Monthly Archives: October 2018

Are these trams going anywhere?

Sheffield Cathedral tram stop:  South Yorkshire Supertram nos 206 & 113 (September 2018)

Sheffield Cathedral tram stop: South Yorkshire Supertram nos 206 & 113 (September 2018)

Photo:  John Binns

The announcement that the new Tram-Train service between Sheffield Cathedral and Rotherham Parkgate would begin service on Thursday October 25th 2019 was not before time.

It was initially planned to open in 2015, and the seven new Tram-Train vehicles have been running on the main Stagecoach Supertram network since September 2017.

The South Yorkshire Supertram network now runs two separate fleets, the original German-built Siemens-Düwag units of 1992 (numbers 101-125) and the seven new Spanish-built Vossloh vehicles (number 201-207).

Even before the new service started up, the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (SYPTE) initiated a consultation exercise to determine the future of the system from 2024, when the Stagecoach franchise expires:  https://www.travelsouthyorkshire.com/futuretram.

It seems that no provision has been made to finance the replacement of the original fleet, which is nearing the end of its useful life.

The consultation includes the suggestion of scrapping the whole system, which understandably has few political friends outside Sheffield:  https://www.doncasterfreepress.co.uk/news/mayor-ros-jones-no-more-cash-from-doncaster-taxpayers-for-supertram-1-9344722.

This has, predictably, greatly exercised the tram-enthusiast community –  [http://www.britishtramsonline.co.uk/news/?p=24061] – and provoked South Yorkshire taxpayers (such as me) to query whether their community charge and taxes are being wisely spent.

I wonder if this option among a range of others is actually political shroud-waving.

It’s not simply a matter of scrapping the vehicles and covering the tracks with tarmac, as happened to Sheffield’s first tram-system in the 1950s.  Not only has most of the track been relaid over the past few years, but dismantling Supertram would involve demolishing viaducts and reconfiguring road junctions and traffic signals across an eighteen-mile network.

It would also fly in the face of applying the results of the Tram-Train pilot scheme to other parts of South Yorkshire as well as the rest of the UK.

As a Sheffield resident I’ve often wondered why the South Yorkshire Supertram system has not developed, apart from Tram-Train, since it opened a quarter of a century ago.

In that time the Manchester tram-system has extended from two former rail routes with a street link into Piccadilly Station to seven routes (with an eighth, to Trafford Park, under construction) and the original 26 trams have been replaced by a fleet of 120 trams with 27 more on order.

In Nottingham, an initial service to the north of the city has grown to an X-shaped system running 37 trams over twenty miles of track, and the Birmingham tram-line to Wolverhampton, which initially stopped short of the city-centre, is now extending across the city with the intention of reaching Edgbaston by 2021.

In Edinburgh, where the tribulations of construction caused uproar, the tram service is hugely popular and likely to be extended in the next few years.

Why is there talk – even hypothetically – of shutting down Supertram when other cities are reaping the benefits of light rail?

Update:  The first day of service for TramTrain didn’t go well:  https://www.thestar.co.uk/news/sheffield-tram-train-derails-after-collision-with-lorry-causing-major-travel-disruption-1-9414192.

Rails across Malta

Malta Railway:  Valletta Viaduct

Malta Railway: Valletta Viaduct

Malta Railway:  Floriana Viaduct

Malta Railway: Floriana Viaduct

The Malta Railway opened in 1883, and never made much money.  Its original metre-gauge line ran through Birkirkara to an inconvenient terminus, called Notabile, in a deep cutting outside the hill-town of Rabat.

The Malta Railway Company went bankrupt in 1890 and reopened two years later under the auspices of the Malta government which improved and in 1900 extended the line up to a station called Museum, nearer to the ancient capital city, Mdina.

In 1905 Malta Tramways Ltd opened its three routes to Birkirkara, Zebbug and Vittoriosa, two of which directly competed with the railway.

Both the railway and the tramways were British exports.

The olive green steam locomotives for the railway were built by Manning Wardle of Leeds, Black Hawthorne & Co of Gateshead and Beyer Peacock of Manchester.

The trams expired in 1929 and the railway closed two years later, both defeated by the relentless competition of Malta’s self-employed bus drivers.

The Valletta railway terminus was located next to the Royal Opera House:  the tracks were underground and emerged on to a viaduct which crossed a ditch that formed part of the city fortifications and entered another tunnel.  It then crossed another viaduct alongside the Porte des Bombes in Floriana.

The tunnels apparently remain in good condition, and have occasionally been opened to the public:  https://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20121022/local/Railway-tunnel-part-of-Malta-s-heritage.442073.

Both viaducts were originally timber, at the insistence of the military authorities who wanted to destroy them quickly if necessary in an emergency.  Eventually they were rebuilt in stone and still exist.  They’re easy to locate, thanks to a meticulously obsessive video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8OlMnpZvtQ.  It helps to know what you’re looking for.

