Every summer, Sheffield hosts a city-wide rock, indie, and alternative music festival, called Tramlines. The festival features over 70 artists across four stages, comedy shows, a pop-up cinema, and expansive food and drink line-up. The aim of the festival is to highlight local talent and celebrate the vast creativity that thrives within the city of Sheffield. Interestingly, the festival’s name ‘Tramlines’, was inspired by the extensive tram network here in Sheffield.
In honour of the festival, and in light of KTR’s supply of couplings for the bogies on a number of Supertrams (since 2004), we thought it would be fitting to uncover the history behind the name and dig up the roots of The Sheffield Supertram.
The History of Supertrams in Sheffield
Interestingly, trams and trains had a rather large role to play in Britain’s position in the Industrial Revolution. The first passenger railway was built right here in the UK, which allowed workers from across the country to travel to their new jobs in the city. Sheffield’s first tram ran in 1873, but it wasn’t until 1899 that the operation of electric trams began. At its most expansive, Sheffield Corporation operated 100 miles of tram routes in the region.
Why did trams become so popular in Sheffield in particular?
Well, the answer lies in our city’s topography as the city of seven hills. While the city centre sits in a valley (which provides industrial water access), most of the industry’s employees lived up on the hills in the suburbs. At the time, buses struggled with the steep hill gradients and railways only served the valley. This meant people needed an alternative way to get into the city. Tramways presented the best solution to transport workers into the city and back up to their homes in the hills. Although the tramlines served an important purpose, the popularity was short-lived. The last of Sheffield’s first-generation trams ran in 1960 as improved and more cost-effective bus routes took its place.
In 1980, as the city of Sheffield continued to expand, the city saw a renewed interest in the development of a modern tram system. The construction of what is known today as the Supertram began in 1991. Although the new Supertram held much promise, its early operations were flawed due to a complex ticketing system and small service area. Given its lackluster performance, the operation of the Supertram was privatized by Stagecoach in 1997 with the aim of turning around the network’s performance. Following these management changes and significant service expansion, ridership increased. However, the numbers still failed to live up to what some would call ‘optimistic’ ridership estimates.
The Stagecoach Supertram includes 50 stations and connects with both local and national bus and railway services. The original fleet of 25 trams was built by Siemens-Duewag of Düsseldorf, Germany in 1992. These three-car trams carried 88 seated passengers, 155 standing passengers, and were specifically designed to accommodate gradients as steep as 10%. In 2006, the trams were refurbished and a new blue Supertram was launched in 2008.
The most recent evolution of the Sheffield’s tram network has seen the introduction of new Vossloh tram cars, as part of a Government funded Tram Train programme, in partnership between SYPTE, Network Rail, Stagecoach Supertram and Northern Rail, piloting pioneering technology which allows passengers to make a single continuous journey connecting tram stops and conventional rail stations.
Full service operation began in 2018 and sees three Tram Trains an hour travel on the Supertram network from Sheffield Cathedral to Meadowhall South, before proceeding over a new section of track, called the Tinsley Chord, linking the tram line to the rail track and on to the national rail network and Rotherham Central station.
Nearly 30 years after the Supertram’s launch in 1991, Sheffield commuters continue to use the network daily. Whether the people of Sheffield need to get to work, to the mall, or connect to the national railway network, the Supertram continues to help them get there. Our tram lines have played a surprisingly important role in the evolution of Sheffield and have been aptly honoured as the namesake of the Tramlines Music Festival in Sheffield.
Image by Andrew Benge