Northern Lights: Let’s get our public transport network moving once again

Next Friday, 22nd March, South Yorkshire’s Supertram comes into public ownership for the first time since it was built almost 30 years ago.
Sheffield Super Tram. Picture taken by Simon HulmeSheffield Super Tram. Picture taken by Simon Hulme
Sheffield Super Tram. Picture taken by Simon Hulme

While this Tory Government won the 2019 General Election off the back of a promise to deliver “London-style” public transport across the country, what we’ve seen instead is the managed decline of our bus services.

Sheffield was once considered the least congested city in the country, thanks to its then world class bus service and heavily subsidised fares. The forcible privatisation of public transport set us on a path to domination by private car, with bus routes hanging on for dear life.

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Bus companies like First and Stagecoach make millions in profits year after year, but continually look to increase fares and cut the bus routes they consider not profitable enough. Public transport needs a revolution – some bravery and radical thinking to stem the managed decline.

The South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority, led by Oliver Coppard, have taken the decision to bring to an end their contract with Stagecoach and take the Supertram back in-house, and the handover date is just around the corner.

I’ve long been a believer in the idea that public transport should be run for people and for planet, not for profit.

Buses and trams are a key enabler for our economy, helping people access healthcare and education, reach jobs, and travel for leisure.

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It’s nonsensical to allow private companies, driven primarily by profit, to run services. Stagecoach last year reported operating profits of £43.3m; prioritising their shareholders holds our potential connectivity back.

Under our privatised system, bus companies choose to operate vehicles that emit greenhouse gases and pollute our air.

There is little incentive for private companies to pay upfront costs to transition to cleaner vehicles, and they’re loathe to heed the moral or environmental arguments.

Research by Transport For Quality of Life has found that publicly owned buses would save £506m a year, the equivalent to 1,356 brand new electric buses.

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Public ownership would mean taking back control, so that decisions are made to protect and extend routes, and transition to cleaner and greener buses and trams. It’s great that Oliver is bringing the trams back in-house, but we need our buses back too.

Louise Haigh, Sheffield Heeley MP and Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary, has promised that she will end the ideological ban on communities setting up their own bus companies, ending the forty-year ban enacted by Margaret Thatcher, to punish cities like Sheffield which had sought to take their transport destinies into their own hands. This change cannot come soon enough.

The tram coming under public ownership likely means making more brave decisions in coming years.

Our tram network has been under resourced, and will require investment to make it more frequent, more reliable and to increase its use.

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With public ownership comes an owner willing to invest, which means that tram expansion might be on the horizon.

The old tram network we once had used to stretch from Crookes to Handsworth, and Firth Park to Meadowhead; with the tram to be owned by the Mayoral Combined Authority it would make sense to explore new links to Barnsley and Doncaster, to bolster regional connections.

I would also love to see more tram-train routes. The tram-train, piloted in Sheffield first before anywhere else in the country, currently runs from Sheffield to Rotherham and is another option we should look to.

We have a whole host of former railway stations closed by Beeching which could accommodate tram-trains and bring access to public transport to a greater proportion of the city.

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Sheffield MPs Olivia Blake and Louise Haigh previously drew up a bid to the Government’s Restoring Your Railway Fund, proposing heavy- or light- rail along the Sheaf Valley, with services running to Beauchief, Heeley, Millhouses, Dore, and Totley Brook; this would be a fantastic proposal for Oliver Coppard to reconsider when he takes charge of the Supertram.

Taking on the ownership of the trams is no mean feat – and particularly after the Tories crashed the economy.

The potential payoffs of a well-managed and properly resourced service are huge: more connectivity, more stops, a more reliable service, more frequent trams, and a more vibrant economy.

Mayor Coppard is going to need all of our support as he looks to build a transport network that puts the needs and interests of communities first.

Let’s get our public transport network moving once again.