The Surprise Contender: Sutton Tramlink

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Our look at how Croydon Tramlink is expected to develop by 2030 needs to take a bit of a diversion. In the early 2020s it is proposed to add a new short branch. To understand both why and to where, we really need to look at another proposal – one for a short, simple tram network to serve the Sutton and Morden area.

We want one too!

It was not long after Croydon Tramlink opened, or perhaps even slightly before, that the neighbouring borough of Sutton first seriously proposed a scheme of its own. There was a very obvious potential route. This would have gone from Sutton Station via the town centre northwards to Rose Hill roundabout. Rose Hill roundabout is a major six road roundabout with a local parade of shops.

Early Tram

Early photo of Croydon tram, courtesy Graham Feakins

The London Borough of Sutton’s proposals must have been germinated even before Croydon Tramlink was opened because at least one tram of the original Croydon trams on delivery already had a blind available for the future possible route. Various non-existent routes were included on the blinds. This was not so much for the purpose of actually using them along the route in question but for publicity purposes in order to bring awareness of possibilities of future extensions.

Rail Desert

Carto Metro showing an area of London that does not have a good heavy rail service

Whilst not strictly located in the middle of a “rail desert,” the only nearby rail service is the half-hourly and unreliable Thameslink Loop service. From Rose Hill roundabout there is a wide dual carriageway that continues north through a classic 1930s style housing estate, currently only served by bus, and onward to Morden Road tram stop. Here the Tram would have taken advantage of the existing route and enhanced the original 6tph service to Wimbledon by doubling it to 12tph.

A parasitic scheme

The scheme, as originally envisaged, was intended to piggy-back off Croydon Tramlink and use the existing depot at Therapia Lane, which would have needed to be enhanced, as well as use other existing resources. The length of new tramway thus required would have only been around 5km and it would have taken advantage of approximately 2km of existing route.

Google Map centred on Rose Hill Roundabout

There is always a problem

A potential problem with the initial scheme was that the Wimbledon station tram stop could not handle 12tph. At the time providing a second tram platform at Wimbledon station was not really an option because it would have required the abandonment of the rest of the rail platform that had been ceded to Tramlink. Platform 10 was by then only a 4-car terminating platform, but was still useful for terminating a 319 Thameslink unit when necessary. As a result its continued existence was jealously guarded by the railway.

Various ways of resolving this were discussed. Suggestions included a short town centre section in Wimbledon that would involve street running. This would be used by the Sutton trams. An alternative idea was to abandon the tram stop in the station entirely and reroute all trams to Wimbledon into a new terminus “upstairs”. The lack of a satisfactory solution to the issue of getting the Sutton trams into the heart of Wimbledon was a major problem for promoters of the scheme – mainly Sutton and Merton councils – and it was probably this, rather than anything else, that caused the scheme to lie dormant for many years.

This wasn’t the only issue with the scheme though. There were additional problems with the Sutton Tramlink idea. The crossing on the level of the Kingston Road (A238) near Merton Park tram stop would potentially cause issues with a doubling of trams at a time when it might have been more difficult than today to argue the case for giving priority to them. More seriously, with the Wimbledon problem unresolved, it seemed a far more attractive proposition to concentrate on a plan to extend Tramlink to Crystal Palace. This was in part because there would be much less street running to Crystal Palace and more potential to use existing railway alignments – which was more in keeping with the original Tramlink scheme.

Wimbledon platform 10

Only very recently has the north end of platform 10 at Wimbledon been given over to Tramlink

As passenger traffic grew on the tram route from Croydon to Wimbledon it increasingly became clear that any spare capacity would be wanted to bolster existing services. The possibility of providing additional capacity at Wimbledon station was now a possibility as the Thameslink stock serving Wimbledon would be fixed 8-car trains and platform 10 would no longer serve any useful purpose. However, it was clear that any extra tram capacity would be fully used up providing a better service to Croydon.

