RETRO: Supertram’s rocky start in Sheffield

editorial image
Have your say

It took four years to build and £240 million but, after several decades of absence, trams returned to the streets of Sheffield in the early 1990s.

But it had at times been a struggle to get the scheme off the ground and keep it on track.

Sheffield’s new tram system was first made possible with the passing of an act of Parliament in 1985.

But not everyone in Sheffield was so keen on the return of trams, after the former network shut in 1960.

In fact, a protest group aiming to put a stop to Supertram was set up.

SLAM, the self-titled Sheffield Supertram Action Group, rallied meetings to try to stop the lines becoming a reality.

But despite the costs spiralling from £60million to four times that price, the 25-strong fleet of trams, built in Germany, were first spotted being tested on the rails in September 1993.

Construction took four years in total, but the entire network we know today was running by October 1995.

Passenger Transport Authority chairman Counc Jack Meredith hailed the scheme’s opening as ‘a truly great day for South Yorkshire’.

Today, the Stagecoach-operated service boasts passenger numbers of more than 11.5million per year.

But it was a slow start for what was then called South Yorkshire Supertram, which struggled to attract passengers or make money at first, and councillors in neighbouring towns worried their authorities would be left with a debt burden.

As MP Eric Illsley, Barnsley Central MP in 1996, told Parliament on February 6 that year: “At the moment, there are no operational revenues, and the sale prospects, or the sale value, looks very poor.

“That has caused debt to accumulate which was not envisaged throughout the construction of the project.

“Supertram is not currently profitable. Because there are no operational revenues, the sale prospects are looking bleak.”

“No-one disputes that the project should be sold, as was envisaged by the original business plan. The questions are when-whether we sell it now and cut the losses or wait and give it a timetable to achieve profitability and hope that it generates a sale value.

“My local authority agreed to go along with it, but Barnsley now faces huge financial burdens not of its own making from a project that it did not construct and that does not operate in Barnsley”

By the end of 1997, SYPTE had sold the rights to operate on the line until 2024 to Stagecoach for just £1.15million.

Stagecoach quickly streamlined the network - routes like the orange route from Malin Bridge to Herdings Park and the Green route from Herdings to Cathedral were trimmed to the three colours still in service, blue, yellow and purple.

Liveries were altered from the grey/blue colours of old to Stagecoach’s brighter corporate branding.

Today, the service regularly attacts 40,000 passengers per day.

And the future is bright, as the network prepares next year for its first expansion since opening.

In 2017, the Meadowhall line will be extended on to existing rail networks and new specially constructed hybrid tram/trains will run from Sheffield city centre to Rotherham, via Meadowhall.

In 2013, Supertram announced an extension to the line to Dore, but it never materialised.

But construction on the Rotherham scheme is well under way.

In 2016, the trams have become an icon in Sheffield, a key part of the city’s transport infrastructure and a surefire success set to grow into the future.