Tramlink plays a growing part in keeping London moving
Croydon Tramlink is carrying more passengers than it was designed to handle and is now carrying out a major £30m upgrade to enable it to cope with future expansion. John W E Helm visited system HQ at Therapia Lane to find out more.
The last London trams ran in 1952, and this form of transport – in the UK at least – was largely side-tracked and confined to seaside resorts and museums until brought back to life by Manchester and Sheffield in the 1990s. Since then British LRT has enjoyed something of a renaissance, and London’s trams have become a major player.
Since opening in June 2000, annual passenger journeys on the Croydon Tramlink have more than doubled from 15 million to 31.2 million, and are projected to reach over 37 million before the decade is out. Passenger miles increased from 59.7 million to 100.9 million between 2000 and 2014, and passenger revenue rose by over 43% in real terms during the same period.
However, the line has had something of a turbulent history: Its authorising act of Parliament was jointly promoted by the London Borough of Croydon and (the now defunct) London Regional Transport in 1994. A 99 year old concession agreement to design, build, operate, maintain and finance the project was originally entrusted to a private finance initiative (PFI) consortium made up of Sir Robert McAlpine, Amey, First Centre West, Royal Bank of Scotland, 3i and Bombardier Transportation. However, things didn’t work out and TfL acquired Tramlink from the consortium in 2008 for £98m.
A FirstGroup subsidiary – Tram Operations Ltd (TOL) now holds a 30 year contract to operate the system on TfL’s behalf, and keeps the revenue risk.
Tramlink is served by over 50 bus routes and enjoys good connections with Network Rail at Wimbledon, Mitcham Junction, West Croydon, East Croydon, Elmers End, Birkbeck and Beckenham Junction. It also links with London Overground (at West Croydon), but has only one connection with the Underground (with the District line at Wimbledon).
The system is more or less as completed in 2000 – there have been no extensions since, though many have been contemplated. The 17-mile route network consists of a mix of old (and previously disconnected) heavy rail alignments, plus some new construction and a bit of on street running in Croydon. Now simply known as Tramlink – the Croydon prefix is no longer used – the system is run from the control centre in Therapia Lane.
Three main branches feed into the Central Croydon Loop:
The Wimbledon branch utilises the former Wimbledon to West Croydon branch for much of its length to Reeves Corner in Croydon; the Elmers End branch uses the former line north of Sandilands Junction, and includes a spur – using new construction and railway alignments – to Beckenham Junction; the New Addington branch uses the former line south of Sandilands Junction to Lloyd Park, then uses new construction for the rest of the way.
The Central Croydon Loop connects the Wimbledon branch at Reeves Corner with the other two branches at Sandilands. The track is embedded in the public highway and shares road space with other traffic, though there are some segregated sections.
Tramlink currently runs four routes:
- Line 1 Elmers End to West Croydon
- Line 2 Beckenham Junction to West Croydon
- Line 3 New Addington to Wimbledon
- Line 4 Elmers End to Therapia Lane
Services are provided by 30 tramcars of two different makes, which can run up to 50mph in places. Tramcars proceed on ‘line of sight’ principle and signalling is only provided at junctions, or at single track locations. There are 39 tram stops/ stations, all equipped with low level (315mm) platforms, automated ticket machines, cctv, passenger help points, information displays, lighting, shelter and seats. LT (?) owns the 13 sub stations that feed the 750v DC electric overhead line equipment.
The Wimbledon Line Enhancement Programme – to give the project its formal title – is being funded under TfL’s Business Plan. It has three main components: doubling the line, providing new trains, and building an extra platform at Wimbledon. The infrastructure work will be undertaken by Cleshar Contract Services Ltd.
Nicholas Lloyd, project manager with the CPC business consultancy working with Tramlink to deliver the £30m upgrade, told 21CR why it is necessary: “Tramlink has a design capacity of 24 million, but now we are carrying over 30 million passengers annually and the numbers are growing steadily. The Wimbledon- Croydon section, which is the busiest on the system, is particularly badly affected; the peak hour crush loading can be up to three or four passengers per square metre, so providing additional capacity is essential.
