to be completed in 2021, but as ever 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, though, is a characteristic of government. An innovation or a shiny new project is always given priority over some boring enhancements that will not even involved a ribbon cutting and a speech from a minister (even if it is in the bleak surrounds of a suburb of Rotherham).
Consider the customer
I was delighted that my tweet about the excessive repetition of ‘see it, say it, sorted’ on East Midlands Trains attracted a huge response and even an explanation from East Midlands Trains, albeit an unsatisfactory one. Travelling up to Sheffield from St Pancras and trying to work on the train, I was driven mad by this repeated message from a woman conductor who sounded very nice but who never came round to check the tickets (her male colleague did once).
Moreover, as one of my respondents suggested, what an earth does it mean? What are we supposed to see – an 1920s style anarchist holding a fizzing cylinder which says ‘BOMB’ on it? Someone stepping over the yellow line at a station when a train is whizzing through? It is the sort of noise that puts people off travelling on trains.
Yet the response from EMT was that these announcements are mandated by Transsec, the government committee in charge of security on the railways. Supposedly these announcements are supposed to be made at every station stop on long distance trains and every 15 minutes on suburban services but thankfully many operators simply do not comply. EMT, for some reason, are being goody goodies and should grow up and tell Transsec where to jump.
Just as I was writing this, there was more bad news for passengers with the announcement that passengers are having to pay £2 to withdraw their own money at several station ATMs. And local news website Inside Croydon seem to have caught the local train operator, Southern, obfuscating over the cause as it had claimed the increase did not benefit the company. However, Inside Croydon reported that according to the owner of the machines Cardtronics charges are being rolled out at machines because the rail company refused to accept a reduction in fees paid: ‘In July, Link cut the fees banks pay us for ATM withdrawals. This no longer covers our costs for delivering the service. Southern Rail refused to accept lower commissions from us, which would have kept the machine as free to use. So we had to start charging, or remove the ATM.’
While passenger numbers have started going up again, the trend of continuously increasing numbers has been broken and the future is uncertain, particularly if Brexit brings about a recession. Therefore the railways are in competition and must make their ‘offer’ attractive to their potential market. Expensive cash machines and excessive announcement may, as one responder on Twitter to Nigel Harris argued, be trivial in comparison with a lot else that is happening on the railways, but actually they are the sort of issue that may well make a difference to a few passengers. Given that the rail companies’ margins are small, it is those extra few discretionary travellers that might make the difference between being profitable or plunging into the red. So, TOC managers, think customer