Tag Archives: trams

Back To The Future

My record of my August 2017 Midlands rail adventure continues (you can catch up on the previous instalment, “Moor, Please”, here).

Worksop railway station buildings and footbridge, with a class 156 train
‘Our’ East Midlands Trains ‘Robin Hood Line’ service after arrival at Worksop station
With the weekend over, the focus returned to the modern railway. The morning of Monday 14th August saw us take the 09:48 from Leicester to Nottingham on ‘Meridian’ unit number 222015. There we changed on the ‘Robin Hood Line’ to Worksop, a route that closed to passengers in the 1960s. This fact we found rather surprising since one of the places served, Mansfield, is a rather large town. According to Wikipedia it was then probably the largest town in Britain without a station, but now has two. Both Mansfield (town) station and Mansfield Woodhouse also seem to have retained their original station buildings, at least in part, although the structure at the latter is rather odd. It looks more like an engine shed than a station building, apparently having no indoor ticket office or waiting room area. I wonder if it really is a survivor of the original railway or an unusually well-designed modern replacement dating from the line’s phased reopening in the 1990s. The service we used was the 10:26 from Nottingham, with 156411 in charge.

Despite the line’s marketing name recalling the legends of Sherwood Forest, the trees we saw (which were rather more plentiful than expected from a look at the route on Google Earth) did not appear to belong to any form of ancient woodland. I don’t suppose much true ancient woodland still exists in the area.

East Midlands Trains diesel multiple unit number 156411 at Worksop railway station
Robin Hood Terminus: ‘our’ class 156 stands at Worksop waiting to return to Nottingham.
The ‘Robin Hood Line’ was a bit of a detour on-route to the main objective of the day, to take a photograph of a class 399 unit and investigate the route they will be used on. The class 399s are tram-train units for the ‘Sheffield Supertram’ system and were due to be added to the Supertram fleet later in 2017. Thus, after arrival at Worksop we turned west, boarding the next Sheffield-bound service. This route is operated by Northern, rather than East Midlands Trains, and I wondered what rolling stock they would use on it. The answer, it turned out, was Pacers. Ours was 142028, due off Worksop at 12:15 and bound for Adwick (reversing at Sheffield). The unit was still fitted with bench seats similar to those in old buses but in 2+3 configuration (wider benches on one side of the aisle).

Not far out of Worksop, and if I recall correctly also visible from the Robin Hood Line, was a large quantity of wagons. These I believe were large coal hoppers and I surmised that they were redundant following the decline in coal traffic. My grandmother suggested that somebody should try to find a way of reusing them. I think some redundant coal hoppers have been modified with the addition of covers to allow the transport of biomass for burning in power stations, but since we were travelling on a Pacer and these large coal hoppers have bogies my idea was to use the under-frames to create ‘Bogie Pacers’. The Pacers are near life-expired anyway though and the chances of the vehicle lengths being the same are quite slim, so I doubt that is a sensible idea.

Three Arriva Northern Pacer diesel multiple units in Sheffield station
Pacer Central: A line-up of Pacer units in Sheffield station
While the class 399s will initially just be working ordinary tram services on the current Supertram network, the reason for their existence is a plan to extend Supertram services over Network Rail tracks through Rotherham Central station. Ordinary trams are not permitted to share tracks with conventional heavy-rail trains, hence the class 399 ‘tram-trains’ which can mix with both. On the approach to Sheffield, our Pacer passed the Supertram depot where, to my dismay, I counted at least five class 399s. Knowing the total fleet was only 6-8 units (having now checked Wikipedia, I see the planned fleet size is 7 units) I feared none might be in use that day. Sticking to the plan, we stayed on the Pacer while it reversed in Sheffield station and headed out, through Rotherham Central, to Swinton. Here we left the train, it having rejoined the Sheffield – Doncaster route (Rotherham Central is on a separate short line).

