Sheffield had an extensive network of first-generation trams. The first tram ran in 1873, and electric trams began operation in 1899. At its greatest extent, 100 miles of tram routes were operated by Sheffield Corporation.
One reason for the trams' popularity in Sheffield was the topography—Sheffield is known as the city of seven hills. The city centre lies in a valley, which was also home to the steel mills and other heavy industry with its need for water. Many of the suburbs and surrounding districts are on the hills overlooking the city. Early motor buses struggled with the gradients, and the railways were only able to serve the valley meaning that no proper local railway network developed as in other major cities. Tramways were the ideal way to overcome the steep gradients and provide a local transport service.
As with all British cities, trams fell out of favour in the 1950s and 60s. Sheffield's last tram ran in 1960, at which time the system was one of only a handful left in the UK.
In 1974 South Yorkshire County Council (SYCC) was created, comprising the metropolitain boroughs of Sheffield, Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham. In common with the other metropolitain county councils created at this time, one of SYCC's responsibilities was the provision of public transport, which it carried out through South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (SYPTE). SYPTE took control of the former corporation bus fleets in its area (Sheffield, Rotherham and Doncaster) and also co-ordinated services provided by other bus operators and by British Rail. SYCC was also the highway authority for the area.
The first suggestion of a modern light rail system came in a transportation study in the early 1970s. This evolved into firm proposals backed by SYCC and SYPTE, and culminated in a Parliamentary Bill deposited in 1985. In 1986 SYCC, along with the other metropolitain county councils, was abolished. SYPTE remained, controlled by a Passenger Transport Authority (SYPTA) comprising members from each of the four borough councils. The highways authority function passed directly to each of the councils, so for Sheffield, the City Council (SCC) became the resposible for highways.
SYPTE continued to support the development of light rail, while SCC was slightly less enthusiastic. As a result alterations were made to the proposals to make the project more palatable to SCC. This, plus public consultation exercises and changes in the way that such schemes are funded, delayed the start of the project, but in 1991 construction finally started.
The first line to be built was Line Two to Meadowhall, which, after leaving the city centre, is entirely off-street. Much of the route shares and alignment with a freight railway line, and construction was relatively trouble-free. This was not so true for the street-running sections of the other two lines, however—the resulting in traffic disruption was a source of some frustration to local residents and traders.
Supertram opened in stages in 1994 and 1995. The first section to open was the line to Meadowhall.
|22/8/94||Fitzalan Square–Spring Lane|
|23/10/95||Shealesmoor–Middlewood and Malin Bridge|
Supertram was initially run by South Yorkshire Supertram Limited (SYSL), a company formed and owned by SYPTE. At the end of 1997 SYSL was sold to Stagecoach, a major bus and rail operator, for £1.15 million. With SYSL Stagecoach gained the concession to operate and maintain the tramway until 2024. SYPTE retains ownership of the track and infrastructure.
1986, the year in which SYCC was abolished, saw a major change in local public transport in the UK. Deregulation of bus services saw an end to local authorities' direct control of bus service provision—local bus companies now decided where, when and how often to run services, with profit the prime objective, and thus companies were free to compete with each other. The new role of local authorities (SYPTE in South Yorkshire) was to fill the gaps (typically in the evenings and on Sundays) with subsidies, meted out via competitive tendering, as well as information provision, upkeep of bus stops and bus stations, and what little strategic development was possible in this new way of working. Public bus undertakings were also privatised, which in South Yorkshire meant that SYPTE's bus operations became South Yorkshire Transport Limited, was sold to a management buy-out and subsequently became part of the First Group. Light Rail was always envisaged as the core of an integrated transport network, with bus complimenting tram services and integrated ticketing. Deregulation and privatisation was a disaster for Supertram in this respect—there was plenty of competition in bus services in Sheffield, and by the time Supertram opened the bus companies were well establised to compete effectively with trams rather than compliment them.
In many respects the situation in Sheffield was unique. In Newcastle the Metro was well established by the time buses were deregulated, and while competition was damaging, it wasn't disasterous; in Manchester, Birmingham and Nottingham the major local bus companies were involved in the consortia which built and operated the tram systems; London was and is exempt from bus deregulation, leaving London Transport (now Transport for London) able to plan bus services complimentary to the light rail systems in Croydon and the Docklands. Supertram, however, bore the brunt of the bus companies' ability to compete for its passengers from day one. Passenger figures were far below expectations, and so, consequently, was revenue.
Following takeover of SYSL by Stagecoach, things have improved, with increased passenger loading and improved reliabilty. Also greater emphasis is now placed on integration in public transport in the UK as a whole, helped by the stabilisation and consolidation of the initially frantic bus service competition. The fully integrated transport network envisaged by the SYCC planners has yet to emerge, but through ticketting initiatives, developed both by SYPTE and the local bus companies, is a good first step
Supertram in its current form was never intended to be the comlete extent of a light rail system in South Yorkshire. Extensions to the network have always been considered necessary for the sustained growth and regeneration of Sheffield and South Yorkshire. Recent plans have included extensions to Dore in the south west, Rotherham in the north, Hellaby in the east and Ranmore in the west. These plans have, however, been dropped and it is likely that future transport infrastructure investment in South Yorkshire will be in a bus-based system.
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