Sheffield’s tram-train inches ever closer

“Look at College Road bridge . We spent a lot of time working out how to get the overhead line envelope through there without having to carry out major reconstruction work, because that would be quite costly. At the end of the process we worked out you can physically do it, but the electrical clearance would be unacceptable and the cost of that mitigation exceeds doing the bridge.

“So we’re rebuilding College Road to comply with DC clearances, but with ‘passive provision’ to allow the bridge to be jacked up in the future. We are not looking to achieve 25kV clearances due to the impact on the surrounding road network and prohibitive costs to the project. This ensures that costs are kept to a minimum now, but rework is reduced should 25kV AC electrification of the route occur in future.”

Because this is the first time that tram-trains will operate in the UK, the vehicles have also had to prove they can combine the crashworthiness of heavy rail with being light enough to operate over tram lines. Was there not ever a temptation to lift the entire model that (for example) Karlsruhe has operated with, and install it in the UK? 

Coulthard explains. “The continent is looking at us now. Even Karlsruhe - the mother of tram-train. We have a good relationship with colleagues there who have shared information with us. They are now looking at what we are doing - particularly the safety approvals aspect, because they haven’t had to do that historically but they do now. With regard to the safety approvals, European systems are looking at us to see how we dealt with it and what is the most efficient way of doing that.” 

The seven vehicles that have been ordered will not be standing idle until the introduction of the new service. Indeed, three were ordered specifically to provide additional passenger capacity. 

Supertram itself is well on its way to marking its quarter century. Passenger journey figures are currently growing towards the 12 million a year mark, and the new vehicles will help to provide extra capacity on the route between the city centre and Meadowhall, besides operating the new service. Driver training has just begun, with a view to passenger service in the summer. 

The SYPTE has been constantly diplomatic about the progress of the pilot, confirming that it continues to work with its partners closely. But speaking to BBC Look North shortly before Christmas, Transport Minister Andrew Jones was more direct. 

“It has taken far too long to deliver, and I’m extremely frustrated by it,” he said. “We’ve seen the magnificent new vehicles arrive, they are going into testing now, and NR is busy working on the infrastructure. But we’ve been talking about the project in Yorkshire for a very long time, and I am looking forward to when it finally opens and we get people the benefits it will deliver.”

Glasgow, Cardiff and possibly Leeds are understood to be waiting in the wings with tram-train plans of their own. Coulthard confirms that sharing of information is already under way with interested authorities. 

“Part of that, for their perspective, is ‘what do we recommend they look at early on in development?’ We’re not saying what we’ve done is the right solution, but it’s some learning from that which they could apply. Light rail is one of the things in the mix as we develop the network. We’re very interested in the outcome of this scheme, and working with other agencies, other city regions and other operators in its application.”

Over Easter, a major step forward was taken with the new chord line connected to the tram network (RAIL 825). For the first time, there are continuous metals for the tram-trains to travel over to reach their new terminus. The future does seem to be getting closer, but still not quite close enough to ride on just yet.

This feature was published in RAIL 828 on 3rd June 2017

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