The (Croydon) Tramlink: Part 2

Following on from part 1 which looked at the past, we now concentrate on the recent Tramlink update and look to the future.

A new tram at Wimbledon heading for Elmers End on a training run. Is this a sign of things to come? Thanks to Raji Toyyib for taking this photo.

The Problem of Success

Once TfL gained complete autonomy over Tramlink they were faced with a problem. The system was designed for around 24 million tram journeys a year but the current figure was nearer 29 million, and the standard of service provided did not match the aspirations of either the passenger or TfL itself. Indeed in terms of average passengers carried per tram Croydon was recently identified as the second busiest tram system in the UK and even beats Tyne and Wear Metro light rail. Manchester Metrolink may come out at number one, but even then only just. Given that in Manchester they sometimes couple the two-car trams together it is probably fair to say that Croydon has the most crowded trams in the UK. The obvious first steps were thus to decide on what pattern of improved service would be desirable, possible and appropriate and then to both acquire some more trams for this service and implement any infrastructure improvements necessary.

The New Trams

The interior of a new Variobahn tram. Note that unlike the existing trams the floor is at the same height throughout its length.

The floor is slightly raised over the wheels but you would hardly notice it.

The only platforms that appear to be modified for the new trams are the ones at East Croydon which are slightly curved as the platforms are built on a bridge. The modification is necessary because of the repositioning of the doors which means that there was not level access via the end doors. The work done is quite crude and can be identified by the yellow hatch marks. Note that the length of the platform was not an issue.

The new trams are an improvement over the older ones and shows how technology has advanced. The main advantage is that the entire tram is low floor, with the only concession made to accommodate this being the slight raising of the floor about the wheels. Being in five sections rather than three, the trams also feel less like a train and more suited to winding their way along the street. Like the older trams, the new designs have three bogies – sections two and four being suspended without any wheels below. The number of door openings are the same and, arguably, are better spaced out. This has partially been made possible by a more compact design for the driver’s cab and means that the passenger doors are distributed over almost the entire length of the tram. Finally they have air conditioning.

A rather neat feature is this red LED strip that warns you that the doors are about to close. When the doors are open they are green. The extensive use of LEDs to supplement the strip lighting gives a much more modern feel.

The Current Service

The service proposed, and which is now a reality, is arguably slightly bizarre. It has the feeling of the best that can be done without a major restructuring of the entire service and it is no secret that TfL would love to increase the frequency on the Wimbledon branch which currently has 8 trams per hour (tph). With a single platform terminus, however, at Wimbledon itself, an increase in frequency all the way to Wimbledon is going to be tricky until a second platform can be provided there. Part of the reason for the desire to increase the frequency must be to offer an improved service to Ampere Way – the stop for IKEA and other major stores in Valley Park – and whilst an improved service from Croydon to Wimbledon was not achievable, as an opening gambit an improved service to Ampere Way was.

It was also probably the case that it was recognised that the potential interchange at Elmers End was not being as effective and passenger friendly as it could be. It does not take a genius to spot that a 5tph service linking to a 4tph (off peak) and 6tph (peak) service is not going to lead to the best, or even consistent, connections. The only realistic way of sorting this out is to provide a sufficient frequency of trams so that timetabling for connections is just unnecessary.

The key to the initial solution was to reduce the current service to Elmers End by one to 4tph, and at the same time to introduce a new 4tph service between Therapia Lane (one stop beyond Ampere Way with a convenient turnback facility at the depot entrance) and Elmers End. At the same time the opportunity was also taken to restore the Beckenham Junction service to 6tph.

The problem now was how to dovetail the new 4tph service in between the 8tph New Addington – Wimbledon service and the existing Elmers End service (now at 4tph) in a way that was workable. Obviously one cannot satisfactorily overlay a 4tph service onto an existing 8tph service and the gaps will inevitably be erratic. Furthermore the line between Sandilands and Arena now has three services. Two are 4tph and one is 6tph. Clearly any attempt at timetabling an regular headway was going to be impossible.

Two Variobahns passing just outside Elmers End tramstop using the newly installed passing loop.

