The Anonymous Widower

Are Tram-Trains A Good Idea?

After my trip around Germany and France, have I come to any conclusions about the concept of tram-trains?

I must admit, I was sceptical when I set out, as some of the claims about the advantages of tram-trains seemed too good to be true!

So what are their strengths? And how would they fit the planned test route to Rotherham that will extend the Sheffield Supertram?

Dual Voltage

In both Mulhouse and Paris, the tram-trains are dual voltage and can run on both 750 V DC and 25kV AC. This type of tram-train will become the standard as main lines are increasingly electrified with the higher AC voltage.

In the case of Sheffield, which will be electrified to London, Doncaster and other places in the next decade or so, dual voltage Class 399 tram-trains will be essential to future proof the system.

Standard Gauge

All except one of the tram and tram-train systems I used or saw were standard gauge systems. The exception was Darmstadt, where trams were of a narrow gauge. Any standard gauge system could be used by tram-trains of the same gauge. In the UK, France and Germany that means to incorporate tram-trains on a tram network, that the tram network must be standard gauge.

There are no tram systems in the UK, that are not standard gauge.

Tram-Trains Can Be Low Floor

Buses and trains are moving towards totally flat and low floors, where to enter you just step or wheel yourself across.

The Mulhouse and Paris Siemens Avanto tram-trains achieve this and it has been stated that the Class 399 tram-trains for Sheffield will be low-floor.

Tram-Trains Are Larger Than Trams

Generally tram-trains are larger than trams. I don’t know for sure, but this could be for crash-worthiness reasons when running as trains.

With Sheffield this is an advantage as the Sheffield trams are bigger than most of those in other systems.

Tram-Trains Are Faster Than Trams

I don’t know at what speed the tram-trains that I rode ran, but it was certainly faster than the average tram.

Tram-Trains Are Almost As Fast As Pacers

A Class 142 Pacer has a top speed of 120 km/hr, whereas the Siemens Avanto used in Mulhouse and Paris has a top speed of a hundred and the Class 399 tram-trains for Sheffield have a top speed of 110 km/hr.

I suspect though that the electric vehicles have better acceleration and braking, so they might even be quicker over a route like the Hope Valley Line. I won’t comment on the passenger experience, but I will say that they probably have a slightly higher capacity of over two hundred, if you count standing passengers.

Tram-Trains Release Platforms In City Centres

This was well-illustrated in Kassel, where the Hauptbahnhof has been effectively released for other uses after the building of two underground island platforms.

By joining services together it might also be possible to release platform needs, just as Thameslink and Crossrail will do in London.

I’ve spent a lot of time waiting for local train services in Sheffield, so is there any scope for joining more services together.

Acting Like Trams In A City Centre

This was impressively shown in Kassel, where except for the colour and size, you couldn’t tell which vehicles were trams and which were tram-trains.

Sheffield’s tram line layout is very like Kassel with a shared centre section.

Acting Like Trains On Train Lines

Once on a railway line, the trams must be able to use the voltage of that line, have the same crash protection and signalling of a train and have the performance not to interfere with all other traffic.

Tram-Trains Can Have Alternative Power Sources

Around the world, there are several examples of tram-trains that have on-board diesel engines as well. Kassel has ten for a start.

And there are of course the battery trams in Nice and Seville.

Tram-Trains Don’t Need Lines To Be Converted

If tram-trains need to use a line they don’t stop other traffic like freight trains and express passenger services using that line. In some places in the UK, tram lines have been created by ripping up heavy rail tracks, which might need to be used again.

Tram-Trains Can Create An Extensive Network

The Manchester Metrolink has a network of around ninety kilometres, whilst Sheffield’s Supertram has a length of around thirty.

Compare this to Kassel at over a hundred and eighty kilometres and Karlsruhe at  over two hundred and sixty.

The two German cities are substantially smaller than the two major English ones.

Tram-Trains And Sheffield

Tram-trains are not some difficult concept, but any competent group of railway, tram, electrical and control engineers should be able to create a system that works pretty well.

At least in choosing the line to Rotherham, they haven’t set themselves too difficult a task. Sheffield also has a very good layout in the area to the east and north of the main line station.

The Trams Around Sheffield Station

The Trams Around Sheffield Station

There are some things to note in this Google Earth map.

1. At the top right of the map, the three branches of the system meet in a triangular junction. The northern branch goes to Meadowhall and in the future Rotherham, the southern branch goes past the rail station and the western branch goes through the city centre. I don’t think that services use this junction in every posible direction, but it appears to have been future-proofed to cater for all eventualities.

Triangular Junction Detail

In this enlargement, the tracks and wires are clearly shown.

2. The southern branch past the station runs parallel to the rail lines.

3. There is quite a bit of space to put in extra tracks.

I also think, that after seeing the systems in Kassel and Karlsruhe, Sheffield could incorporate tram-trains fairly easily. Not being the first is a definite advantage, as ideas, designs and technology have moved on, as the Mulhouse system showed.

