Sheffield, the tram system with a little bit of train, compared
As essential track replacement works are underway on the Sheffield Supertram network, the city’s public transportation system stands out as a unique example in the UK. Unlike other tram networks in the country, the Sheffield Supertram boasts at least a short section that operates as tram-train, even thought the section isn’t in Sheffield (it serves neighbouring Rotherham). Stadler-built trams run alongside conventional trains, a distinction that is more commonly seen on the Continent, particularly in Germany.
The ongoing track works in Sheffield, scheduled from July 24 to August 6, are vital for ensuring the smooth and safe functioning of the network. The sections up for renewal are all shared space with road vehicles and other street users, used to the growing number (and size) of defects and holes have remarked: “not before time”. A core section of the network is out of operation during the works, while tram-trains are replaced by bus-buses.
Sheffield makes use of limited opportunities
One of the most distinctive features of the Sheffield Supertram network is its tram-train capability, making it the only network in the UK with such a section. The service, which allowed the network to be extended economically to neighbouring Rotherham, was inaugurated in 2019 after extensive testing. This approach allows trams to seamlessly transition from urban tram tracks to conventional railway tracks, enabling them to operate both within the city and beyond. The concept of tram-train has proven successful on the Continent, particularly in Germany, and most extensively around Köln and the Ruhr, where it is commonly implemented, demonstrating the adaptability and versatility of the system.
Comparing the Sheffield Supertram with other tram systems in the UK shows up some differences of approach. The Metrolink system in Manchester, for example, is operationally contrasting. The Metrolink makes extensive use of former heavy rail tracks, which its distinctive yellow and black trams use exclusively. That legacy of suburban tracks made it a cost-effective solution to build and expand the network. However, while the Manchester model has made a virtue of taking over under used or abandoned suburban rail lines, the Sheffield Supertram does not have that advantage. Most of the rail network in Sheffield remains in use, albeit the intermediate stations have been greatly reduced in number over the years. The Rotherham tram-train service utilises one of the few opportunities to run alongside a relatively infrequently heavy rail service. Other lines, such as the Midland Main Line which forms a north-south axis are very busy with mixed traffic. An opportunity to extend westwards using the remains of the former “Woodhead Route” to Manchester, as far as the outlying neighbourhood of Stocksbridge, would require significant infrastructure investment.
The cheap, the economical and the costly approaches
Having taken neither of these approaches, the small, single route Edinburgh Trams network has been built with exclusively street running and new build segregated tracks. Despite Edinburgh having an extensive legacy of former heavy rail suburban tracks, the city opted for a system that relies on modern infrastructure rather than repurposing former routes. This approach ensures a dedicated tram network that operates independently, but at huge cost – so much so that much of the originally planned network remains unbuilt and unfunded.
Meanwhile the Sheffield Supertram network undergoes essential track replacement works, disrupting both tram and road operations. It is a situation that Edinburgh’s tram operators are watching closely. Manchester could be forgiven for a degree of smug indifference – although the citizens are only too readily reminded of the disruption wrought on them while the city centre sections were built along the main thoroughfares. Each may say their networks best suit the circumstances of their particular cities. Sheffield’s tram-train allows the city to reach out to neighbouring centres with ease; Manchester’s Metrolink demonstrates the potential of utilising existing heavy rail tracks, while Edinburgh’s approach showcases – well, the vast expense of building a dedicated tram system from scratch and ignoring the more experienced operators elsewhere. Supertram, complete with tram-trains, should be fully restored by the end of the week.