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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Sheffield Diversion

Its quite some time since I last visited Sheffield and an opportunity presented itself

today en route north on the M1 from Nottingham. Sheffield's 'Supertram' is the second UK light rail system to appear after Manchester's pioneering line and has a now dated fleet of 25 German 'Duewag' manufactured semi low floor trams. The city has transformed itself over recent decades away from its heavy industrial roots with the usual clutter of amorphous plastic brands taking over the commercial centre. A somewhat sterile central district has replaced the former darkened structures of much character and diverse architectural merit which dominated the streetscape of Sheffield's original tramway. That final English tram system (outside of Blackpool's seafront line) ended in 1960 in a blaze of rainswept streets and dramatic night time procession witnessed by thousands congregating along the last route to Tinsley Depot. I very much doubt whether the same sentiments would be on display for any final farewell to the current system which, whilst cleanly efficient, does little to exude pride or fondness on the part of Sheffield's citizens. The trams are adorned with the Stagecoach branding which is far from appealing other than a brash mix of contrasting colours. Sheffield's first trams were kept in immaculate cream and dark blue finish, with black highlights and the city's coat of arms prominently displayed. One of the current fleet is reputed to be decked out in those traditional colours, but regrettably this didn't put on an appearance during my admittedly brief visit today.

The current operation is awaiting an augmented extension (much like Blackpool) but this time over shared railway tracks for a two station stop service to Rotherham from Meadowhall. I believe seven 'tram train' units are now awaiting completion of this extension which I was told is being delayed by an unappreciative Network Rail heirarchy dragging their heels in seeing the track linkup completed. It may be two more years before the first 'tram trains' wend their delayed way into Rotherham. In the meantime they appear only for nocturnal testing on the current Sheffield system.

Unlike Blackpool's noisesome fleet, Sheffield's trams run quietly through the city centre streets and extensive reserved track right of way - even though they are now over twenty years old. Seating is comfortable with deeper cushioned versions on offer. Given the limited low floor space, mobility vehicle users are required to present an approved user pass irrespective of the size or type of their 'buggy' - otherwise they are not allowed on the tram. Like Blackpool, Sheffield's trams carry a conductor and during peak periods two are assigned to each car. On Football Match days when large crowds flood the trams - preticketing is done on the station platforms by assigned staff. Unlike Blackpool all the tram stations are provided with arrival information in real time - an accepted practise for light rail systems in the UK and most of Europe and North America.

One problem with the Sheffield tram design is the long centre section between doors. This paradoxically coincides with the positioning of small shelters on the platform with predictable results in bad weather. Sheltering passengers wait until the tram stops before heading for the opened doors to either side of where the shelter is sited thus adding minutes to journey times. No doubt any replacements will be 100% low floor with multiple doors along these quite lengthy vehicles. The trams are showing their age despite midlife refurbishment - and will no doubt be worked to death before replacements are ordered. But they appear very robust. It was certainly enlightening to compare Sheffield with Nottingham, Manchester and Blackpool's light rail setup. I just have Croydon and the new Midlands 'Metro' operation with its street running extensions in Birmingham city centre to report on when opportunity knocks. And of course Scotland's expensive venture into light rail operation - in that country's capital.

Then and today. A Sheffield 'Roberts' tram of the city's original tram system turns a corner in the city centre whilst two sets of the current 'Supertram' operation show their 1990s look in the current operator branding. Real Time info at the City Hall tram stop as the next tram (105) approaches - not ours. Halfway is missing 'House' in this case.

A friendly tram conductor - not just in Blackpool. Nice outfit. The system layout on display at most (not all stops).

Passing the depot with its open stabling yard. One of the Spanish built 'tram train' units awaits its call into service. (It's going to have to be patient).

A bus ticket price comparison with Blackpool Transport as of January 2017.

Street running in Sheffield's commercial district - will Talbot Road get to look like this one day? Doubtful. All Images : John Woodman 29 January 2017

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