The Light (Rail) Fantastic: A Look At the Croydon Tramlink

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We haven’t looked at what is happening in the world of trams, as seen from a London perspective, for a long time now. With work on the ground advancing for the next capacity increase and consultation just finishing on a proposal to lay the first section of new tram track on London’s streets for many years, it would seem a suitable moment to update ourselves once again.

In our most recent look at trams in Croydon, back in 2012, we described the plans to provide a 12tph service to Wimbledon by 2016. At the time talk about what might come after that was vague, but TfL have now published their tram strategy for the next 15 years and we have a much better idea what is proposed. In this article we look at what is proposed up to 2020 and maybe in the near future we will look at further proposed developments from 2020 to around 2030.

Tramlink Map

The current Croydon tram network

Insignificant?

One thing that is probably necessary to emphasise is the absolute insignificance (currently) of the tram network when seen as part of London’s transport infrastructure. Much has been made recently of passenger usage of around 31 million passengers per year. To put that in a rather negative context, if the latest bus usage figures are to be believed, the No 25 bus route on its own carries nearly 23 million passengers a year.

Or vital?

Such a comparison is really rather unfair though. Tramlink has very successfully unlocked various routes in Croydon that could not be adequately and effectively served by bus. One of the most notable is between Croydon Town Centre and the “out of town” shopping centre at Valley Park. More relevant for the future, trams are a very effective mover of large numbers of people in places where highway space is at a premium. Even if you could provide the required number of buses and associated road priority measures you probably could not run the necessary intensity of service required in Croydon to replace the trams. Moreover, the maintenance of the road for an intensive bus service doesn’t come for free – someone has to pay for it.

Tram Service by today

The tram service today

Until now trams have been a boon and an asset to Croydon that have helped its vitality. In the future the dependence on them will increase and it is only really now that we are starting to see a town plan develop where they become an integral part of the plan. Basically, without the trams, there is no way to bring people into Croydon in sufficient numbers to make the much-needed proposed shopping redevelopment of the town centre an economic proposition.

12tph to Wimbledon

The big surprise when Tramlink opened was the high level of usage of the line from Croydon to Wimbledon. This replaced an extremely lightly used British Rail service and the expectation was the 6tph would be quite adequate. Because of its expected low use, the primary consideration as to which branch the service should extend to on the eastern side appeared to be made solely on the basis of operational practicality. The Beckenham Junction branch was ruled out as it had too many single track sections – worse still this included sections with single platform tram stops on them. The line to New Addington was a non-starter as it initially had a 9tph service and it would be impossible to satisfactorily combine this with a 6tph service. This left by default an Elmers End – Wimbledon service.

Tram Service by 2016

The tram service by 2016

It was quickly realised that 6tph to Wimbledon was wholly inadequate. The service patterns were eventually changed to allow 8tph Wimbledon to New Addington with the Elmers End trams now going around the town centre loop. It was argued that this arrangement was better overall for passengers as Wimbledon got a significantly better service, New Addington (where passenger numbers were initially slightly below expectations) had only a marginally worse service and fewer people overall would have to change trams.

It soon became apparent that more than 8tph to Wimbledon would eventually be necessary, but there was the major problem of a single tram platform at Wimbledon station. It was not an urgent issue but it wouldn’t go away. It was also bound to take time to come to an agreement with Network Rail (or its predecessor) and to arrange the substantial funding for the additional platform and trams as well as some doubling of track.

After a few years in the doldrums due to a rather unsatisfactory franchise-style organisational structure, TfL was able to eventually take control of Tramlink. It soon became apparent that, whilst low-cost improvements would take place, a cash-constrained TfL was not prepared to throw money at Tramlink at that time.

Double track at Beddington Lane

Double track looking west from Beddington Lane tram stop taken shortly after the work to double the track was completed. Contrast that with an earlier photo taken before work began.

The lack of willingness to significantly invest in Tramlink meant that a proposal to double all the single sections of track between Wandle Park and Wimbledon was whittled down to doubling the main single section and another section that was both easy and cost effective. There is still one single track section of significant length between Morden Road and Phipps Bridge tram stops.

Ten new trams were sourced but purchased in two tranches. This was probably sensible because they could not be used effectively until there was a second platform at Wimbledon. A rather unsatisfactory erratic service helped ease the problem of capacity at the Croydon end but did nothing for the service between Therapia Lane and Wimbledon.