At some point in the future a lot of rail lines in the Sheffield area are going to be electrified to the main line standard of 25 kV AC and this might mean that the line used by the tram-trains to get to Rotherham  in future may have this voltage. The Class 399 tram-trains themselves will be bought with a dual voltage capability, so they won’t care, but it seems a pity to put up one set of wires and then rip them down for another. Perhaps, you put up main line catenary initially and use it to provide a 750 DC supply! I’ll leave that one to the engineers.

An Extension To Dore

Plans have existed in the past to extend the Sheffield Supertram to Dore and some reports state that Dore will be linked to Meadowhall to improve HS2 connectivity. This Google Earth map shows Sheffield and Dore and Totley stations.

Sheffield To Dore

Sheffield To Dore

Dore and Totley station is on the Hope Valley Line, which will probably be electrified in the next ten years or so.

So could tram-trains come past Sheffield station and then go down an electrified Hope Valley Line?

I know little of the area, but because plans have been drawn up in the past, others must have a good idea. This document from Sheffield University written in 2003, gives a summary of what might happen.

But it predates any thought of tram-trains in Sheffield.

Could The Hope Valley Line Run Tram-Trains To Both Sheffield And Manchester?

This section in Wikipedia’s article about the Hope Valley Line, talks about proposals to to extend the Manchester Metrolink to Rose Hill Marple station on a spur off the line. Tram-trains could be used.

As Dore and Totley station is at the Sheffield end of the Hope Valley Line, could we see tram-trains going to both Manchester and Sheffield?

And What About Manchester And Sheffield?

I can remember reading in my Meccano Magazine in the 1950s about the ground-breaking electric-hauled Woodhead Line between the two cities.

This is said about tram-trains in the Wikipedia section for extensions to the Manchester Metrolink.

Metrolink and the TfGM Committee have prepared five costed proposals for extending Metrolink using tram-train technology over the existing heavy rail network in the region; along the Mid-Cheshire Line (between Stockport and Hale), the Hope Valley Line (between Manchester and Marple), the Glossop Line (between Manchester and the dual termini at Hadfield and Glossop), the Manchester to Sheffield Line (between Manchester and Hazel Grove), and along the Manchester to Southport Line (between Manchester and Wigan via Atherton), with an estimated total funding requirement of £870 million as of 2013.[197] TfGM intend to proceed to the identification of potential rail industry funding options, subject to a review of lessons from a tram-train pilot scheme in Sheffield.

So could we see the opening up of routes between the two cities using tram-trains, if the trial in Sheffield to Rotherham is successful.

The old Woodhead Line is just over sixty kilometres long, which means that from what I saw in Karlsruhe and Kassel, tram-trains could easily handle the distance between Manchester and Sheffield.

An interesting possibility for which the technology exists is a dual voltage tram-train leaving Manchester and taking the Hope Valley Line, which is electrified at its western end, which then travels over the Pennines to Dore, using either diesel or battery power, from where it becomes a tram on Sheffield’s network.

It won’t happen soon, but it is no fantasy, as I’ve seen all the technology needed in Kassel, Karlsruhe and Essex.

So will we see, heresy-of-heresies, an operational merging of the tram systems across the Pennines?

But imagine two, three or even four new tram-trains an hour on each of the routes between Manchester and Sheffield, that would extend their journeys into the city-centres, rather than need valuable platform space at Sheffield or Manchester Piccadilly stations.

I don’t know the lines well, so this might be pure speculation, but as the systems in Germany showed, if you get the track, power and signalling working, then good tram-trains can go virtually anywhere they’re needed.

A Vision For The North?

Let’s assume that the tram-train experiment from Sheffield to Rotherham is a success, which after my German and French experiences, I wouldn’t bet against.

So what happens next?

That is very much in the hands of the politicians, at both a national and local level, but from Sheffield and Manchester I could see tram-trains getting used on the numerous local lines that fan out from Manchester and Sheffield.

1. At present many of these lines are served by dreaded diesel Pacers, so the new tram-trains would be very welcome.

2. Some lines like the Hallam Line between Sheffield and Leeds via Barnsley could probably be just electrified with 750 V DC, to allow tram-trains to run.

3. As at Kassel not all lines would need to be electrified, as other technologies exist.

Everybody needs to have a bit of vision and if the Class 399 tram-trains, do what it says in the specification, we could be seeing them all over a dense network of lines in the north.

If all of these lines were upgraded, there is one thing that will happen for certain. The areas will improve in all ways, with better housing, more jobs and business and leisure opportunities.


To answer my original question, tram-trains are not a good idea, but a brilliant affordable solution to the big problem of urban transport all over the world.

In the UK, we must prove that the technology will work in a UK environment and I suspect there are many councils, tram and train operators eagerly awaiting the outcome.



February 23, 2015 - Posted by | Transport | , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. […] the last few weeks, I’ve ridden battery-powered trains in Essex and tram-trains in Germany and France. So could innovation in train design mean that designers come up with a train that offers serious […]

    Pingback by Where Now For Rail In The Borderland? « The Anonymous Widower | March 15, 2015 | Reply

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