Footbridge and platform canopies inside Sheffield station
Steely Station: the colour scheme of the platform canopies at Sheffield evokes the city’s steel-making heritage
We then headed back into Sheffield, boarding the slightly delayed 13:19 service. This was bound for Lincoln and, according to Real Time Trains, had come from Scunthorpe. Scunthorpe to Lincoln via Sheffield; a strange route and a long way to go on a Pacer. Our unit was another bench-seated one, 142023. At Rotherham Central, where I had noted on the way up that works to build the low platforms for the class 399s had apparently barely started, I wondered how they would get the Overhead Line Equipment (OHLE) to power the trams through the station. It looked as though the station had recently been rebuilt without consideration of tram-train scheme, although Wikipedia tells me the current buildings date from February 2012 as a result of a project started in 2010 (so perhaps before the tram-train plan). Outside the station, a number of the masts to support the overhead line were in place on the section to be used for the tram-train service, but no wires as yet.

A view of Sheffield cathedral with the public square in front of it
Cathedral Square: public open space outside Sheffield cathedral, part of which is visible on the left.
Back at Sheffield station, the dilemma of how to find and photograph a class 399 came to the fore. Having possibly seen the entire fleet in the depot my first thought was to try and get there, but down which of the tram routes that converge on the city centre was it? And would it be too far to walk? We started following one line in the direction we had come on the train until we came to the junction where the lines meet.

Class 399 'tram-train' unit on the Sheffield Supertram network outside the city's cathedral
Spotting Success: tram-train 399201 appears, approaching the Cathedral tram stop in Sheffield city centre.
At this point I decided that even if we could reach the depot the fencing around it might prevent photography. We therefore reverted to my original plan to walk alongside the tram line to the cathedral, following a section that all the routes use according to the network map I’d found online. If a class 399 was in service, it would have to pass us. I spotted a poster on one of the tram stops that explained that class 399s weren’t yet in service, but might be in use for driving training. We waited outside the cathedral for a while and thankfully it turned out one was out and about. Photos taken: mission accomplished.

A Sheffield tram in blue & cream livery
Standout Supertram: a Sheffield tram in blue & cream livery heads into the city centre.
On our way to the cathedral, I had decided that all the trams carried the same livery of Stagecoach blue, with the class 399s having black fronts and the other trams a red front. By the time we had finished at the cathedral and walked back to the station however, we had seen at least one with a blue front and one in an interesting blue and cream livery.

Water features in Sheffield with the railway station in the middle distance
Water features outside Sheffield station
Sheffield station retains well-designed ‘railway age’ buildings and canopies, the latter being an interesting grey colour. Grey, interesting? In this case yes, because it results in a steel-like finish that is rather fitting given Sheffield’s history. That history is also reflected in one of the water features just outside the station.

Interior of class 158 diesel multiple unit
Northern Quality: interior of ‘our’ class 158
I had a number of options for routes back to Nottingham and thence to Leicester. In the end, after grabbing some footage for a short video about electrification cancellations, the one chosen was the 16:05 to Nottingham via Chesterfield. Northern provided a very different standard of train for this run. Almost making up for the earlier Pacers, 158794 turned up with some really nice seats and the Regional Railways original two-tone blue stripes on the luggage racks. The only issue with the interior was the legroom in the airline-style seats; not quite enough for comfort on a long journey (not that ours was particularly long on this occasion).

Two diesel multiple unit trains in Nottingham railway station
Investment (in electrification) Required: Nottingham station with two diesel multiple units present (an XC Turbostar and an EMT Meridian unit, probably the one named ‘Invest In Nottingham’.
Nottingham, along with Sheffield and Swansea, has recently suffered the indignity of having its promised electrification cancelled. With footage of Sheffield in the camera and Swansea, as railways go, practically on my doorstep Nottingham was the obvious next target. I might have left it a day or two and made a special trip up to Nottingham later in the holiday, but fate intervened. As I walked along the platforms, I noticed that the class 222 due to depart in a few minutes was named ‘Invest In Nottingham’. You couldn’t have made it up; it seemed it was just meant to be, so I filmed its departure. That did mean a wait of nearly half an hour for the next London-bound service, the 17:32, but since that train was already in the platform I wasn’t bothered.

