The Leeds Supertram – 20 years on and what the future holds for public transport in the city

It was seen as the jump-leads that public transport in Leeds desperately needed during the early 2000s, but it turned out to be a little more than a false start.

Tuesday, 24th August 2021, 11:45 am
What has the city learned from its failed Supertram project?

But, 20 years on, what has the city learned from its failed Supertram project? What came next? And what can we expect in the future?

Leeds, as many of us know by now, is the largest city in Western Europe without a built-in mass transit system. A look at similar cities in the UK could well be a source of embarrassment for some, as Nottingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield can all boast their own form of rail-based integrated transport.

But it isn’t for want of trying.

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A history lesson

The city, as with many others at the time, introduced a tram system in 1902 to cope with its rising population around its industrialised centre. Services in the ensuing decades would run to outer areas such as Morley, Guiseley and Pudsey. Their popularity was such that plans were even drawn up for Leeds’s very own underground “subway” rail system during the 1940s.

The plans were never taken on, however, and the following decades would not be kind to the tram.

The rise of the personal car led to many families moving to the suburbs, meaning a mass transit system serving a centralised population was no longer sustainable. This led to trams eventually being scrapped in November 1959.

Leeds recognised this shift towards cars early on. In the following decade, council bigwigs waxed lyrical about Leeds’s future as the “motorway city of the 1970s”, with major road building projects such as the M1, M62 and M621 taking place in and around the district.

As well as homes, the car also led to jobs becoming decentralised, with employment shifting to out-of-town industrial estates and office parks in the 1970s and 80s.

But all of this created a perfect storm of traffic congestion. City leaders went back to the drawing board, coming up with a number of ideas for mass transit schemes from the 1980s onwards.

Following failed attempts to introduce an east Leeds light railway service in 1987, plans for Supertram first emerged in the early 1990s.

This would see three lines – Headingley, East Leeds and South Leeds, with four terminals – Bodington, Grimes Dyke, Stourton and Tingley.

Despite funding for the scheme being approved by Government in 2001, spiralling costs saw the scheme shelved three years later, and finally scrapped by transport secretary Alistair Darling in 2005?

So what did for the scheme?

“It fell down because it was too expensive for Government,” says Dr Anthony Whiteing, a senior lecturer in transport economics at the University of Leeds. “If you go back to the year 2000 and John Prescott’s 10 year transport plan, it envisaged far more light rail in the UK than we ended up with. I know Leeds was on the wishlist but the scheme was too expensive for what the Government saw as the benefits it would deliver.”

He added that certain routes in Leeds would have difficulty in gaining the benefits of faster mass transit system.

Dr Whiteing said: “One of the key advantages of light rail is the faster journey times because of a dedicated use of a road network.

“If you go to Sheffield and you see the tram going past the university, it goes fast, but that is because the traffic is diverted away. Unless you can do that up through Headingley and the A660, for example, you won’t get the benefits.

“If you can’t use dedicated tracks, you need to use roads, and that has always been a stumbling block, particularly on the A660.

“With the Leeds proposals in the past, it was felt that it needed a lot of people on it for economic viability. So they always go for the main corridors with the most people using the buses.

But there are loads of buses on those routes already, so you are serving people who are already well served by buses and ignoring those who aren’t.

“The current proposals are much wider and serve people who aren’t better connected – it is a more justifiable thing.”

So what are the current proposals?

Following the eleventh-hour scrapping of another mass transit system – 2012’a £250m electric trolleybus scheme – early plans recently emerged for an ambitious West Yorkshire-wide mass transit system.

There were revealed in 2020 by Leeds City Council and West Yorkshire Combined Authority to have one more go at a mass transit system in the city, with work hoped to start at some point in the next decade. It has received public support from all West Yorkshire councils as well as region mayor Tracy Brabin.

Despite its embryonic stage, regional leaders are currently putting together a bid for a slice of £4.2bn of Government cash to help advance the scheme.

Dr Whiteing said: “We need to do this sooner rather than later.

“What is fundamental is the climate emergency. I am dismayed at government policy – we are hearing politicians saying climate change is here right now, then in the next breath they talk about meeting targets in 2040.

“If you have a problem now, you talk about doing stuff now. Are politicians so dim that they can’t see that?

“Every day we talk about climate change targets we fall further behind with meeting them. The key thing for me about the current proposals is that it is much more about the connectivity across the city region and getting to places that are poorly connected.

“It’s not major corridors we should focus on, it’s broader places in the region that are poorly connected by public transport. We should think about a solution that helps people in the city region and this scheme does a lot more from what I can see. It doesn’t just focus on three or four corridors across Leeds.

“It will take time – we can’t do this in the next three years, it will take longer – but it’s another reason to get going as soon as we can. To get anywhere near these climate targets we need to get going now.”