Do what you can (if it doesn’t cost too much)

It took until last December to see the first real service improvement for some years. A long overdue enhancement to the service was to run the standard off-peak service of 8tph to Wimbledon during shopping hours on Sundays. This finally commenced on 14th December 2014 and was, by all accounts, very successful. Route 2 to Beckenham Junction now also has a full Sunday daytime service of 6tph. The temporary route 4 between Elmers End and Therapia Lane does not operate on Sundays leaving Elmers End being the only stop with only 4tph during Sunday shopping hours.

Something that will not immediately be visible to passengers was the recent move to bring tram maintenance in-house. This was an area where a lot of simple improvements could be made such as availability of spares, purchase of more suitable tools and better working conditions for the staff. Surprisingly there used to be no Sunday day shift for tram maintenance – the one day that the timetable didn’t require nearly all the trams to be in service.

Gearing up for 12tph to Wimbledon

The short term objective is to make 12tph to Wimbledon a reality. Most of the new trams have arrived but delivery is still awaited for three of them. The last of the available space at Therapia Lane depot has had tracks added and the depot can just about handle the 34 trams in total although this reduces flexibility and 33 is the desired maximum number for stabling at that depot.

All the necessary track for 12tph between Croydon and Wimbledon is now in place except at Wimbledon station and the approach to it. Users of that station will be aware of the substantial hoarding on platforms 9/10 hiding the work currently in progress. Fortunately the latest Operational and Financial Performance and Investment Programme Report has a photo of what is going on behind them.

Platform track slab laying at Wimbledon station

Platform track slab laying at Wimbledon station

After several aborted attempts and premature entries on the six month lookahead at planned track closures, TfL have finally officially announced the dates for a long closure between Dundonald Road Tram Stop and Wimbledon Station to bring the second tram platform into use at Wimbledon in the usual gushy style of TfL press release that emphasises the positive and downplays the bad news. Contrary to earlier reports it appears as if the solution will be identical to London Overground at Clapham Junction platforms 1 and 2. It had previously been thought that one of the tram platforms would be at a slight angle.

The closure between Dundonald Road Tram Stop and Wimbledon Station is scheduled to last from 13th July to the 16th October. Unusually for rail closures this starts on a Monday and ends on a Friday, which is probably partly as a result of the very high usage figures at weekends as well as a clear desire to start immediately after the tennis at Wimbledon has finished. The popularity of the trams at weekends takes away much of the justification for the general preference for weekend closures on the grounds that fewer passengers are travelling. We do not know if the plan is to provide an enhanced service on reopening or whether the existing service will be reinstated for a period. Regardless of the initial post-closure service it would be hard to imagine that advantage was not taken of the opportunity to run a more intensive service by the time Christmas shopping leads to a build up of passengers.

The revised service pattern

Back in 2012 all the indications were that TfL were intending to somehow retain the Wimbledon – New Addington service. The new 4tph Elmers End – Therapia Lane was seen as the skeleton of the new service that would be implemented by extending these 4tph to Wimbledon. It seems that experience of the current set-up has convinced those who needed to be convinced that this was just not a workable scenario.

Common sense has prevailed and the plan for the service pattern once Wimbledon can handle 12tph is beautifully simple:

  • Wimbledon – Elmers End 6tph
  • Wimbledon – Beckenham Junction 6tph
  • New Addington – Central Loop – New Addington 8tph
  • Reeves Corner tram stop

    Reeves Corner tram stop with its single eastbound-only platform

    Note that the service on the Elmers End branch goes down by 2tph (except on Sundays) but even intervals are restored. Also, the more trams that go to Wimbledon the fewer that go around the town centre loop – by that we mean arriving from East Croydon and travelling via West Croydon to return to East Croydon. The reduction of trams going around the town centre loop from 12tph to 8tph is quite significant. There will be 8tph direct from East Croydon to West Croydon but 20tph from West Croydon to East Croydon. To make matters worse the stop at Reeves Corner is currently eastbound only so there is no improvement on that 8tph that can be made by an additional change in the central area. Even nowadays Journey Planner sometimes recommends walking from Church Street tram stop to Reeves Corner tram stop. This is not the most pleasant of walks and involves crossing a road junction so the two minutes allowed for it may be optimistic.

    walk to Reeves Corner

    Journey planner sometimes recommends walking from Church Street to Reeves Corner

    It seems that past concerns about linking Wimbledon to Beckenham Junction due to the number of single track sections on the route have been put to one side. This reduced concern may be because two of the former single track sections on the Wimbledon branch have now been doubled. There is no reason to believe that with the current track layout and proper regulation and appropriate priority on single track sections that this will be a problem. It doesn’t matter too much if a tram arrives a minute or two late at Beckenham Junction or Wimbledon but it does matter if they don’t depart on time or get delayed on their journey to Croydon town centre.

