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A tramway for the Potteries?

Extensive tram networks are being built in cities to the north and south of Stoke-on-Trent to link conurbations with high-frequency sustainable transport. Tracklaying in central Birmingham in January 2019.

Following major development and regeneration studies in 2017, the British city of Stoke-on-Trent is seeking finance under the Government’s Transforming Cities Fund (TCF) to develop its public transport offering. The TCF was announced by UK Prime Minister Theresa May in September 2018, shortlisting ten city regions to share in a GBP840m (EUR960m) funding pot to improve travel connections through sustainable transport schemes, linked to the nation’s ‘Industrial Strategy’.

A tramway between Stoke and Etruria via the commercial and retail centre of Hanley has been suggested as one option, although this is at present largely conceptual. The city council has suggested that congestion costs the local economy GBP80m (EUR91m) a year, also predicting that some key roads will have reached capacity within the next 15 years.

In this article, I will set out a wider-ranging proposal for a city-wide tramway that could also serve the neighbouring towns of North Staffordshire, based on a report which formed a small part of the 2017 studies.

The need for action

Stoke-on-Trent has an unusual geography, with urban development scattered around several key population centres – the ‘Six Towns’. These towns lie on a predominantly north-south axis along the upper valley that runs alongside the River Trent, followed by a railway line between Blythe Bridge and Kidsgrove, mainly to the east, with substantial parts scattered over hills further east.

The town of Stoke itself lies around and to the west of Stoke-on-Trent station, but the dominant city centre is at Hanley around 2km (1.2 miles) to the north-east. The four other towns lie to the north (Tunstall and Burslem) and south-east (Fenton and Longton). Neighbouring Newcastle-under-Lyme (population around 180 000) forms a significant urban area on the west side.

Historically, the region’s economy was based upon mining, steel production, pottery and ceramics. But the pressures of globalisation and its quirk of sitting too far north to be truly considered part of the UK’s West Midlands and too far south of Greater Manchester to fall within its sphere of influence, have affected the city over the past 30 years. The mines and steel foundries of North Staffordshire are long-closed, and the world-famous potteries are now a shadow of their 19th and 20th Century prominence.

Some parts of the area offer the attractive rolling hills that befit its location on the edge of the Peak District National Park, while other more central sites show post-industrial distress, lacking in a strong economic base. Effective regeneration is required to bring a meaningful improvement in the quality of life to better knit together these communities and the city as a whole.

Components of this transformation could include high-tech industry in the former pottery areas along the valley, creative and digital start-ups – taking advantage of a lower price for office space, but remaining within an hour of Birmingham or Manchester – and large residential developments north and east of the city and around Madeley to the west.

Through rail services between Derby and Crewe serve local stations between Blythe Bridge and Kidsgrove at hourly intervals. These could be upgraded to high-quality urban rail (Swift Rail – see TAUT 937, January 2016), with higher frequencies and more stations. Some improvements to the
rail network are now being sought by the unitary authority.

There is also a comprehensive bus network across the area, run mostly by First Potteries, partly reflecting low car ownership. But traffic congestion is high on key arteries in the city, causing significant delays for bus users and car drivers, especially on longer trips across the wider conurbation.

Tramway principles

Assessment of possible transport options suggested that a tramway would provide a real step-change in the quality of local travel and accessibility, offering a high-capacity service, zero pollution at point of use and a high operating efficiency. Equally importantly, the creation of such a network could serve as an icon for the city’s revitalisation.

To cover the area comprehensively, two core lines were defined:

Stoke-on-Trent via Newcastle-under-Lyme to development areas surrounding Keele University and Madeley.

Stoke-on-Trent station to north-eastern areas via Hanley, Burslem and Tunstall.

A branch to Kidsgrove and an extension to Leek were also identified as potential longer-term options.

Key principles for the tramways, and local rail services, should include:

Lines and services evolved in co-ordination with land use, economic and social planning objectives.

Serving current urban areas to underpin regeneration of the area and creating greater unity between the six towns.

Stations/stops should be set as focal points for neighbourhoods, with high-quality pedestrian and cycle access.

Co-ordination and joint marketing as one locally ‘owned’ system.

Buses should remain an essential part of the network, but with a high level of integration with improved urban rail services to act as feeders to a core high-capacity backbone.

Serving the existing town centres of Hanley and Newcastle-under-Lyme would enable the new tramlines to play a viable role in enhanced access and improve their chances of carrying consistent all-day traffic flows. This should ensure good levels of patronage and revenues, providing strong justification for their investment and operation.

The network in detail

The former North Staffordshire Railway (NSR) forms a much-loved part of the city’s heritage and its long-closed ‘Loop’, a 1964 casualty of Dr Beeching’s branch line closure programme, runs through the heart of the Potteries area. Some alignments still exist, however, in places converted to greenways, but there are a number of blockages.

A review of potential tramway alignments to meet the main objectives suggested that parts of former NSR lines could be beneficially used, but street-running would provide the greatest accessibility gains in some areas. Potential concerns could be raised over both the loss of greenways and the loss of road capacity for street running. This stresses the need for comprehensive design and appraisal of possible options, with regular stakeholder consultation.

The two core lines could both be centred on Stoke-on-Trent railway station – over three million passenger journeys began or ended at this station in 2017-18 – routed along Station Road past the main entrance to give the best chance for integration with local bus routes and taxi services. This location would therefore form the hub of the city area’s transportation network. A five-minute walk from the city’s two University campuses, it would also well serve these two sites that between them cater for over 10 000 students.

