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Bristol’s politicians are in deadlock over underground mass transit. What can the city learn from trams in Sheffield and Nottingham?

West of England Mayor Dan Norris has vetoed building the region’s new mass transit region underground to save cash. But trams in other cities bring their own challenges.

Photos: Steve Melia

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Bristol’s plans for rapid transit are deadlocked because of a row over whether to go underground or stay above ground and close roads to traffic. So how have other cities with trams managed that conflict? We went to Sheffield and Nottingham to investigate.

Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says that new lines must go underground in central areas because the alternative would shut roads such as Gloucester Road and Church Road “for a few years and some [sections] forever”. But in October, Metro Mayor Dan Norris vetoed further feasibility work because he believes tunnelling would be “unaffordable and unrealistic”, leaving the process at a stalemate. Bristol’s Conservative councillors have since tabled a motion calling for the underground option to be scrapped.

This deadlock has provoked a chorus of public criticism online. Many people have compared Bristol’s dithering with other cities, which have built tram networks. Some have questioned Rees’ claim that roads with trams must be closed to other traffic. 

Caroline from Westbury wrote on NextDoor: “Anyone who has seen the Supertram in Sheffield will tell you this is complete bunkum, and vehicles can share the road.”

Rees and Norris are both insisting that new lines must be entirely separated from other traffic, but the recently published feasibility study says that “revisiting that principle” could reduce the projected costs. 

Bristol’s narrow, winding streets are often mentioned as a reason why we can’t have trams. But there are three different ways of separating or mixing trams and traffic (see box). So what do you do when you don’t have enough space to separate trams from traffic? I went to two cities, Sheffield and Nottingham, to find out. 

Sheffield Supertram – ‘weak’ councillors and mixed traffic

Sheffield and Nottingham are good comparators for Bristol. Sheffield is slightly larger, and Nottingham slightly smaller than Bristol.

Sheffield’s network is older – the first line opened in 1994.  It mostly runs along streets, often with mixed traffic. Tram use has declined in recent years, mainly due to disruption caused by renewal of ageing infrastructure, according to Tim Taylor, South Yorkshire’s director of public transport.

I started my visit to Sheffield in Hillsborough, where two tram lines meet a couple of miles northwest of the city centre. Cars, lorries and buses drive along the tracks in surprisingly high volumes, in a similar way to how they currently do along Bristol’s Gloucester Road.

There are either two or three lanes with shops on one or both sides and occasional parking bays. The traffic light priority seemed to work well while I was there, helping the trams move through the traffic without much delay. But average speeds are low: about 10mph through those sections, compared to over 20mph along the old railway lines. 

A busy street with a tramline and a queue of cars.
Trams mixing with traffic along a road in Hillsborough in Sheffield (credit: Steve Melia)

General traffic was originally banned from the tram tracks through Hillsborough during the daytime, but in 2007 lobbying by motorists and shopkeepers persuaded the council to reopen them to traffic, outside of the rush hours. Delays to the trams and buses increased.

Was this a bad idea, in hindsight? Taylor didn’t want to comment on the past decisions of councillors but Dexter Johnstone, of Cycling Sheffield, was more forthright.

“The bus gate was removed due to councillors being weak,” he says. “The tram network is heavily delayed by all this traffic, which is mad when you’ve spent hundreds of millions on a public transport scheme.”

He also maintains that mixing with heavy traffic has contributed to cycling injuries along the tram tracks: “You’ll have a load of cars impatiently behind you, or overtaking you while you’re trying to manoeuvre around these potentially lethal rails.”

Cycling Sheffield has published a map illustrating more than 800 injuries over recent years.

“Little consideration was given to cycle traffic [when the network was designed], says Johnstone. “They wouldn’t get away with it today. You would need to separate cycle routes or redesign the streets so there was enough room for cyclists and trams to share them.”

A cyclist riding infront of a car and buses on a road with tramrail tracks.
A cyclist navigating the tram tracks at the Hillsborough Corner junction in Sheffield (credit: Steve Melia)

Taylor believes that problem is no worse in Sheffield than in other tram cities. There are no comparable statistics but Sheffield City Council acknowledged the problem in 1998 and it has been more frequently reported there than elsewhere.