    Continuing enhancement to the service

    By the end of 2015 Tramlink might well have entered a long period of low growth with little to be seen in terms of future enhancements. What has changed all that is the proposed development of Croydon Shopping Centre by a joint venture between Hammerson and Westfield. This was due to be completed in time for the Christmas season in 2018. With this new shopping centre London will have a major suburban shopping centre for each primary point of the compass. Croydon in the south would complement Shepherd’s Bush in the west, Brent Cross in the north and Stratford in the east.

    For the tram system the impending new shopping centre presents two distinct challenges. The first is an expected rapid rise in ridership come 2018 when the new centre was expected to open. The second, possibly bigger, challenge is a recognition that the town centre would be busier which would mean, at best, a lack of opportunity to run more trams and, at worst, various scenarios where the town centre’s traffic could come to a halt. The problem would be the private car. More specifically the private car being used for a shopping trip. It was felt it was just not realistic to expect everyone travelling from a distance to come by public transport (and remember it is TfL policy is not to encourage Park & Ride). For the big purchases that make shops viable, there are times when shoppers are going to want to pick up their goods in a car and take them home with them.

    A town centre loop

    It had long been thought that the only long term approach had to be one or more small loops at the edge of the town centre that would enable some trams to return back to where they came from without getting stuck in the traffic in the main town centre loop. This was clearly more urgent on the eastern side which, come 2016 at the latest, would have at least 20tph feeding into East Croydon as opposed to the 12tph feeding in from the west. The idea of terminating some trams from the east complemented Croydon’s plan for the town centre. This plan included priority given to walking from the new exit at East Croydon station to the town centre via Lansdowne Road. By locating the new loop and, more critically, a new tram stop, at a suitable place, the tram might not take passengers quite to the centre of Croydon but it would drop them off very close by and there would be a much more pleasant urban environment in which to walk the relatively short distance from the tram stop on the new loop to the town centre.

    The idea of the Dingwall Loop was born

    The objective of such a new loop as described was clearly to get passengers as close to the town centre as possible but not so close that the tram would be affected by heavy traffic. It was also becoming clear that the “absolute priority for trams” philosophy was being questioned and tram planners would have to factor in delays due to other traffic. The most critical delay to consider was actually that caused by pedestrians. For the plan for Croydon to work pedestrians had to be able to cross the busy Wellesley Road at street level without having to wait too long in order to get from the station to the town centre.

    Option 3

    Rejected option – a bigger loop. For a larger image click here.

    When the problem was looked at there was really only one solution that really fitted the criteria. When the proposed scheme actually went out to consultation there were three options but this was little more than a token gesture as it was quite clear that one option was much better than the other two. However, as people who organise consultations will candidly admit off-the-record, the real reason for the multiple options is in case someone comes up with something the planners have overlooked. Apparently this is quite frequent and roughly a third of consultations result in modified plans of some description to take into account something not foreseen in the original proposal.

    Option 2

    Rejected option – a clockwise loop. For a larger image click here.

    Of the two rejected proposals at the initial consultation, one used roughly the same loop as the approved scheme but the trams would go around the other way. This would have produced a very tight curve just to the west of the main entrance to East Croydon station as well as other engineering and logistical challenges. It was a bit meaningless to ask people to comment on their preference as far as this was concerned as there was no clue as to how many trams would use it, as at the time no indications of the service proposed had officially been made public. The other rejected proposal meant a bigger more expensive loop but no extra stops and the new entrance at East Croydon would not be as well served.

    Expensive

    The proposed Dingwall Road loop will be just 500 metres long with one new set of points at one end and a new set of points and crossing at the other end. There will be one stop at Lansdowne Road near to the new entrance to East Croydon station. The current expected cost is £27 million. The obvious question to ask is: how can it be so expensive?

