When Sheffield City Council abandoned its first-generation tram system in the 1950s, most of the redundant trackwork was simply covered with tarmac and forgotten. At that time there was no value in uprooting the rails for scrap.
Ever since, workmen digging holes in main roads across the city have been repeatedly confronted by heavy steel girders blocking their way.
There was a recent flurry of media interest in Sheffield when most of the delta junction which connected the tracks along Fargate, Pinstone Street and Leopold Street came to light in the course of alterations to the pedestrianised area around the Town Hall.
People queued up to take photographs of the rusting rails, and BBC Look North and the Sheffield Star ran features on this 63-year-old piece of urban archaeology.
Interviewees were sorry to see the tracks cut up, and wondered why they couldn’t be preserved for their heritage value: Calls to preserve heritage as historic Sheffield tram tracks torn out for Fargate development (thestar.co.uk).
Actually, that’s already happened. Tram tracks found in the course of pedestrianising The Moor at the start of the 1980s were included in the landscaping, with immediately recognisable planters representing the lower-deck fronts of two standard Sheffield double deckers: Searching Picture Sheffield. These have now vanished.
In Firth Park, when a roundabout was constructed in the 1950s at the bottom of Bellhouse Road and Sicey Avenue, the trams continued to run directly through the road junction for the few years that remained before buses took over. The tram tracks still slice through the roundabout after six decades’ disuse.
This isn’t simply a Sheffield eccentricity. Stretches of recovered track, and often the associated stone setts, are preserved in such cities as Birmingham, Bristol and Chester.
The Fargate discovery is old news. A history forum stream dated 2008-2011 reported numerous excavated tracks across the city: Tram Tracks on the Moor – Sheffield Buses, Trams and Trains – Sheffield History – Sheffield Memories.
Sheffield was one of the last British cities to eliminate tram services, yet though you have to be pushing seventy years of age even to remember these tracks being used, the nostalgia for the city’s cream and blue four-wheelers is powerful and, it seems, inheritable by younger generations.
It’s tempting to ask why there can’t be tram-tracks in use along Fargate, Pinstone Street and The Moor, heading to the south of the city, now that city-centre bus services are diverted several hundred yards from the city’s pedestrian thoroughfares.