To get around the problem of Sutton trams going to Wimbledon there was at one point the rather bizarre suggestion of sending the Sutton trams to Croydon once they had reached Morden Road. This would have effectively involved a 135° change in direction at Morden Road tram stop. In Croydon it was proposed that they would terminate by going around a new small loop on the west side of the town to avoid overloading the town centre loop. This loop was always known to have limited capacity without causing severe knock-on effects to other traffic (including buses).

No space at the depot

A further problem for Sutton Tramlink promoters was that the presumed spare capacity at the existing depot wouldn’t exist if Croydon Tramlink purchased new trams for the more intensive service they were planning to eventually operate. There was no obvious possible location for even a small depot (or stabling yard) between Sutton and Morden Road tram stop.

It was clear that the idea of Sutton Tramlink was stalling and the main problem was Wimbledon. It seems that those in favour of the scheme saw Wimbledon as a main objective and those promoting the idea were extremely reluctant to abandon this until there really was no hope of realising this goal. Realistically, this moment must have come at the point TfL committed to providing a 12tph tram service between Croydon and Wimbledon.

New tram systems apparently out of favour

Sometimes it is little throwaway comments that help build up a picture. In the past eighteen months there have been a couple of comments during period when there was much debate over the Bakerloo Line extension that suggested that new tram systems were definitely out of favour.

Sir Peter Hendy had openly questioned the purpose of extending the trams to Crystal Palace. Given that this was about the only tram scheme that TfL was believed to have any enthusiasm for, it seemed at the time to suggest that we weren’t going to see any more route miles any time soon. In a further blow, he queried the motivation behind tram schemes and suggested that they were sometimes pushed not because they fulfilled a transport need but because they fitted some other aspiration. Neither the idea of reviving a town centre (such as Sutton) nor the Sutton Tramlink scheme were explicitly mentioned, but it was hard to see any other scheme at which those thoughts might have been directed.

More notoriously, Leon Daniels, Head of Surface Transport, when asked at a conference on the future of buses, dismissed Sutton Tramlink in particular and more trams routes in general. His emphatic statement was, as it turns out, perhaps a bit ill-advised. Currently trams fall under the remit of Rail and not Surface Transport and it may have been the case that he just was not up-to-date with the latest thinking of his colleagues.

A new destination

It seems that, eventually, the scheme’s backers finally accepted that pushing for a tram scheme from Sutton to Wimbledon was just not going to get anywhere. When looking for an alternative to Wimbledon there was a surprisingly obvious one. More surprisingly still it appeared never to have been suggested before.

Sutton Tramlink Route

The proposed route and alternatives as offered at the initial local consultation

The alternative suggested was that trams from Sutton heading north would not join the existing tracks to Wimbledon but simply continue to head north along the Morden Road to South Wimbledon instead. The Morden Road is very wide and looks as if it can easily accommodate two segregated tram tracks. The additional distance involved is around 750 metres. South Wimbledon station is in fact almost south east of Wimbledon station and clearly not nearly so attractive as a place to terminate trams. One would imagine that the trams would mainly be used as a feeder for the Northern Line. This is something that probably isn’t really desirable but in terms of overall capacity of the Northern Line a tram-load of people every 7-8 minutes probably isn’t that significant and many users may well be people who otherwise would have started their tube journey at Morden anyway.

A local consultation

Sutton and Merton councils arranged a local consultation last year on the Sutton Tramlink with, inevitably, various options of route available. The most significant of these options was a detour at Rose Hill roundabout to serve St Helier Hospital which was around 500m away but totally off-route – so serving it would involve a detour of more than an additional kilometre. The proposal also suggested that there could be potential for a future extension southwards to the Royal Marsden Hospital where there are proposals to regenerate the site.

Not completely unexpectedly, the response to the local consultation was generally positive with the inevitable significant minority who totally opposed it. One common response was that the bus service was perfectly adequate so the trams were unnecessary. Sadly one never gets to learn whether the people who respond with this reply considered themselves to be bus users or not.