    Selected Proposal Dingwall Road Loop

    The selected proposal as currently revised

    One of the problems with any proposed solution around East Croydon is that land is so expensive. The Dingwall Road Loop is going to require a compulsory purchase order for a whole sequence of open spaces in front of buildings in Dingwall Road. This must have dramatically contributed to the high cost of the scheme. The land isn’t actually needed for the trams. It is needed to relocate the utilities that will be displaced by the tram track. There is the possibility of the cost coming down if this work can be shared with a future developer who is going to have much the same problem. Also, this part of Croydon was one of the first to be improved with high quality paving that will have to be ripped up and replaced. On the plus side, the newly acquired land needed to relocate utilities can and will be used to provide a segregated cycle route.

    The saving grace as regards cost is that £15 million will come from a Section 106 payment by the developer. This has been negotiated specifically for this purpose and cannot be easily transferred to another scheme so any alternative suggestion probably involves throwing £15 million away. Fairly obviously, the developer has an interest in people coming into Croydon to go shopping there. Money from a Section 106 payment for more general purposes is unlikely to be as forthcoming as it is for this particular scheme. As a result of this arrangement the 500 metres of single tram track will ‘only’ cost TfL £12 million or £24,000 per metre as opposed to a full cost of £54,000 per metre.

    Wellesley Road tram stop

    Rear of Wellesley Road tram stop

    Private land at the back of Wellesley Road tram stop

    As part of the proposal the opportunity would be taken to enhance Wellesley Road tram stop. This has been much busier than originally expected and is already quite inadequate. The stopping off of Walpole Road nearby a few years ago, so it is no longer a junction with Wellesley Road, has meant that additional options are available. The primary concern is to take advantage of the necessary Transport and Works Act application to make a compulsory purchase order for a small strip of land so that passing pedestrians are no longer forced to walk along the busy tram platform. Wellesley Road tram stop in future will be the first stop in Croydon where all eastbound trams will call and so can be expected to get much busier than it is today.

    Spared from a tight schedule

    Originally the requirement was to have the Dingwall Road Loop open by December 2018 when the Westfield/Hammerson development was due to open. This would have been a very tight schedule given that one could expect the draft Transport and Works Act Order to prompt a public inquiry. It is not just tram installation at Edinburgh that has shown that installing tram track on public roads takes a lot of time. Recent work at Nottingham has shown that installation of tram tracks on the public highway is a task that cannot be done quickly. It is therefore likely with a sigh of relief that planners at TfL have heard that there have been objections to the development scheme which means its completion date will be put back. As a result the Dingwall Road Loop is not expected to be needed until mid 2019. A slight delay to the completion of the tram scheme beyond this time should not be too concerning so long as it is open in good time for Christmas 2019 shopping.

    Continuing to serve the town centre loop

    At the original consultation TfL could not say what the service pattern would be on the new loop. This obviously made it quite difficult to meaningfully support or oppose the proposal. TfL are now in a position to reveal the service pattern. This would see a total of 10tph to New Addington. Of these, half would go around the town centre loop and half would go around the Dingwall Road loop. The trams going around the Dingwall Road loop would have a minute or two stand time timetabled at the new Lansdowne Road stop and authority to depart would be given by the controller with the intention of ensuring the 6 minute interval service to New Addington had even headways as much as possible – regardless of what the timetable said.

    Running 5tph around the Dingwall Road Loop would initially appear to mean that the town centre loop lost 5tph. Of course it actually loses 3tph from New Addington since the new service would be an enhancement over the previous 8tph from New Addington that went around the town centre. Nevertheless that would mean just a paltry 5tph would depart from East Croydon to Centrale and West Croydon. In fact the number of trams around the town centre loop would only go down by 1tph due to an additional proposal to supplement the Elmers End service with a 2tph service that would serve the town centre.

    Tram services with the Dingwall Road Loop

    Proposed initial service once the Dingwall Road Loop is open

    Don’t forget the buses

    One issue not dealt with in the latest consultation is the problem of routeing buses from West Croydon to East Croydon. Currently Lansdowne Road is bus only eastbound and buses use this and Dingwall Road to very conveniently serve a bus stop at the southern end of Dingwall Road close to the main station entrance. A separate consultation will cover this but the two obvious contenders as solutions are for buses to leave Wellesley Road earlier (either by reversing the one way direction of Sydenham Road or using Bedford Park) or by changing the road layout so buses can turn left from Wellesley Road to George St (so basically taking the same route as the trams). The main problem with the former option is that you can no longer serve a useful stop on Wellesley Road and one of the problems with the latter is that you introduce more bus-tram conflict at the junction of Lansdowne Road and Wellesley Road. Whatever happens, the contraflow bus lane at the southern end of Dingwall Road will remain. Note that is it useful for both bikes and taxis (more so with the new station entrance) and it may well be be vital if buses have to be diverted for any reason.