Interior of mark 3 coach at Nottingham station, showing imperfect alignment of table bay with window
Window Whoopsy: interior of mark 3 at Nottingham station, showing imperfect alignment of table bay with window
Taking the 17:32 also meant I got my first ride on an East Midlands Trains IC125 set. 43044 led us to Leicester with 43066 on the rear. The seats were the original British Rail ones with the slightly awkward fixed armrests. That wasn’t the only shortcoming either; assuming the interior layout is unchanged I’m not entirely impressed with BR’s efforts. Despite the mark 3 coaches having reasonably large windows, some of the table bays managed to offer an obstructed view to half their occupants.

Hilltop building, seen from a train leaving Nottingham station
Nottingham Skyline: the large building on the hill-top, seen through the train window.
The seats themselves were a reasonable shape (the armrest problem aside) and the seat-base cushions were ok, but the seat-back was hard. Unlike on the Great Western, where first class has been reduced to 1.5 coaches out of 8 the EMT sets seem to have 2.5 coaches of first class. As we left Nottingham, I managed a slightly blurry photo of an unidentified large building on a hill top that had caught my eye previously.

Tracks And Trams

As noted previously, the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) is proposing a Cardiff & Newport metro and are running a franchise competition to select an ‘Operator and Development Partner’ (ODP) for the Wales & Borders franchise. The first part of this post pointed out that the late and over-budget partial redouble of the Wrexham-Chester line has led WAG to adopt a risky strategy; taking ownership of the ValleyLines infrastructure north from Cardiff Queen Street, plus the Cardiff Bay branch and maybe the Cardiff Central to Cardiff Queen Street section, off Network Rail.

Class 150 at platform 0 in Cardiff Central
Not threatened: This class 150, standing at Cardiff Central’s platform 0, is probably working a service to Ebbw Vale. This route uses the Great Western Main Line so is not at risk of tramification.
One of the risks is the very fact that it is an untried approach; to my knowledge a significant portion of the national network has never been split off since the big four were merged to create British Railways. Sections have of course been sold off to create heritage railways, but they are their own self-contained operations and the Cardiff Metro will have to maintain interfaces with Network Rail, if only for freight services. Admittedly some heritage railways have ambitions to extend their services onto Network Rail infrastructure, but so far I believe only the North Yorkshire Moors Railway has achieved this. So, the second risk is that Network Rail isn’t completely removed from the picture. That in turn gives rise to a third risk; that WAG and/or their ODP may try to minimise the interfaces with Network Rail by segregating what WAG are already calling ‘the core ValleyLines’ to a very great extent.

At present of course, many services from north of Cardiff (Aberdare, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) run through to Penarth, Barry Island and the Vale Of Glamorgan Line to Bridgend. That is very sensible, since a frequent service runs Cardiff Central on these routes; and this is unlikely to decrease. A potential Metro frequency of 4tph (trains per hour) from each of Treherbert, Aberdare, Merthyr Tydfil, Rhymney, Penarth and Barry Island, plus 2tph from Bridgend via the Vale Of Glamorgan is a total of 26tph before considering Coryton and Radyr services. Even with four platforms (4, 6, 7 and 8) now nominally designated as ‘ValleyLines’ platforms, 26tph terminating at Cardiff Central would give less than nine and a half minutes for turn-around time. Add Coryton, Radyr and possible new lines and recovering the timetable following delays would be well-nigh impossible. Trying to split core ValleyLines services from the rest of the Cardiff Metro would therefore be a serious risk to punctuality.

