Chairman Pip's Railway Thoughts

“Does this proposition entail my dressing up as Little Bo Peep?”

Posted in Great Britain, Infrastructure, Metro by Chairman Pip on 15 December 2010

I can’t remember where it was I saw it, but there was an article somewhere not so long ago that got me thinking about the Manchester Metrolink and its extensions, and the whole tram-train idea in Great Britain. We all I daresay remember the phenomenally drawn out process that has led us to where we are with the tram-train in this country; how the DfT under the last government proposed a trial service, run by Northern, that would connect the Sheffield Supertram network with the Penistone line, which would have meant a massive conversion of the route for a two year trial, and the purchase of a small fleet of bi-mode tram vehicles, with no guarantee of anything more coming out of it. It was perhaps fortunate that the process was run by the DfT, as that meant that nothing came of it, and instead we now have a new trial proposal that will see the electrification of an existing freight line between Rotherham and Sheffield using the Supertram system, which will be connected to the Supertram network at Meadowhall to allow through running. Fair enough I suppose, given that the original proposal was intended for that area. But seeing a picture of a T-68 at Altrincham got me thinking about something. And bear with me because I’ll get there in the end. In 2002, Tyne & Wear Metro opened the first section of light rail route in the UK that was shared with heavy rail, when it inaugurated its extension to Sunderland – Northern operates trains over the section between Sunderland and Heworth, while it has also been used as a diversion by Grand Central. As far as I can see, this has been done relatively successfully, and shows that it is possible to operate heavy and light rail along the same tracks. So why was this not used as “Phase 1” of the tram-train trial? Rather than go to all the cost of converting the Penistone line to operate light rail vehicles (and these were intended to be low floor vehicles mind you, so as to integrate with the Supertram), the DfT could have looked at five years worth of information on light/heavy rail operation from the Tyne & Wear Metro, and then used that to look at “Phase 2”. And this could have been done from the outset by using (drum roll please) Manchester Metrolink, an already in-situ on-street/dedicated right of way operation that was (second drum roll) about to have extensions built. The Oldham Loop Line was a route connecting Rochdale and Manchester Victoria via Oldham which has been closed for conversion to a new Metrolink route. Is it not within the realms of possibility to have considered that this route be used as a second stage trial for tram-train, given that Metrolink already uses high-floor vehicles built so that expensive conversion of stations was unnecessary? Certainly as an isolated route it could have been somewhat pointless, but there is a second route between Victoria and Rochdale which is used by trains from Leeds, some of which could have been diverted via this route for a trial period. This would have had the added benefit of connecting Oldham directly with Leeds, and perhaps allow congestion to be reduced. If you think I’m just talking out of my Little Bo Peep then fair enough. But does it not make sense to use something that was going to be built already as your test, rather than going out and spending a not inconsiderable amount of money on something that, once the test is over, may be decided to not have worked?

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