Recent Major Infrastructure Improvements

As well as procuring the new trams, the infrastructure needed to be in place to handle the improved service. TfL had already announced that the improved service would include more trams to Elmers End so it was no surprise that they replaced a cripple siding near Elmers End with a short passing loop on the section of single track between Elmers End and Arena. Doubtless a more flexible solution would be a second platform at Elmers End, but that would be more expensive and require a much longer timescale.

The other main piece of work carried out was to double most of the the long single track section between Mitcham Junction and Mitcham. It was surprising that on the opening of Tramlink this was initially single track, as it is a long unbroken section. Furthermore it was double track to the end of BR days and so the formation, and possibly even serviceable track, was already in place. The rationale for doing this work now is less obvious because the frequency of service over this section has not yet changed. It is more a case of added resilience and ability to recover the service. It does fit in with TfL’s declared intention for the next stage of improvement though.

New double track just east of Mitcham tram stop. Doubling this long section almost the entire way to Mitcham Junction should aid reliability in the short term and service frequency to Wimbledon in the long term.

The benefits so far

Like London Overground the philosophy on Tramlink is not to distinguish between peak hour and inter-peak service. The difference is simply the level of crowding. Certainly one could argue that in peak travel periods the new service achieves its objective in increasing capacity. In inter-peak periods one could also see the benefit of providing a direct service to Ampere Way from all stops from Addiscombe to Elmers End inclusive, even though a change at Sandilands was hardly inconvenient. One could argue that the trams are more frequent along the new route, but with the erratic service there is a high chance that you will wait exactly the same amount of time as you did prior to the new service being introduced.

The next stage

So what next?

The key objective is clearly to get more trams to Wimbledon and indeed TfL have stated this publicly. There is no officially stated policy on how to do it, but it seems highly likely this will be done by extending the new route 4 (Elmers End – Therapia Lane) rather than providing a more frequent service over the entire length of route 3 (Wimbledon – New Addington). If it were the latter then one would have expected some of the new trams to be used for an increased New Addington – Therapia Lane service. Whilst just increasing the frequency of the entire New Addington – Wimbledon service would be the easiest, neatest solution from the passengers’ perspective, it does lead to a massive over-provision on the long New Addington branch that probably cannot be justified.

With regards to upgrading the Wimbledon Branch, nothing can happen without sorting out Wimbledon itself. A few years past there was talk of abandoning the station and terminating in the town centre. Certainly Network Rail would love to get all of platform 10 back, but this has not been mentioned recently so we must presume that there is somehow a plan to somehow squeeze in a second platform.

The view looking west from Phipps Bridge tram stop. This section is crying out to be doubled.

TfL has committed to removing any remaining single track stretches on the Wimbledon route, which isn’t quite the same as as saying it will be double track all the way. Beddington Lane to Mitcham Junction flyover (exclusive) will be easy and is the obvious section to tackle next. Phipps Bridge to Morden Road (exclusive) is a little harder as it involves crossing three small streams that are part of the River Wandle and so some bridge construction will doubtless be involved. No doubt the Environment Agency will take a keen interest in the work. The flyovers over the West Croydon and Mitcham Junction rail lines would cost a fortune to double for very little benefit and can safely be assumed to be off the menu. If nothing else the timescales involved would preclude these as part of any imminent upgrade. A short section of interlaced track at Mitcham has always been regarded as too difficult to sort out as it means removing large concrete blocks which support a weak retaining wall.

That leaves the short section of single track just to the west of Mitcham Junction where the tram route goes under the bridge carrying the A237 above. The suggestion was made years ago that it would be possible to provide a new opening to the south of the existing one and this currently appears to be subject to serious consideration. Although the work would appear to be expensive for a short section of track, it would remove the operating restriction where Mitcham Junction tram stop has single track at both ends of the platforms and effectively makes the stop a passing loop.

Mitcham Junction tram stop looking west towards Mitcham. If rumours are to be believed, instead of swinging right to go under the single available arch, the westbound track will continue straight on and under the bridge approach.