Several shopkeepers, meanwhile, told me of their problems with deliveries. Dennis Law has run an Army surplus store in Hillsborough for 30 years. He took part in a ‘Ban the Tram’ campaign when the routes were first announced. 

A person in a shirt and v-necked jumper stands in a doorway of a shop.
Dennis Law, a Sheffield shopkeeper who has opposed the tram network (credit: Steve Melia)

As trams run directly in front of his shop, how does he arrange deliveries? “With great difficulty.  They have to park on the opposite side, if they can find a space.” 

He points to a bay shared with the houses opposite. “You see how busy this road is? You’re not supposed to wheel stuff across it, but what can we do? There’s no provision for deliveries.”

Next, he shows me a hole in the road surface between the tram lines. “They come every other week to fix it. They must have spent millions on it.”

The road surface between the tram lines is clearly in a poor state. Taylor agrees that frequent repairs are a consequence of mixed traffic running, but he doesn’t view that as a major problem.  

He believes trams can co-exist with general traffic. “The system remains attractive to passengers even with the proportion of mixed running that exists on the network,” he says.

Some passengers I spoke to mentioned occasional delays caused by traffic but overall, they seemed happy with the trams. John Woodes has used them since they began, and now has free travel as a pensioner.  He says they are “fantastic – Sheffield’s trams and buses are unbeatable”.

Nottingham: The biggest cause of crashes on our network…

Nottingham’s tram network opened in 2004, and it feels newer and smarter than Sheffield’s. The trams reach nearly 50mph along the railway line north to Hucknall, overtaking the local trains. Elsewhere, it runs on streets, mixing with local traffic in some places. The through-traffic has been removed by closing side roads and selective use of one-way restrictions.

There is only one short stretch where the trams mix with heavy traffic, running past local shops and the entrance to a big Asda supermarket in inner-city Hyson Green. Andrew Conroy, the chief operating officer of Tramlink Nottingham, says: “It’s probably the most difficult point where we have mixed traffic because we have a lot of roads coming onto the tram network.

“The biggest cause of crashes on our network is people coming out of Asda and driving into a tram, or the tram driving into them,” he adds. “We have reduced them through traffic calming and signs, but that hasn’t stopped them.”

And, unlike buses, tram crashes can close down the whole network. 

Noel Street, nearby, is a residential one-way street, with just enough room for a single tramline to pass between two lines of parked cars.  The only way for cars to reach the houses is to drive along the tramlines.  

A tram running down the middle of a residential street with cars parked opposite.
A tram running down Noel Street in Nottingham, which is one-way.

Residents of Noel Street were vociferous in their objections during the construction phase. But what is it like living there today? Maria, who moved there in 2011, says: “People have got used to it now. There’s usually a parking space but it can sometimes be difficult when you’re having something delivered. I don’t have a car. I use the trams quite a lot. They’re very convenient.”

As in Sheffield, passengers I spoke to were positive about the trams. Steph, an occasional user who lives near the terminus in Hucknall, said: “It’s easier than the bus for getting into town, and they’re smoother.” It had broken down once a few weeks ago but she said they were “generally reliable”.

Lessons for Bristol

Passenger surveys conducted by the independent watchdog Transport Focus confirm what people in both cities told me: they are more satisfied with the trams than they are with buses. As I explain in my book Urban Transport Without the Hot Air, on its own, better public transport does little to reduce car driving. 

Sheffield’s trams carry 1.6% of journeys, Nottingham’s 2.9%. But only a minority of those trips are replacing car journeys. Their main purpose is to offer an alternative to congested roads.

Where possible, tramlines segregated from traffic are faster and encounter fewer problems. Going underground would be one way to do that, but if that proves too expensive, the opportunities for segregated routes in Bristol are limited.

That leaves two types of street-running. It is possible for trams and other traffic to share the same street, but that can create serious problems, particularly when the traffic is heavy.  If we want to avoid hundreds of injuries then cyclists must be provided with separate paths or alternative routes. For deliveries to shops there are no easy answers. 

Some compromise on local traffic access may be inevitable, but running trams to and from the city centre sharing roads like Gloucester Road or Church Road with through-traffic would not be a good idea. Whether you agree or disagree with Marvin Rees, the stark choice he poses is a real one.

The Cable contacted the WECA for comment for this article, but did not receive a response.

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