The Sheffield to Rotherham Tram-Train Project - the Cost of Pride and Isolation

Sheffield Tram Train 2 ()As the first tram-train project in the UK the constuction of the Rotherham to Sheffield Line was never going to be a particularly easy.It was designed to run partly on the type of rails used on the Sheffield SuperTram System and partly on existing Network Rail "heavy rail" track. There were various interactions to be considered apart from the rails, such as power systems, signalling, communications and control equipment.

In Germany the first such tram-train project took well over 5 years to implement. However, by October 1979 the first tram-train route was operating in Karlsruhe and in the Albtal. The line was an instant success and was extended again and again. Now across the EU-27 there are about 30 such hybrid systems successfully operating.

In Sheffield the concept of a hybrid tram-train system was first proposed in 2008, but rather than tap in to the extensive continental experience - in design, construction and operation - an attempt seems to have been made to implement the Rotherham-Sheffield line as a British pilot project. The inevitable and unnecessary waste of giving in to the well-known "not-invented-here" prejudice meant that costs increased to 5 times the original estimates and it was not until 1 May 2018 - 10 years after first studies of the concept began - that the first trial run took place and not until 5th June 2018 that the first vehicle drove along the full length of the line. Instead of opening for public service this summer the line will not be operational until some time in this autumn.

Quite properly the Public Accounts Committee got involved leading to the sister project to Huddersfield being cancelled and an enquiry by the National Audit Office (NAO) taking place. This reported in July 2017 and identified a number of failings in the Sheffield-Rotherham project. In particular the NAO criticized the Department for Transport (DfT) for not taking sufficient interest and a more robust overview of the project. The NAO said that the DfT and all the other parties concerned should have conducted a thorough review of the experience in Karlsruhe and that the DfT should have sought help and advice the German Ministry of Transport, which would have been available to them through intra-EU co-operation arrangements.

By ignoring the proven practice in several of the other EU states, UK's DfT managed to waste at least 5 years and £60 million - and of course at the end of the day the tram-trains themselves plus other key equipment was imported from Germany after all. Such is the cost of pride, isolation and xenophobia!