A surprise inclusion

It was probably generally expected by many that the consultation, which had no TfL support, was just another stage in the futile attempt to make Sutton Tramlink a reality. It therefore came as quite a surprise to see it mentioned in the Mayor’s 2050 Transport Supporting Paper. There we see an entry under Croydon Tramlink for an Extension to Sutton by 2030 with the comment “Need already established”. It is given a objective ranking of 2 in a 1 to 3 scale – so not a top priority but not a low priority either.

Mention in Transport Supplementary Paper

Surprise inclusion in Mayor’s plans for transport up to 2050

As always with modern tram schemes, the costs seem phenomenal for what to they layman would be expected to be relatively cheap. Very crudely, if the £250 million estimated cost included £90 million for trams, additional stabling space, depot enhancements and other non street related costs and also included serving St Helier Hospital then we are talking of a cost of around £20 million per double track kilometre. This would include the cost of a physical connection with Croydon Tramlink and the one way longitudinal loop in Sutton counted as double track, though in reality more expensive.

As an aside, it also might amuse some people that, despite TfL calling their tram operating company “London Tramlink”, and wanting people to use that term (as referred to in the TfL style guide), the Transport Supplementary Report does what everyone else does and refers to “Croydon Tramlink”.

Confirmation of Sutton Tramlink as a serious proposal

As further confirmation of the seriousness of Sutton Tramlink it is featured prominently in the TfL document outlining the concept for future tram operation in South London. This document suggests that the proposed frequency will be 8tph.

A look in detail at the Sutton Tramlink scheme

With the Sutton Tramlink proposal having at last got to the point where it is a serious contender as part of the future public transport mix in London, we will have a look at the scheme as proposed starting from the southern end. Conspicuous by its absence is any depot. With a probable round trip running time of around an hour, space for around 10 trams would be required. These could, of course, be stored at Therapia Lane if space were available and there is supposed to be potential to expand the size of the site by purchasing adjacent industrial land. This would probably need a compulsory purchase order – or maybe many such orders.

Sutton town centre has the feel of a shopping centre that has seen better days. Clearly the council believe that trams could provide the necessary spark to turn things around and revive the place. At the southern end is Sutton Station with its four platforms and quite a good train service, though these tend to be “all stations” trains. The main High St, which is pedestrianised, runs approximately northward from just north of the station. It is paralleled on each side by roads which make a one way system possible. Sutton is served surprisingly well by buses. Many are single decker services which penetrate into the surrounding area to bring people into the centre.

If built, the tram system would not actually go quite outside Sutton station but terminate around 100 metres to the north on an east-west aligned road which is part of the one-way system. Along the roads parallel to the High Street it is expected that the trams will be street running with, in places, lanes dedicated to buses and trams. One would imagine a considerable revamp of the area would be required to make the tram stop convenient for the High Street and to provide an attractive walking route.

Angel Hill

Angel Hill cutting looking north

Beyond the one-way system of St Nicolas Way and Throwley Way, trams would steadily climb whilst still street running up to Angel Hill. At Angel Hill the main road is in a cutting and a decision would have to be made as to whether there would be any attempt to widen the road to provide an opportunity for segregation or not. Not far away from Angel Hill (around 200m) is the very lightly used station of Sutton Common. It is on the Thameslink Wimbledon Loop between Wimbledon and Sutton which is one reason for its low passenger numbers as the service is only half-hourly in each direction. Apart from Sutton Railway Station it is the only station that is anywhere near the proposed tram route.

Rose Hill

Rose Hill looking south with Rosehill Recreation Ground to the right of the picture

Beyond Angel Hill the road leading to Rose Hill is itself called Rose Hill. Here street running seems inevitable unless advantage is taken of adjoining Rosehill Recreation Ground. Taking land from a recreation ground is not an easy option though. Apart from the inevitable protests, one usually has to acquire an equivalent amount of similar land elsewhere as compensation so as not to deplete the amount of public open space.

