The Government is being urged to stump up the £230 million needed to secure the future of Sheffield's beloved Supertram as losing the service would be a 'disaster' for the city.
South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive revealed this week that the network could be closed because the current trams are 'coming to the end of their working life' after more than 20 years’ operation and there is not currently any money set aside to rebuild parts of the system or buy new vehicles.
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SYPTE will now apply for £230 million funding from the Department for Transport which would allow the tram system to keep running for another 30 years. But the transport body also warned if the money doesn't come, the trams could become a thing of the past.
Business and political leaders have today voiced their concerns over the news and described how losing the network would lead to more congestion, reduced connectivity and an increase in pollution.
They issued a rallying cry for ministers in Whitehall to work with the powers that be in Sheffield to make sure the trams are not derailed.
Richard Wright, director of policy and representation at Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, said: “Losing Supertram would be a disaster for the city for many reasons.
“It would add to the already unacceptable congestion and have a real negative effect on air quality.
“What actually needs to happen is an extension of the line to other parts of the region.”
He expressed concern that securing the funding from Government could be tricky following issues with the devolution deal.
All four South Yorkshire council leaders signed the Sheffield City Region devolution deal back in 2015 which would have given them more powers locally.
But it hit problems as Doncaster and Barnsley pulled out of the agreement and opted to support a wider Yorkshire deal.
Mr Wright said: “I know national Government must think that is a real cheek when we can't get our Devolution Deal over the line which in itself would bring in more funding that might well be used for this.”
But he added: “We need to make this happen.”
Sheffield South East MP Clive Betts, who was council leader when construction started on the tram network in the early 1990s, remains confident that the Supertram will have a future.
He said: “We made the right decision then to introduce it, and we need to make the right decision now.
“The Government needs to work in partnership with Sheffield to ensure we have a fit-for-purpose tram network for the future.”
The announcement this week has also led to concerns about how long talked about plans to extend the tram network can be delivered.
One extension - the Sheffield Cathedral to Rotherham Parkgate tram-train link – is reportedly just weeks away from being fully operational.
But this came at a price as it is almost three years overdue and £60 million over budget.
Despite problems with the delivery of this project, there is still an appetite for extending the line.
Bosses at the Sheffield City Region – the combined authority which represents South Yorkshire – earlier this month revealed an ‘aspirational’ transport masterplan.
The wide-ranging vision includes introducing new tram, bus and railway links to meet passenger demand in Oughtibridge, Stocksbridge, Chapeltown Parkway, the Northern General Hospital and Batemoor.
The masterplan also envisages a potential tram extension with new stations at Waverley and Swallownest.
On top of this week’s announcement for the need for more funding, consideration must also be given to the fact that taxpayers are still projected to be paying for the installation of Supertram until 2056 – some 61 years after the network opened after it ran four times over budget.
SYPTE is focusing on three different options for the future of the network, which includes replacing the tram network with extra buses, maintaining the network as it is or to renew and modernise the system.
Regarding extension plans, Mr Betts said there has been “a lot of talk and frankly not much action” but said renewing and modernising the system is still his preferred option so long as the money can be found.
He said: “I think the other two options would be a mistake, we want an extended Supertram service.
“You look at other tram networks in places like Nottingham and Manchester and they have been extended – Sheffield needs to do the same.”
Sheffield Hallam MP Jared O'Mara expressed concern about the way Supertram is run.
He believes the Government should go one stage further than providing funding and take control of the network.
He said “Public transport should be nationalised” and added: “Supertram fares are high and drivers and conductors are not paid enough.
“They have plenty of customers, with trams often being congested with passengers.”
Jack Scott, cabinet member for transport and development at Sheffield Council, said: “It is absolutely crucial that the Government plays its part and secures Supertram for another 20 years.
“It has been a huge success for Sheffield, with 12 million journeys a year. It removes tens of thousands of cars from the road, relieves congestion and improves air quality.
“Our transport strategy is clear – Supertram must be supported and potentially extended.
“I am clear that as a council we will do whatever it takes to secure Supertram’s future.”
SYPTE has now launched a public survey asking for customer’s opinions on the network ahead of them taking a ‘business case’ to Government asking for funding.
It proposes that the Supertram system could be “decommissioned and replaced” by buses.
Another option is to “maintain the network as it is” but this would potentially result in “a reduction in the quality of service.”
A third option proposes to “renew and modernise” the network, which would start in 2024 and take about six years to complete.
This would “offer a better and more modern service for up to 30 years.”
The survey warned if they are unsuccessful in securing funding the network “may have to be closed and decommissioned.”
Stagecoach provides maintenance for the network under a concession agreement that is up for renewal in March 2024.
The survey, which runs until November 5, is available at travelsouthyorkshire.com/futuretram
*Ben Gilligan, SYPTE’s director of public transport, has today given an interview to The Star tackling the points raised. You can read it here: ‘Don’t panic’ – Sheffield Supertram boss seeks to allay concerns over future of tram network