Is a new tram system for Leeds a realistic possibility? We investigate

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Exactly 60 years ago, the people of Leeds watched the city's final tram service depart.

On a damp November day in 1959, 22 of the last remaining trams left their depot, with the final service setting off from the city centre at 4.40pm.

Most experts do not believe Leeds Station has the capacity to accommodate tram-train services

Most experts do not believe Leeds Station has the capacity to accommodate tram-train services

And after that - nothing. The network became obsolete, the trams were mothballed and Leeds entered the age of the car.

In 2002, it seemed trams could be coming back when Leeds bid for funding for a second-generation Supertram project. Preparatory work began and £40million was spent before the Labour government cancelled the scheme in 2005, citing rising costs.

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This autumn, a mass transit system has been back on the agenda after the Conservatives pledged to release cash for public transport, and a series of gridlock incidents in the city centre highlighted the need for more efficient modes of travel.

Trams returned to the city's conversation - but just how feasible is the idea that they could come back?

Where did the original tram routes run?

The original Victorian network was extensive. The first line opened in 1871 (when trams were horse-drawn) and ran from Boar Lane to the Original Oak in Headingley. In 1893, the privately-owned routes came under the control of Leeds Corporation.

The main routes served Crossgates, Chapel Allerton, Moortown, Harehills, Chapeltown, Roundhay, Middleton, Headingley, Beeston, Armley, Hunslet, Halton, Meanwood, Morley and Kirkstall. Popular visitor attractions such as Kirkstall Abbey, Temple Newsam and Roundhay Park could be reached by tram.

The tramway managers were forward-thinking and innovative - they electrified lines and introduced reserved and off-road tracks once motorists began complaining that the trams took up too much space. The Temple Newsam service was semi-rural, running through fields and woods.

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Leeds transport campaigner Rob Greenland points out that while nowadays many residential developments are built before transport links to serve them, in the heyday of trams it was the other way round. The Roundhay and Moortown tram route was laid speculatively in 1902 by the Corporation in the hope that housebuilding would follow and make the services profitable. At the time, there was very little housing between Chapeltown Road and Street Lane, but new estates soon began to be developed and these suburbs became highly desirable.

The whole infrastructure was dismantled fairly soon after closure. Tram poles were taken down, the main tram shed in the city centre became a concert venue and tracks were either removed or simply covered over by new road surfacing.

In the last few years there have been several incidences of old rails being exposed by roadworks. In March this year, tracks were revealed near the bus station, and in the summer of 2018 a burst water main led to a sinkhole forming on Otley Road in Headingley, which exposed the remains of the tram route.

Work on a gas main on Chapeltown Road in 2017 uncovered tracks from a spur line that once ran in and out of Harehills Avenue, a branch of the main route to Moortown and Roundhay. It fell out of use in the 1920s.

Were the trams popular?

Despite widespread nostalgia for the tram system in recent years, before its closure public opinion was divided. Trams peaked in the UK around 1927, but private car ownership then began to rise and drivers started to resent trams. A government report in 1931 even recommended that trams be consigned to history, and many large cities got rid of theirs.

Leeds resisted, and invested in over 100 new trams in the same year. They opened the Gipton Approach extension in 1937 and tracks to the new Middleton housing estates in the 1940s. Stanningley Road and York Road were both widened to make way for express tramways within the central reservation.

But maintenance costs then began to increase. In 1952, the local press were anti-tram, as were the Labour Party, although the Conservatives wanted to retain them. The council could no longer afford to run them and they were seen as old-fashioned impediments to progress and modernisation.

Where were the new routes proposed in 2002 going to be?

The Leeds Supertram network that was never built would have been far less wide-ranging than the original tram system.

Three lines were proposed - South Line to Stourton and Tingley via Hunslet, Beeston, Belle Isle and Middleton; North Line to Weetwood via the University of Leeds, Hyde Park and Headingley; and East Line to Whinmoor via St James's Hospital, Harehills and Seacroft. The South Line plans were later revised to end at the Stourton park and ride site to save costs.

Vague references were made to future expansion to Alwoodley via Chapeltown, Chapel Allerton and Moortown, and Bradford via Armley, Bramley and Stanningley.

Around 50 stops were inked in and 75 per cent of the network would be on reserved track.

The proposals were rejected as the government stipulated that the project costs should not exceed £500million.

How much have tram systems cost other cities?

Trams began to return to British cities in the 1990s. Sheffield's Supertram opened in 1994. Although the service was initially limited and the ticketing complex, by 1997 it had been privatised and passenger numbers started to increase. It now serves 50 stations across four key lines.

The initial building cost was £240million.

Nottingham is often cited as an example of a tram system that Leeds could emulate. The Express Transit network was built in 2004, and by 2015 had doubled its coverage. Construction cost £200million.

Crucially, funds generated from the Workplace Parking Levy, which discourages car use in the city centre, are reinvested back into the trams. Transport planners have pointed out that Leeds has a much larger commercial base than Nottingham with a thriving office sector, meaning revenues from a similar charge would be higher and more money made available to be spent on trams.

Could they come back? An expert's view

Adrian Jones was director of planning and transport at Nottingham City Council before his retirement. He now lives in Wharfedale and has become familiar with Leeds transport issues.

He thinks a tram network is still possible - but warns that local opposition to the disruption necessary to build one could scupper any plans.