The western route would run between Stoke-on-Trent station, Keele University – another highly-regarded British university – and the village of Madeley. Starting at the station it would serve central Stoke, following Hartshill Road and George Street (A52) and continuing to the centre of Newcastle-under-Lyme, where it would use the inner relief road, passing the bus station. It would then head west to serve the university and Madeley, its routeing largely on new alignments determined by development opportunities. This would be around 15km (9.3 miles) long.

The region’s major healthcare facility, the Royal Stoke University Hospital, lies between Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle-under-Lyme, but could prove difficult to serve directly due to its location surrounded by dense residential housing. However, stops on Hartshill Road would be about 400m from the hospital, making it accessible on foot by staff and more mobile patients and visitors.

The north-eastern route would form a ‘balloon loop’. The common stage of around 2km (1.2 miles) would leave Station Road southwards onto the railway alongside the main line and use the former Leek line trackbed round to the A52, where it would then diverge.

The western arm would run north on Victoria Road and Lichfield Street to the centre of Hanley, routed through from the bus station to the intu Potteries Shopping Centre. From here it would follow main roads (A50/A53) to the former NSR Loop line route at Cobridge and then follow this trackbed through Burslem and Tunstall to Turnhurst, with a short on-street section. Beyond Turnhurst it would follow new alignments, largely off-road, to loop through possible development areas north of Turnhurst.

The eastern arm would follow the former Leek line round to Milton and then take the former Congleton line north through Norton and Chell Heath to meet the western arm north of Turnhurst, serving existing and possible new residential areas along the eastern side.

The small town of Kidsgrove is only 3km (1.9 miles) north of Tunstall along the former Loop corridor; its station could serve as a key local transport hub. However, the trackbed ends above the centre of the town, 300m from the rail station, and reaching it would probably require heavy engineering.

Local authority aspirations exist to reopen the railway line to Leek. Currently the only options for travel from this neighbouring town into Stoke-on-Trent are via road, with public transport options limited to bus services that at most times of day take 45 minutes for the 17km (11-mile) journey.

This could be electrified and operated as a branch of the tram network from the junction with the proposed eastern arm near Milton. It could serve intermediate stations at Milton, Stockton Brook, Endon, and Leekbrook, where it could connect with the Churnet Valley line and the proposed Moorlands and City line to the Alton Towers theme park that attracts around two million visitors each year. The distance from the junction at Milton to Leek is about 14km (8.7 miles).

High frequency, high capacity

The main service could run from Madeley in the west to Stoke-on-Trent station, round the north-eastern loop serving Hanley and Tunstall and then back to Madeley. This would enable efficient use of resources, with trams moving rather than sitting in terminals. Drivers would change at one or two key points en route. This would provide comprehensive coverage of the whole city area and ensure that hospital and student visitors were well catered for as well as commuters to ensure more even loadings throughout the day.

The Kidsgrove branch could have a direct service to Stoke-on-Trent station, running at higher speeds on the railway alignments and combining with the main service to offer a high frequency through the main towns. New stops could serve the Etruria Valley brownfield redevelopment, which sits alongside the established and very successful Festival Park retail and leisure site, and the logistics hub at the junction of the A500 further north. This split layout also gives the flexibility of offering a number of short workings, especially at peak periods.

At an average running speed of 30km/h (typical of urban tramways) the end-to-end journey time for the full route from Madeley to Stoke-on-Trent, round the loop and back again, would be around 80 minutes. Of course most users would be making shorter journeys, maybe in the order of 10-20 minutes between neighbouring population centres in the wider conurbation. The tramway would therefore offer connectivity over medium distances, but also high capacity and frequency over short distances. In principle services could run every ten minutes, depending on potential demand, economic and social requirements. The aspirations for a step change in transport quality might call for higher levels of service than apparent demand might warrant.

For the Leek service the journey time to Stoke-on-Trent would be around 20 minutes, perhaps operated at 15-minute intervals.

The trams themselves could be up to 45m long, with capacity for up to 300 passengers. Of course this choice would come from further appraisal and the opportunity exists for either smaller vehicles for some routes, or the option for coupled pairs depending on infrastructure requirements. Depending on service levels, the main system could require up to 30 trams; the Leek line could require about five more. Conventional overhead power supply would be used, with the option of high-capacity onboard energy storage systems where alignments pass through sensitive urban areas or technical restrictions necessitate their use.

The depot and control centre would need to be located at a suitable point, preferably near to the heart of the system. There is suitable land in the Stoke Junction area, that could, if run under combined management, also serve as the local rail (Swift Rail) base of operations.

Conclusions

This proposal for an urban/interurban tramway, with local rail upgrades, could be transformational for Stoke-on-Trent and the wider region that features a combined population of around half a million people. It would connect new suburbs and existing urban areas with the main commercial centres and reinvigorated industrial areas.

It has the potential to uplift the quality of life for individuals and households, significantly reducing congestion and improving air quality, and thus bringing about the major regeneration that local interests are seeking. A sustainable transportation system could help to support investment and job creation, and help to deliver new homes in more appropriate and sustainable locations.

To prove a truly viable solution, the system should be designed and implemented on a cohesive basis, and this would likely not be cheap – but the costs of not investing could be high too. To achieve the greatest benefits requires a balanced and disciplined appraisal in line with spatial planning.

Article appeared originally in TAUT 976 (April 2019).