Rail 764: Tram train on the slow path

It all seems so simple. Trams are cheaper to operate and much more flexible, so putting them on rail lines which may be little  used or that connect with tramways would be eminently sensible. Yet, as reported a couple of issues ago in Rail, the plan for a short tram train route between Sheffield and Rotherham has been delayed again, with now only the vague opening date of 2016 being promised which means it will be at least a year late on the latest plan – which in itself was several years late.


To call the history of the tram train project chequered is rather like calling a hippopotamus slightly chubby. The project will soon stretch into its second decade with little to show for it but nevertheless is the germ of an excellent idea that could both save money and provide rail transport for communities which currently have none or enjoy only a poor service.


The idea, known as stadtbahn (town-train) was first conceived in journey in the city of Karlsruhe and started coming to fruition in the 1980s, finally opening in 1992 and now extends to some dozen lines in the city and many more across Germany.  The key difficulty in merging tram and train systems is their different characteristics, particularly in relation to signalling. Trams for the most part do not use external signalling systems relying on line of sight in contrast to railways which invariably do except on very minor branch lines. Moreover, the big fear is, of course, that some 1,000 + tonne freight train will smash at speed into a tram that has no adaptations to improve crashworthiness. We all saw what happened at Ladbroke Grove when a heavy train meets a lighter one, and that image can clearly instil an over cautious attitude within the regulatory authorities.


However, it is not so much the safety aspects that have delayed Britain’s stadtbahn but rather good old fashioned British dithering, combined with project creep, the spread of electrification, a lack of clarity among politicians and indeed some of the railway ‘stakeholders’ about the nature of the project, concerns over cost and the difficulty in finding a suitable test site which means there have actually been two different schemes


The tram train concept was first looked at by British Rail in the early 1990s and a team was despatched to Karlsruhe where a narrow gauge line scheduled for closure was, instead, transformed into a tram route but which also continued to carry some freight trains.


If it is some small solace to British supporters struggling with the idea, it took a good couple of decades for the concept to be realised even in supposedly superefficient Germany.  The immediate success of the idea, however, guaranteed its rapid spread. When the first line opened in 1992, it was an instant success. Within days the line that had previously carried just a couple of thousand passengers per day, soared to more than eight times that number as it served some outer  suburbs of the city which had poor links with the centre. Of course there have been several equivalent successes in the UK with heavy rail lines that have been reopened such as Ebbw Vale or Larkhall but some lines are just too expensive or lightly loaded for heavy rail, and that is why it is worthwhile testing out the tram train concept.


The ideal scenario would be for a line that ran along a railway in a suburban area and then connected in with a tramway. The advantage is not only the cheaper operation of the tram, but also its greater flexibility and the fact that it can avoid what might be a busy central station with no spare platform capacity. Moreover, as has long been recognised, affluent commuters can be attracted onto trams and trains, but rarely will they venture on buses.


Several cities were considered for tram trains in the late 1990s such as Nottingham, Birmingham and Bristol but the upheavals of privatisation, and opposition in some places led to paralysis. Oddly, then in 2000 just as John Prescott was announcing his plan for 25 tram lines across the UK in the ensuing 10 years (of which just one emerged!), the focus was somehow lost and soon Alistair ‘Don’t spend anything’ Darling was in charge.


The issue was picked up by the Association of Community Rail Projects (ACORP) who managed to get it back on the agenda as Network Rail become interested in seeing it as a way of saving money on little used branches. Another trip to Karlsruhe ensued, this time with serious big wigs such as Ian Coucher, then the boss of Network Rail and Mike Mitchell, head honcho at the Department for Transport. So the first idea was born, a tram train running on the Penistone line link Huddersfield, Barnsley and Sheffield even though, oddly, it did not actually connect with a tramline. Various technical difficulties put a stop to the plan which wasted a couple more years, and instead a scheme connecting part a 5 mile section of the Sheffield tram system with four miles of heavy rail line to Rotherham is now being used as the test bed.


There has, though, been further hold ups as Network Rail planners started throwing in bits of renewal work into the scheme and costs have soared from an unrealistic £18m to a somewhat heady £50m. But it is actually the failure to understand the purpose of the scheme by the Department which has undermined it. One insider told me: ‘This should clearly have been a trial from the start, but instead it is being considered as a commercial project which is simply impossible to justify.’ There has, too, been a failure within Network Rail to understand that precisely because this is a trial, compliance regulations have to be changed – and this, too, has delayed progress. And future proofing, including demolition of a couple of bridges, in order to ensure line is suitable for 25kv AC has added to the cost.


Despite the setback, there is optimism within the project that it will be completed by the back end of 2016 and be fully operational the following year since seven new trams have been ordered from Vossloh – a significant part of the cost. Politically there is quite a lot riding on the scheme, but it has taken time within Network Rail to realise this. Despite all the shenanigans and multiple hassles, there is at root a viable concept which may eventually deliver considerable benefits. The progress of the scheme is being watched by railway and transport planners in several parts of the country who have drawn up schemes that would either improve local services or save money on existing routes, or indeed both. Now, though, it seems that we will be getting  a tram train scheme and crucially the experience will have resulted in a lot of learning that can be applied elsewhere – and there is no shortage of other places where the concept, once tested, could be replicated ranging from Manchester  and Birmingham to Cardiff and Glasgow. Watch this space but do not hold your breath.




Mystic Wolmar faces disgrace – again


A bad year for the crystal ball gazer. Perhaps he should stick to the day job. Here’s what he suggested



  1. The East Coast franchise will be reprivatised but then nationalised – to a state owned foreign bidder. Richard Branson will be very angry. All franchise extensions will go to the incumbent, and Directly Operated Railways will not be called in.
  2. Patrick McLoughlin will see the year out as Transport Secretary but Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary,  will  be out on his ear.
  3. After much prevarication, Ed Milliband will come out in favour of taking back some franchises back in-house.
  4. Growth of passenger numbers will flatten out to 2 per cent.
  5. Complacency will lead to a serious rail incident, hopefully not fatal.
  6. The lack of diesel trains will cause a capacity crunch which will generate considerable publicity


The first one is a bit difficult,. Yes it is being reprivatised but Beardie will not be cross, quite the opposite – given the rumours about Keolis, I was so nearly right on that one. And yes all franchise extensions have gone to the incumbent. So ¾ of a mark for that one. And half a mark for Patrick McLoughlin but Hammond has been promoted rather than been sacked, so can’t really claim credit for that. Passenger growth has been, euh, nearer 5 per cent, and while there have, of course, been some bad incidents on the railways, there has been nothing out of the ordinary. And no one


In mitigation, though, he did have a very quick win when predicting that above inflation fare rises, mooted in August, were soon knocked on the head by the Chancellor, George Osborne (is it only me who thinks he looks more and more like Rowan Atkinson?)  Anyway, there will be another batch of predictions in the next issue. And it is a general election year, and I promise to stick my neck out on that one, and will revive my football forecast about QPR


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