Several of the country station buildings survive.  Hamrun is a scout headquarters;  Birkirkara is a childcare centre;  Museum station is a celebrated restaurant: [https://www.facebook.com/pg/stazzjonrestaurantrabat/photos/?tab=album&album_id=218770048333827].

Little else remains.  The only surviving piece of railway rolling stock is a third-class carriage which has stood in the open for years at Birkirkara:  https://web.archive.org/web/20170408171035/http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20170407/local/watch-maltas-last-surviving-train-carriage-chugs-toward-restoration.644585.

An intriguing hint that there may be more can be found in a news article about the reappearance of four reversible seats from one of Malta’s trams, suggesting that a tram body survives at St Thomas’ Bay:  https://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20170628/local/century-old-malta-tram-benches-found.651902

There are images of both the railway and the tramways at https://vassallohistory.wordpress.com/maltese-public-transport-since-1856-a-brief-history-of-the-public-transport-in-malta-the-omnibus-up-to-the-mid-1800s-the-only-means-of-human-transport-w.

It’s clear from an article in The Guardian that Valletta’s railway tunnels are only a tiny part of the fascinating underground beneath the city:  https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/feb/20/malta-secret-tunnels-inside-newly-discovered-underworld-valletta.

The first industrial estate

Rochdale Canal, Ancoats, Manchester

Rochdale Canal, Ancoats, Manchester

Ancoats was a rural village outside Manchester until the late eighteenth century when landowners, realising the imminent arrival of the Rochdale and Ashton Canals, parcelled up their property and sold it for development, both for mills and factories.

Some of the mills were huge by contemporary standards, steam-powered and served by canal wharfs which also provided the condensing water necessary for the engines.  Adam and George Murray’s Old Mill (1798) may have been the first eight-storey factory in the world.

The Murray brothers, along with their rivals James McConnel and John Kennedy, came from Kirkcudbrightshire, and used their expertise in building textile machinery to produce bigger and better equipment with which to spin cotton.

Ancoats’ population boomed from 11,039 in 1801 to 53,737 in 1861.  In 1821 one-fifth of the total population of Manchester lived in Ancoats.

Though some respectable housing was built among the industries and slums, there was no attempt to provide for a bourgeois population.  It was, by Jacqueline Roberts’ definition, “the first residential district of the modern world intended for occupation by one social class, the new urban working class”.

Title-deeds for such properties typically contained no restrictions on uses that would cause nuisance, and very few were provided with privies.   Bathrooms and running hot water were, of course, unknown.

Foreign writers were appalled.

Léon Faucher (1803-1854) who visited England in 1843, published Études sur l’Angleterre (1845), in which he wrote of “the breathing of vast machines, sending forth fire and smoke through their tall chimneys, and offering up to the heavens, as it were in token of homage, the sighs of that Labour which God has imposed upon man”.

It can’t have been fun to live in Ancoats, despite the well-meaning efforts of philanthropists, who provided the Ardwick & Ancoats Dispensary (1828), later Ancoats Hospital, ragged schools and night shelters.

The life-expectancy of a Manchester labourer in 1842 was seventeen years.

In 1889 Dr John Thresh reported a death rate of over 80 per thousand, and commented, “3,000 to 4,000 people [were] dying annually here in Manchester from remediable causes”.

This prompted the Manchester Labourers’ Dwellings Scheme of 1890, which led to the building of Victoria Square (Henry Spalding & Alfred W S Cross 1897), a five-storey block of one- and two-room walk-up flats with penny-in-the-slot gas meters, communal sinks and water-closets shared between two apartments and, in the turrets, laundries and drying rooms, Anita Street, originally Sanitary Street until the name was truncated to suit 1960s sensibilities, two-storey terraces of one-, two- and three-room flats, and George Leigh Street, which provided three-bedroom houses, intended for families with children of both sexes.

Only the better-off labourers could afford the rents.

Owners of back-to-back terraces were offered £15 per house to convert their premises to through houses, and by 1914 almost all of the city’s back-to-back houses had gone.

However, this was only a partial solution.  A 1928 social-study group inspection report remarked, “the reconditioned house of the eighties is not to be tolerated today”.  There were houses so dark that the gas-light had to be kept on all day, and such dampness that plaster would not hold wallpaper in place.

In the end, the only practical solution was to clear the housing wholesale.  Victoria Square, Anita Street and George Leigh Street have been adapted to modern standards and look attractive.  Some architecturally interesting buildings remain, and the canal-side locations are at last being developed for 21st-century work and living.

Gentrification is often derided, but it’s better than living in a slum.

The Manchester’s Heritage (June 3rd-7th 2019) tour includes a walking-tour of Ancoats.  For further details, please click here.