Rose Hill Roundabout

Rose Hill Roundabout

Rose Hill roundabout looking south

Rose Hill Roundabout is a substantial roundabout, or more strictly, a gyratory since is it has traffic lights, with a fair amount of green space in the centre. If not diverting to St Helier Hospital, it would appear that the logical thing do is to have trams straight across the roundabout over the centre island. Providing a safe tram stop at this location could be a challenge. Alternatively a lengthy diversion to St Helier Hospital would certainly impact on journey times. It would also mean that the roundabout is approached from a different direction but that does not really help with the conflict at the roundabout itself.

start of St Helier Avenue

The northern end of St Helier Avenue looking south

Beyond Rose Hill Roundabout, the route consists of wide roads that almost beg a tramway to be laid along them. St Helier Avenue is a wide dual carriageway with a 40mph limit. On either side is a typical 1930s style estate with terrace houses built without any space for the householder to park their car. Fortunately for the occupants around here there is plenty of space in the copious lay-bys on the dual carriageway to park cars.

Despite the frequent local buses the PTAL (public transport access level) of this long stretch of road is pretty dire, generally being 1 or 2 on a scale of 0-6. Rather inexplicably on the PTAL map, one of the cells along St Helier Avenue is actually categorised as 0. Very notable in this area is not only the frequent bus service but also the unusually high provision of countdown information screens at bus stops.

Morden tube station: so near yet so far

The same road (the A297) changes name to Morden Hall Road and passes within 300m of Morden station. It is notable that no proposal has been as made to terminate the trams at Morden. Of course, one disadvantage of doing this is that then the new tram route would not link with Croydon Tramlink which would create considerable logistical challenges.

A24 at Morden Road Tram Stop

Where Sutton Tramlink is proposed to pass over Croydon Tramlink. The A24 passing over the existing tram route just to the east of Morden Road tram stop.

Morden Hall Road then links up with the wide A24. Along the A24 after about 600m is Morden Road tram stop with the A24 passing over the existing Croydon – Wimbledon tram route on a bridge. It would seem then that any future tram stop on the Sutton Tramlink route may well be almost vertically above and approximately at right angles to an existing tram stop. There would have to be a physical link between the two networks and no indication has been given as to how that would be done. On the eastern side of the bridge is a low rise industrial estate. Its biggest claim to fame was that it was once the real life location of Sun Hill Police Station. The lack of any critical buildings that need to be retained means that plenty of opportunities arise, with a spot of compulsory purchasing if necessary, to make a link with the existing Croydon Tramlink at this location.

Junction Merantun Way

A24 just south of South Wimbledon at junction with Merantun Way (which was build along the route of the former railway line from Merton Park to Tooting)

Continuing northward along the wide A24, after about three quarters of a kilometre, we come to South Wimbledon Tube station. By stopping just short of the junction, where the road narrows, trams could conveniently terminate.

Opportunities at Wimbledon not completely lost?

At the start we mentioned how a lack of capacity prevented future possible trams from Sutton reaching Wimbledon. If the route to Sutton did get built then it is possible in future with Crossrail 2 that a comprehensive redevelopment around Wimbledon station could lead to a substantial increase in the capacity of Wimbledon as a tram terminus. If that did lead to further increased capacity then it may be that one day we could see a tram route in operation between Wimbledon and Sutton after all.

Back to the Croydon Tramlink

We started off by mentioning the incredible demand expected west of Croydon on Tramlink. With no realistic prospect of getting above 12tph to Wimbledon, 15tph at most, we will go back and look at how the Sutton Tramlink proposal has influenced plans to provide a tram service west of Croydon of at least 18tph. Only then, by seeing how this is is all relevant to Croydon Tramlink, can we see a likely approximate date for the opening of the Sutton Tramlink – if it acquires funding and remains part of the Mayor’s transport strategy.

Written by Pedantic of Purley