Transport series: Why does Leeds still not have a mass transit system?

Future plans for a mass transit system in Leeds must include a “wider city region focus” in order to get more residents to buy into the scheme, a transport export has said.
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Leeds has not only a complicated history, but also an uncertain future when it comes to trams.

It is now well known Leeds has been left behind by many of its continental peers, and is now the largest city in Western Europe without a built-in mass transit system, such as a tram or underground rail.

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But the city was served by an extensive tram service right up until the late 1950s – so what caused it to be scrapped, and why have so many attempts to build something similar since been doomed to failure?

An artist's impression of the Leeds Trolleybus - due to open in 2018, but ultimately cancelled/An artist's impression of the Leeds Trolleybus - due to open in 2018, but ultimately cancelled/
An artist's impression of the Leeds Trolleybus - due to open in 2018, but ultimately cancelled/

To understand this, we must understand Leeds, and its place in the UK.

The first official horse tramway opened in the city in 1871, running from Boar Lane to Headingley. Other lines opened rapidly in the following years, to Kirkstall, Hunslet, Chapeltown and Marsh Lane.

The final horse-drawn tram ran in 1902, by which time technology had moved quickly, with electric trams replacing steam on most lines. In the following decade, services expanded to Morley, Guiseley and Pudsey. By the 1940s, plans were being drawn up for city centre tram subways – effectively a Leeds underground.

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But this would be expensive, leaving the council having to decide whether to stick or twist on its tram system.

Money talks in local government, and the decision was ultimately taken by Leeds City Council to abandon trams, with the last service running in November 1959.

Dr Anthony Whiteing, a senior transport lecturer at the University of Leeds, claimed not too many people were upset when this happened, as the tram was struggling to keep up with dramatic socio-economic changes in the city.

“Leeds is not much different from any other city that lost its trams around that time,” he said. “The idea was that buses were the way to do public transport.

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“By the late 1950s and early 1960s, Leeds was expanding its boundaries – you had a lot of slum clearance around the city centre and much more suburban living.

“In Leeds there was a lot of local authority housing – in places like Holt Park and Whinmoor – and the trams never went to those estates.

“The trams were also being run down – they were very rattly – nobody thought the solution was that you should expand the trams to new estates, so they expanded bus services – it was much easier.

“Trams weren’t any good beyond the ring road. But the bus services in Leeds at that time were very well run, so people were happy with it.”

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The increase in car ownership during this time led to a “decentralisation” of jobs. During the 1970s and 1980s, many of the factories and workplaces had moved out of the city centres to out of town industrial estates, while retail was also moving to large shopping parks and supermarkets. The car helped facilitate this.

But with the massive increase in car usage came another problem – road congestion. This led to a number of proposed schemes designed to get people out of their cars where possible.

And, despite three proposed mass transit systems between 1987 and 2016, Leeds still has nothing to show for its efforts other than tens of millions of pounds worth of shelved plans.

So why has the city failed where others succeeded? Some believe the roots of the problems can be traced back to the industrial revolution.

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Dr Whiteing said: “If you look at some of the more successful mass transit schemes that were developed in places like Manchester, Tyne and Wear and Croydon, they converted railways and connected them through city centres on the roads.

“It wasn’t like forcing a tramway up Otley Road all the way through Headingley. That’s where you get your opposition from.

“Leeds never had the dense suburban rail system from Victorian times that Manchester and Glasgow had. If you’re talking about trams in Leeds, you are talking about them going along roads and fitting around car traffic.

“The public hasn’t bought into these schemes in Leeds because they were only focussed on certain routes. The supertram was only predicated on three routes. A lot of people in Leeds were really nonplussed by this.”

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Early plans were recently revealed 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.

Despite history being against the scheme coming to fruition, Dr Whiteing, who acts as an advisor to planners, is optimistic about such a facility being built.

He said “If you want to include more people in it, you need to demonstrate people will benefit.

“This time it needs to have a wider city region focus, and this is why I am in favour of it. It’s much more about the idea of Leeds as the employment hub of the city region, with an increasing amount of commuting from further out.

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“Some parts of West Yorkshire are really poorly served by public transport, either because they don’t have rail and are dependent on poor bus services, or because of capacity problems on trains.

“The new proposal is much more about getting people into Leeds, and there is a good focus on the Spenborough area, which is a real black hole for transport.

“There would be much more about getting people into Leeds and much less about getting people up Headingley Lane.”

A history of trying to get commuters out of their cars

In the late 1960s and early 70s, Leeds proposed a “bus rapid transit” network, which would act as a network of express buses, as well as early form of “park and ride” scheme in Kirkstall Road.

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The services connected Leeds City Centre with Bradford, Wakefield, Pudsey, Alwoodley, as well as numerous suburbs of east and south Leeds.

It was an effort to get the growing number of commuting motorists away from a road network that had not yet caught up, as well as to connect up relatively new council estates in places such as Seacroft and Whinmoor, which had poor public transport links.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to coax commuters from their cars. Services, including the park and ride, would ultimately be cancelled.

Undoubtedly inspired by London’s Docklands Light Railway scheme that opened in the same year, Leeds City Council came up with plans for an east Leeds light railway service dubbed the “metro line” in 1987.

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It would connect Leeds Town Hall, the Headrow and Quarry Hill with areas of east Leeds, such as Killingbeck, Halton, Colton and Seacroft.

However, the scheme met with strong objection from some living in new houses in Colton – who claimed the line would come too close to their houses. The scheme was quietly dropped during public consultation.

A more comprehensive mass transit idea emerged in the early 1990s – known as Supertram. 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 central Government in 2005.

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Leeds’s decades-long campaign for a modern transport system looked to have finally ended in 2012 after government ministers gave the green light to a £250m electric trolleybus scheme.

Transport secretary Justine Greening ended years of uncertainty from Whitehall by signing off the UK’s first modern-day trolleybus system for the city. It was hoped that, by 2018, electric buses powered by overhead wires would be running across the city on a north/south route every six minutes during peak times.

However, this was sensationally scrapped four years later when transport minister Lord Ahmad accepted a planning inspector’s recommendation the scheme should not go ahead. It was felt Leeds City Council and the West Yorkshire Combined Authority had not demonstrated that the benefits of the scheme would outweigh the damage that could be caused by construction along the route.

More than £70m had been spent on the trolleybus scheme and its predecessor Supertram in almost 30 years of attempts to create a transport system fit for Leeds.