“The twin-tracking involves doubling the 790m long single section between Mitcham Junction flyover and the Beddington Lane stop. Doubling will increase line capacity by 50% (between Wimbledon and Croydon) and raise service frequencies from the current eight trams per hour to twelve(tph). We would like to double the line completely, but that would be far two costly, though it remains a long term aspiration. So the single track bridges over Network Rail lines at Mitcham Junction and Wandle Park will remain single for the time being, as will the short Morden Road to Phipps Bridge section, which crosses over the River Wandle in three different places.”
Lloyd says the single Mitcham Junction to Mitcham section was doubled in 2012, though this was not part of the Wimbledon programme, but is on the same section of line.
Regarding the new rolling stock, Lloyd adds: “We will also be acquiring another four Stadler Variobahn trams for around £12m. These are identical to the last six trams acquired in 2012, and differ from the original 24 Bombardier trams in having level floors throughout. Both types carry around 200 passengers and seat about 70, with Bombardier also being responsible for the maintenance.”
At the Wimbledon end, the planned station changes will involve close collaboration with Network Rail: “We are currently using a short single track stub at the end of bay platform number 10. Our plans envisage putting in an additional line next to and beyond the existing line and building out a new platform meet it – in much the same way that Network Rail has accommodated London Overground trains at Clapham Junction.”
Construction work at both Wimbledon and the double-track section are scheduled for December 2014 completion, and the new trams will arrive in 2015. In early 2016 Tramlink plans extending Line 4 (Elmers End – Therapia Lane) through to Wimbledon to beef up services on its core route.
Lloyd is proud of Tramlinks’s record to date: “Tramlink comes out top in customer satisfaction scores, beating the rest of TfL’s transport units –the Underground, the Overground, London Buses and the Docklands Light Railway. In terms of kilometres operated, we are close to 99% and rank second only to the DLR. We are particularly pleased that Tramlink – largely through good planning -managed to keep going through the winter snows of December 2010 when other modes struggled severely. The growth of traffic on the Wimbledon branch is also good news as it widely confounds the poor patronage forecasts bandied about when the line was built.”
In the old days most trams were double deck but nowadays only single deckers are used. Lloyd explains: “With a 5.2m clearance between the rail and the overhead catenary wire, there would be in adequate clearance to run double-deck trams. Double-deckers would also have higher track axle loads that would necessitate costly infrastructure works. Additionally there would be cant problems going round bends and we have some very tight curves, which would make them unsuitable.”
Looking ahead, Lloyd says that securing additional funding presents a major challenge: “The cost of constructing extensions ranges from anywhere between £100m to £200m, way beyond TfL’s budget. We need to introduce additional funding from other sources. An added complication is that any extensions would also create the need for additional maintenance facilities. The Therapia Lane depot can only accommodate three trams at a time for maintenance, which is 10% of the current fleet. Any new lines would need new depots as we are unable to add extra capacity there.”
Extensions have been on the cards since the system was completed in 2000. Tramlink director Sharon Thompson told LTT that the two front runners currently favoured would serve Crystal Palace and Sutton. A short turnback loop in central Croydon is also being considered.
“These two extensions are subject to further work and there is no funding available for them at the moment, but we are working with local boroughs to establish a viable business case for both projects. These extensions are being considered alongside other transport options in south London, including a possible southwards extension of the Bakerloo line and rail devolution,” a TFL source explained.
“The 2.8km Crystal Palace extension would run from Harrington Road (in the London Borough of Croydon) to Crystal Palace Park (in the London Borough of Bromley); it would use an existing rail corridor and we would aim for a service frequency of at least six trams per hour.
“The 7km Sutton extension would run from Wimbledon to Sutton via Morden and involve on street running mainly. It would connect with the Underground at Morden, and a frequency of at least eight trams per hour is envisaged.”