    The awkwardness of extra trams needed

    It seems clear that the perceived necessity of adding the Dingwall Road Loop has had some rather awkward consequences as regarding extra trams and a new depot. Remember that with the 12tph service to Wimbledon there will be 34 trams in total and Therapia Lane will just about accommodate them but ideally the maximum to avoid otherwise unnecessary shunting movements is 33 trams.

    If you are going to spend £27 million on the Dingwall Road Loop then clearly it is a good idea to use it on a regular daily basis to have a better tram service overall. One of the initial proposals was to simply replace the 8tph New Addington – West Croydon – New Addington service with a 10tph New Addington – Lansdowne Road – New Addington service. This had the benefit that no extra trams would be required but produced the totally unsatisfactory side effect that not a single tram would go around the town centre loop. This could be partially rectified by buying an additional tram for a half-hourly service to the town centre from Elmers End. The problem would have been one of storing an additional tram somewhere overnight (e.g. Wimbledon station platform). This would still only mean 14tph through the town centre and only 2tph that went around the town centre loop.

    Site of Lansdowne Road tram stop

    site of future Lansdowne Road tram stop looking east

    In the latest consultation half the trams from New Addington go around the town centre loop. This means that an extra depot is needed. Current plans favour a small one at Elmers End. It is believed that this would be easy to achieve and it is presumed that it would be done by substantially reducing the size of or eliminating the station car park. Earlier plans for a larger one at Harrington Road appear to have been dropped as being too contentious – remember this is needs to be in use by mid 2019 which is just four years away. Note that it is highly desirable to have any new depot on the east side of Croydon to provide resilience in maintaining a service when the town centre is impassable – due to planned track replacement for example. In this sense even a small depot at Elmers End would be useful as one could double the track from Arena tram stop to Elmers End and, when necessary, reduce the service to Elmers End so it can run on one reversible line and use the other line for tram storage. This is similar to what is the current practice on such occasions.

    The curious case of the 2tph from Elmers End to the town centre

    What is rather strange in the otherwise totally rational and ordered proposal is the addition of 2tph from Elmers End that go around the town centre loop. These will not fit into the pattern of the other 6tph that serve Elmers End and go to and from Wimbledon. Stranger still, is that, to accommodate these out-of-pattern services, a new platform at Elmers End will need to be built. For reasons that are not clear, but probably involve utilities and land acquisition, this new platform is expected to cost £10 million. It does appear to be excessive though as the cost of building a short low platform in a station car park.

    Quite what these 2tph are supposed to achieve has not been explained despite questions being put. Speculatively it could be:

  • To ensure that, on paper and by crude calculation, Elmers End passengers do not have a worse service after the improvements
  • To ensure that 14tph is maintained across Lower Addiscombe Road – effectively to maintain grandfather rights at this at-grade crossing
  • To make better use of the new depot that will be necessary
  • To provide a direct service from all tram stops from Elmers End to Addiscombe with a direct service to Centrale and West Croydon tram stops – even if only half-hourly
  • To increase the number of trams from Sandilands (and Lebanon Road) to Centrale and West Croydon from 5tph to 7tph – even if a bit erratic
  • The service is a sweetener to make Bromley Council more amenable to granting planning permission for a small tram depot in its borough at Elmers End

Crossing the Addiscombe Road

Including the 2tph to Elmers End, Sandilands will have 24tph. This means that 48tph will cross Addiscombe Road on the level at traffic lights which will probably create a significant delay on the A232 in this area. It remains to be seen how many trams are ultimately expected to go through this junction. It seems that this might one day reach 28tph per direction and that is before one considers the possibility that the proposed extension to Crystal Palace might not be completely dead and contribute another 8tph. Even allowing for multiple trams crossing the junction on one traffic light change (currently not permitted in the same direction) it is hard to see how anything like 72tph could possibly be envisaged if one has the tram tracks crossing the A232 on the level.

The future

The Dingwall Loop is really just a prelude to a major enhancement of trams in South London. In future we will look at this. We will also look at the likelihood of a more intensive service on the existing network and also what potential exists for a large expansion of the South London tram network.

Written by Pedantic of Purley