Manchester Metrolink tram at Deansgate Castlefield tram stop, with the long-closed Manchester Central station behind
Less seats than a Pacer: Manchester Metrolink tram
Splitting the service also presents a risk of a different kind; a risk to passenger comfort. While the current fleet of class 150s and Pacers is not-exactly comfortable, there’s worse out there. The one thing less comfortable than a seat on a Pacer is having to stand; and one option the Welsh Government may be considering could reduce the availability of seats. That option is light-rail, probably in the form of trams. The Bombardier M5000 trams on Manchester’s Metrolink are about the same length as a Pacer but have 46 fewer seats (almost halving the 106 seats on a Pacer) and room for perhaps 100 more standing passengers. Any other passenger train will be longer than a Pacer, and hence have even more room for seats. Even if you have longer trams than Manchester’s, each coach still needs to be shorter than most train carriages because trams need to handle tighter curves. Shorter carriages mean more corridor connections between cars and probably more doors, leaving less room for seats. Light-rail would probably make the project cheaper, and perhaps enable earlier delivery, but with a journey from Cardiff to Merthyr Tydfil taking an hour (perhaps slightly less with electrification) I don’t think it is the right choice.

A further risk is that budget overruns and project delays aren’t unique to Network Rail projects anyway. WAG and their ODP will probably need to choose from the same pool of electrification contractors as Network Rail, and so they may yet suffer similar high costs and late delivery.

Incomplete rear entrance to Cardiff Central station
Changing Times: Could trams stop here (outside Cardiff Central) in future?
Returning to the idea of trams; despite the reduced seating capacity which I deem unacceptable for the longer journeys, there are clear benefits. Perhaps the most important is that trains cannot mix with road traffic on street-running sections. That means a direct rail service between Cardiff Central and Cardiff Bay, which seems to be a key Welsh Government objective, is probably only possible with trams (which I suppose would stop at street-level outside Cardiff Central’s new southern entrance). The reduced cost of lower-voltage light-rail electrification, as already mentioned, is also plus so maybe a mix of tram and train could be the optimum outcome for the Cardiff Metro.

Limiting light-rail to the shorter routes however poses a number of problems. The Cardiff Bay line is the only obvious candidate for light-rail conversion, with short on-street links at both ends (to Cardiff Central at the north end and closer to the millennium centre etc. at the other end). That alone seems unlikely to provide either the volume necessary to justify the overheads of a tram system (such as a depot) or access to an area of open land for a depot. Ordinary trams might be permitted to share streets with cars, but they are not allowed to share tracks with heavily-built national rail trains, so the rumoured Metro depot location at Taff’s Well is out of reach. Tram-trains could run everywhere, but are more expensive than straight trams and the UK’s tram-train pilot scheme in Sheffield is behind schedule. With the possible removal of funding if the project isn’t complete by 2023, the tram-train option might also be a big gamble.

A damp and overcast day in Treorchy
Too far for trams: trains through Treorchy should remain heavy-rail
Let us assume therefore that it is a choice between having some trams that cannot run on heavy-rail tracks and not being able to deliver the Cardiff Central – Cardiff Bay link. How do you grow the tram network enough to reach a suitable depot location, without either blowing the budget or screwing up the heavy-rail part of the Metro by converting more of the existing network? Taff’s Well is 20 minutes from Cardiff Central, right on the limit of being too far to subject passengers to the loss of seats that trams would bring. However, it is over 5 miles as the crow flies; I doubt finding and constructing an all-new route from Cardiff is feasible, so existing rail alignments would need to be used. That either means quadrupling (providing two light-rail tracks and two-heavy rail ones) or conversion to light-rail. As far as I can tell from Google Earth, there is no room for more tracks on some sections that would need quadrupling. That means a conversion would be necessary, but since any services north of Taff’s Well and Llanishen ought to remain heavy-rail the Cardiff Queen Street to Heath cannot be converted and heavy-rail services and the same applies to at least one of the two routes to Radyr (via Fairwater and via Cathays).

Therefore, there are two final questions.

  1. whether a single double-track route for services from north of Taff’s Well to Cardiff is sufficient and, if not
  2. whether it is possible to build a street-running tram route of almost 4 miles from Cardiff Central to Heath, plus 2.5 and a bit miles of new line from Coryton into Taff’s Well

Making the metro is not going to be easy.