Untangling the service

Readers who can follow the patterns in the recently introduced service are probably thinking that the whole thing has become a complete dog’s dinner with erratic headways and inconsistent connection times. No indication of the proposed eventual service has been officially given so we will take the rare liberty of speculating what might happen. To do so it is necessary to take a step back and look at the entire Tramlink network as a whole.

In essence the problem is to match the service to and from Wimbledon (the western branch) with the branches to the east (New Addington, Elmers End and Beckenham Junction). Services from the East are also capable of going around the town centre loop and returning east again. Services from Wimbledon cannot do this.

We have to make a few presumptions so let’s state these at the outset. We presume that the desired frequencies are:

  • Wimbledon – 12tph
  • New Addington – 8tph
  • Elmers End – 8tph
  • Beckenham Junction – 6tph

The whole thing would be a lot simpler if the Beckenham Junction service were also 8tph, but the route running parallel to National Rail from Birkbeck to Beckenham Junction is single track with a couple of passing places. The worst remaining single track section on the entire network is between Harrington Road and Avenue Road stop. In the middle of this is Birkbeck tram stop which is a single platform serving both directions. It would not be easy to provide a passing loop here due to the tram/rail overbridge at the end of the platform. To reliably provide 8tph on this branch is probably a challenge and unnecessary anyway.

The only real way to provide a regularly spaced service on the bulk of the Tramlink system is to only provide 4 trams per hour between Wimbledon and New Addington. It then follows that to maintain a even interval service of 8tph to New Addington there has to be a 4tph service New Addington – Croydon Loop. That leaves 8tph from Wimbledon which have to go somewhere other than New Addington. It would be possible to split those equally between Elmers End and Beckenham Junction, but with 6 tph to Beckenham Junction overall this would probably lead to a very complex and erratic working timetable. Far more likely is the notion of sending all of these 8tph to Elmers End.

This will of course lead to an erratic service to and from Elmers End but with an additional 6tph between Arena and Sandilands serving Beckenham Junction, the frequencies would be sufficiently intense for it not to matter. The exception to this is Elmers End tramstop itself which would have 8tph but alternating between 5 minutes apart and 10 minutes apart. Funnily enough that is exactly what happens now, and the current timetable gives a feeling that it is really there to pave the way and test various aspects of the ultimately desired service.

If the above description is correct, and bear in mind it is speculation, then it seems likely that some time in the next few years we will see:

Infrastructure improvements

  • An option taken up for four further “Stadtbahn” trams.
  • Plans to provide an extra tram platform at Wimbledon.
  • Further doubling on the Wimbledon branch

A timetable change

  • All Elmers End – Therapia Lane trams continuing to Wimbledon
  • All Elmers End – Croydon Town Loop trams diverted to Wimbledon
  • 4tph (50%) of New Addington – Wimbledon trams diverted to run New Addington – Croydon Town Loop

Looking Further to the Future

Looking further ahead, all political parties support the principle of extending Tramlink to Crystal Palace which would diverge from the Beckenham Junction branch after Harrington Road. If that proposal is developed it will be interesting to see how the indicative service would fit in with any timetable in existence at the time. Even assuming a simple additional service of Crystal Palace – Croydon Loop one has to wonder if Arena – East Croydon can handle an extra 6tph in each direction. That becomes 20tph in each direction as far as Sandilands and 28tph on the short stretch between Sandilands and East Croydon, which crosses the A232 red route. It may be that one of the branches will be reduced to a shuttle service.

Overall, Croydon has been lucky that the pieces were in place to implement a cheap tram system. What started off as a cheap and cheerful system now has issues of capacity and it looks like some expensive infrastructure upgrades are going to be inevitable at some time in the future. Nevetheless those upgrades are probably going to be better value for money than any other rail-based scheme in London. Comparisons with the DLR are inevitable – Tramlink was a solution designed to fit the available space, infrastructure and money rather than one created from the ground up to fit the need. Like the DLR, it has also been an overwhelming success, despite initial hiccups and problems. It will thus be interesting to see if it follows a similar pattern to the DLR in terms of expansion and if, when it reaches 25, it’ll be getting the same kind of plaudits which it will most likely deserve.

Written by Pedantic of Purley