"Trams are feasible - but it is all about will and funding. Tram routes take quite a long time to develop. What has held Leeds back in the past has been the central control of funding by the Department for Transport, who have a template for schemes with rules and checklists and no concept of what the city is like. There was also a lot of opposition in the past, particularly in Headingley.

"Despite the recent traffic chaos, not everyone seems to be convinced that we need to do something significant about it. If you look at the protests about the removal of the trees at Lawnswood roundabout for the Connecting Leeds scheme - which are not actually that old and can be replaced - it shows that a tram project could revolve around local issues and objections.

"It looks like West Yorkshire Combined Authority want another go at rapid transit, but they're still looking at what type of system would be best - trams, bus, underground metro? It's all a bit up in the air.

"For me, the key issue to address is getting people from the northern suburbs into the centre, because there are no railway lines on that side of the city."

Adrian is also critical of what he sees as 'car-centric' transport policy in Leeds during the past 20 years, which means it will be more difficult to integrate a mass transit network. He points out that Nottingham stopped building major new roads in 1972, allowing a modern tram system to be developed instead.

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"There are some hard decisions to be made and it would cost a lot of money. The Workplace Parking Levy (a charge imposed on employers based on the number of parking spaces they have) would provide an independent funding stream that could be ring-fenced for public transport. Nottingham is the only city that has it so far, but it's a win-win. It makes companies reconsider their parking provision or pass the charge onto drivers, which in turn gets them off the roads and frees up capacity."

Infrastructure constraints

"In Nottingham, there are three tram routes, but you'd need more lines in Leeds, so you'd still end up relying on buses to serve some areas," adds Adrian.

"The best option could be to focus on electric buses - trolleybuses but without the overhead wires. A tram system would require a lot of work on the street infrastructure and traffic flows. You could have a tram-like electric bus service - frequent and with electronic ticketing - on the route between the university and Headingley.

"To make trams work, they need to run through the areas of most patronage. Using former railway lines as tram tracks doesn't always work, as they don't always pass through these areas. Sometimes you have to find new routes, which can be difficult.

"The tram-train hybrids are working in Sheffield now, but I'm not sure they could run from Leeds Station into the city centre. There are already a lot of capacity issues at Leeds Station, and it would be hard to increase platform space to accommodate trams."

John Holmes from the Leeds Historical Transport Society thinks some old routes could be re-opened, but that others are no longer viable.

"None of the old rails could be brought back into use - they were in a poor condition when the system closed, and they're about four inches underneath the road surface now.

"Some of the central reservations could be used, particularly in places like York Road. The guided busways could be converted into tramways.

"Our group's members are all desperate for trams to return - they're needed in Leeds. People don't seem to get out of their cars to use buses, but they will do for trams. The old trams rattled around but these days they're sleek, they travel at 50-60mph. In Manchester, congestion has gone down and down (since Metrolink opened).

"I don't think tram-trains would work though, as there aren't enough old railway lines that we could bring back into use, and we don't have the railway capacity."

Which would be the best routes?

The transport discussion website Railforums.co.uk includes a thread about Leeds trams that sparked considerable debate.

Some users point out that tram routes tend to focus on a city's main traffic arteries - the Roundhay Roads, York Roads, Stanningley Roads, Scott Hall Roads, Otley Roads and Kirkstall Roads. It's not realistic to expect feeder lines to be extended to every minor road that's on a current bus route. Many passengers would thus be forced to travel by bus to their nearest tram stop.

As one forum member explained:-

"It's easy for people out of town to say 'Leeds is a big place, so let's build a tram network there', but where's the route that's crying out for a tram?

"Headingley is an obvious example of a busy corridor, there's a bus every couple of minutes from the city centre as far as Woodies on Otley Road, but these then fan out to serve Adel, Cookridge, Holt Park, Guiseley, Ilkley, Skipton etc, so there's not one obvious destination.

"There are frequent buses from Pudsey to Seacroft, but via different routes. Maybe something like the 16 from Bramley to Whinmoor would be worth considering. Maybe branches at St James's Hospital up to Harehills and Oakwood, one at Armley Gyratory towards Holbeck, Beeston, White Rose Centre? Keep it simple and focus on just one route through the city centre to minimise disruption/costs?

"But then, is this intended to replace short-distance bus journeys or is it for park and ride to the outskirts of the city, like the previous Stourton proposal?

"Do you cater for one obvious market (like the relative straight lines of most Manchester Metrolink routes) or compromise with dog-leg kinks to try to serve as many markets as possible (like Supertram)? Both have their merits, but that's a debate that needs to be had before people decide that 'we need a tram'. For example, should a Stourton service be there to whisk the motorway commuters into central Leeds as soon as possible, or divert through Hunslet and Holbeck to serve local passengers?"

John Holmes raised the intriguing possibility of using the old railway line from Crossgates to Wetherby as the basis of a new route to relieve congestion on the A58. It was shut in the 1960s.

"I think the priority routes in Leeds would probably be the York Road corridor and St James's Hospital, as there is a phenomenal amount of traffic around there. A line to the south and the park and ride site at Stourton too, as was originally proposed.

"The old Wetherby railway line is one route that could be re-laid for trams or tram-trains. It ran from Crossgates to Wetherby via places like Collingham. The route has been built on in some places but trams can run around that."