RETRO: Super 20 years of ‘21st century chariot’

Start of Supertram, Meadowhall. Members of the public board the second tram to leave Meadowhall - 21st March 1994
Start of Supertram, Meadowhall. Members of the public board the second tram to leave Meadowhall - 21st March 1994
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It covers 18 miles, serves 48 stops and carries more than 40,000 passengers every single day.

And, this month, it is 20 years old.

Supertram on trial runs in Norfolk Park area - 9th August 1994

Supertram on trial runs in Norfolk Park area - 9th August 1994

Sheffield’s Supertram celebrates its landmark anniversary after the first journey – between Meadowhall and Fitzalan Square – was made at 6am on March 21, 1994.

“A 21st century chariot,” is how this newspaper excitedly described the new £240 million system that day. “Its grey and sleek outer shell complemented the early morning sky as this transport of the future whooshed into reality.”

Now, to mark two decades of gliding, sliding and only occasionally crashing, The Star brings these pictures from those early days.

“The tram is an iconic mode of transport that has a special place in the hearts of many of our passengers,” says Sian Freestone-Walker, spokesperson for owners Stagecoach. “We appreciate what an important role it plays in the day to day lives of local people, the economy and those visiting the area.”

Not everyone, it should be said, always wanted the tram.

When the idea was first proposed in the late Eighties – initially, to be open in time for the 1991 World Student Games – it met with much opposition.

Some balked at the proposed £60 million cost – and would presumably have balked even more as that price tag quadrupled. Some were angered by the four years’ disruption which would be caused by building the network. And some were worried the vehicles would lead to increased noise in the city centre. When advocates promised the vehicles would be near-silent, it only raised new concerns that such soundless carriages could lead to more road accidents.

Yet overwhelmingly Sheffielders supported the idea. Many fondly remembered the old tram that had crisscrossed the city until 1960. Others felt it would ease ever-increasing congestion. The fact central government agreed to foot much of the costs probably helped too.

Workmen, thus, started laying the new network – which connects the city centre to Middlewood, Malin Bridge, Meadowhall, Halfway and Herdings Park – in 1991. It was the first stage – Meadowhall and Fitzalan Square – which opened 20 years ago, with the eighth and final phase connecting Shalesmoor to Middlewood completed in October 1995.

“It was more than just a new mode of transport opening,” says ex-Star journalist David Dunn, who rode the first ever journey. “It may have caused four years of traffic snarl-ups but it felt like the city was finally going places – literally.”

That first journey in 1994 was for VIPs only. But after 400 enthusiasts got up early to watch the tram arrive in the city centre, the network was packed for the rest of the day.

“It is a truly great day for South Yorkshire,” said Passenger Transport Authority chairman, Councillor Jack Meredith. “It is the best tram in the world.”

Changes have happened in the 20 years since, of course.

South Yorkshire Supertram Ltd, which initially ran the network, sold it to Stagecoach for £1.15 million in 1997 after initially disappointing passenger numbers. The livery of the 25-vehicle fleet has been updated too from that initial grey to the blue-based carriages we know today. And plans for extentions to Rotherham and Hellaby have never come to fruition.

An announcement of a new line to Dore – to coincide with the opening of HS2 rail link to Dore – has been met with scepticism that it will ever happen. No progress appears to have been made since.

Yet Supertram has undoubtedly become a popular part of the Sheffield cityscape.

“It is a valued part of daily life for many in the region, helping people get to work, as well as shopping and leisure trips,” says David Young, deputy interim director general with South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive. “These trams are synonymous with our city.”

Supertram super numbers:

1.50 pounds, cost of the cheapest single ticket

12 electric substations which are used to power the system

25 three-car vehicles in fleet

37 miles of track, covering 18 miles of route

48 stops

243 maximum number of passengers per vehicle

1,435 millimetres, size of the track gauge

15,000,000 passenger journeys for year, 2012-13

60,000,000 pounds, proposed cost of building the network

240,000,000 pounds, actual cost of building the network