TRAMS have been one of the great success stories in UK public transport over the past two decades, with passengers liking the frequent, reliable and environmentally-friendly service they provide, and networks being expanded in all but one of the seven UK towns and cities where trams are operating.
While plans have been implemented, or are afoot, for system expansion in Edinburgh, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham, Sheffield and Blackpool, one glaring exception is Tramlink, the network centred on Croydon which will be celebrating its 20th anniversary next month (May).
The past 20 years has seen some enhancements to Tramlink. Service frequencies have increased, additional trams acquired, and one new stop opened, while Wimbledon station has been expanded and sections of the Wimbledon route made double track. But the system’s overall footprint remains exactly as it was at opening in May 2000.
After spending time photographing and travelling the 17½-mile network while preparing my new book, it became abundantly clear to me that expansion of the Tramlink network is essential if the system is ever to cope with forecast for 60m passengers a year by 2030.
Since December 2019 West Midlands Metro trams that had been terminating alongside New Street station in Birmingham have continued on to serve new stops at the Town Hall and Centenary Square. A further extension to Edgbaston opens in December 2021.
Tramlink connects Croydon town centre with Wimbledon, Beckenham, Elmers End and New Addington, but even before its opening in May 2000 there was bold talk of how the South London network would be expanded.
When the House of Commons’ Transport sub-committee paid a visit to Croydon in January 2000, shortly before operations began, the private sector promoters and operators of Tramlink (TCL) spoke boldly to the committee of their growth plans:
“TCL foresees a number of possible extensions to the original system. Under consideration are a link from Mitcham Junction to Wimbledon via Collier’s Wood, and routes to Sutton from the north and the east. Another possibility is an extension to Crystal Palace, which will probably be the first of any new projects.”
Two generations of tram pass at the busy Chepstow Road crossing east of the town centre
Crystal Palace was an ambition of Tramlink’s original champion at London Transport, Scott McIntosh, who told me in a lengthy interview of how he had wanted to take over the “Cinderella” British Rail route from Birkbeck to Crystal Palace.
“We would have terminated at Crystal Palace Low Level station and would have invested some money in some sort of shallow angle lift, which would have taken you up to the top – rather like what has been done at Ebbw Vale”, he told me.
Later plans would have seen Tramlink services continuing on from the existing railway station, up the western edge of Crystal Palace Park to reach Crystal Palace Parade, where it would have terminated alongside the existing bus station (pictured above).
A route to Crystal Palace may have been feasible, but critics argued that it served no obvious point-to-point markets, with existing rail services providing a far more direct Crystal Palace-Croydon journey for those wishing to travel between these two places.
Trams from East Croydon would run up the left side of Dingwall Road (above), turning left at the roundabout into Lansdowne Road then rejoin the existing route in Wellesley Road
Four years ago Transport for London (TfL) published a blueprint for Tramlink’s expansion, Trams for Growth, which identified as a priority the creation of a new loop line near East Croydon station, which would relieve pressure on the existing town centre route, by allowing New Addington services to turn on it, so avoiding the existing and congested town centre loop.
But construction of what was originally known as the Dingwall Loop is inextricably bound up with progress on a new Westfield shopping centre opposite the Wellesley Road tram stop (pictured above).
Under a 2015 agreement the developers would pay most of the cost, but with retailing in crisis and the retail scheme’s future in doubt, there is little prospect of the new turn-back being built in the near future.
Expansion hopes now rest on a route from Merton to Sutton, where TfL recently ran a competition to gauge local opinion on three potential routes. TfL said a Sutton link would open up transport options for communities that could include St Helier, Rosehill and north Sutton, which are not presently served by high-capacity public transport.
Sutton is an important rail junction, but its wait for Tramlink services continues
Despite enjoying overwhelming public support, and having been anticipated way back at the time Tramlink originally opened in May 2000, the Sutton link may still be a dream. TfL does not have the £425m needed to turn it into reality, and the crippling effect on its budget of Crossrail’s delayed opening makes the prospect of an early go-ahead look distinctly unlikely.
“Croydon Tramlink – a definitive history” (ISBN: 9781526719539) is available now from publishers Pen & Sword and from many other online retailers.
For more photos and news about the UK’s trams, go to www.Britishtramsonline.co.uk