Rapid transit needed for Leeds

I was very pleased to read in last month’s South Leeds Life that our MP, Hilary Benn, would like Leeds to have a tram system, and he makes a comparison with other cities that have one.

This is an issue which goes back over thirty years to a time when, at long last, trams were being reintroduced in the UK. Plans were already in place for Manchester and Sheffield, and, for Leeds in 1987 West Yorkshire’s ‘Metro’ put forward a scheme for a line from the Town Hall to East Leeds. Leeds City Council scuppered it.

Twenty years later the Minister for transport in Westminster turned down a scheme because it failed to be adventurous, allowed a similar scheme in Nottingham, then turned down Leeds’s enlarged scheme and suggested trolleybuses instead. This failed too. Current ideas in Leeds appear to me to be very vague: a tram line here, a trolleybus route there, a tram train eventually, maybe.

Hilary Benn suggests that we look at comparable cities in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. An excellent idea. But who should do the looking around?

A decade ago, in the era of the trolleybus scheme, a delegation went to visit transport authorities elsewhere. In Karlsruhe, Germany they were shown the city’s tram network and its long-established tram-trains (railway tracks, tram tracks and two different voltages). They went to Lyon in France, too, to see their trolleybuses and were also shown their ever expanding tram system, re-introduced in 2001.

Afterwards I happened, on four separate occasions, to be in contact with people who had taken part. Not one of them seemed to know much about what they had seen except that it was “alright.”

So I would suggest that a team of, say, ten people from transport, the Civic Trust and those interested in the environment, sustainability, urban renewal, etc be formed to look around, as Hilary Benn suggests, other comparable cities in Britain and in other European countries. They should do this privately, without contacting the ‘authorities’ in the places they intend to visit. A real ‘see for yourself.’

In the UK there’s the ever-expanding Manchester network, which makes good use of former railway alignments, as well as main roads and tram only locations. Nottingham would be worth a visit too. Much of the original line (with a short branch) shares a railway alignment, it opened in 2004. In more recent years two very interesting extensions have been opened, south of the Karlsruhe Friendship Bridge, to Beeston and Clifton.

Very many towns and cities in Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and countries to the south and east have never been without tramways and rapid transit links since the nineteenth century.

In Belgium there’s Antwerp. Some lines have underground sections and new extensions have been made in recent years.

In Germany Stuttgart, a very hilly city, is certainly worth a visit. Many city centre tracks went underground during the 1970s, but there are new extensions on the surface. There’s a network of local railways, very similar to Leeds, except that they join to serve the city centre with underground stations.

In France, however, the situation was much like that in the UK. Here, after 1962, only Blackpool still had trams. In France, after 1966, short lines remained in three locations only. Then in 1974, the French government, aware of the important role trams were playing in Germany and Belgium, advised cities to re-introduce them. Since 1985 trams have appeared throughout the country and now operate in 24 towns and cities. Great care has been taken. At the same time cities have been beautified and suburbs enhanced.

I suggest that our Leeds group could visit Strasbourg and Bordeaux. In both cities much improved environments have been created along with the development of the tram routes.

Trams have been a success, and are very popular, often immediately after the first route opens as these overheard comments attest: “Nanna, I love the trams” (little girl in Nottingham, 2004) “Maman, j’adore le tramway” (little boy in Bordeaux 2007).

So what is the next step? “Leeds leads” they used to say.


This post was written by Eric Smith before the announcement of West Yorkshire Combined Authority’s plans for a countywide mass transit system.

Photo: A modern tram serving Beeston … in Nottingham

We encourage anyone living or working in South Leeds to use this website to tell their news. You can either use the Create an article for South Leeds Life page, or email us at: info@southleedslife.com


2 Replies to “Rapid transit needed for Leeds”

  1. I feel we’re missing a trick by not considering overhead light rail, as is the case across Asia. Bangkok for example has an extremely efficient, clean, timely service that is a tourist activity in its own right. Sydney blurs the lines of overhead/underground with double decker light rail that is unparalleled. Even the Parisian underground is reliable and effective.

    Imagine boarding a sky train at Leeds City Station, and cruising without hindrance all the way to Headingley, before it heads out towards Otley and Ilkley, whilst another line links to Bradford and Shipley, as part of a wider West Yorkshire “White Rose” sky train. No need for converting road space into cycle lanes, as the sky line would have an adjacent path for cyclists and pedestrians. Trams and buses can get stuck in traffic, but a sky train can’t. Express services could shuttle people to the airport in record time. It’d be a fraction the cost of an underground, and a similar price to digging up half the roads in the city to shove rails into roads that aren’t big enough.

    I think that our existing Leeds infrastructure, street widths, and congestion would make a tram or bus based solution destined to fail. An elevated light rail could have a walking and cycling “super highway” built in the sky alongside the light rail track, allowing people to travel across the city with ease, without congestion or disturbance from flooding for example. It’s future proof, unlike the options presented. I’m baffled why it’s not been considered. I’m glad we’re finally looking into a mass transit system, but like with HS2, we must ensure we aren’t using outdated technology on crumbling infrastructure.

    1. I don’t think elevated rail is suitable for Leeds. The city is already hampered by excessive motorway infrastructure, resulting from poor long-term planning, and I struggle to see how elevated rail could fit into the urban fabric without being an eyesore.

      I agree with you to an extent about street widths, which is why it’s important to consider different solutions for different corridors. Places like Scott Hall Road, the road through Belle Isle and Middleton, and the road through Cross Gates have ample space for separated light rail infrastructure thanks to their large central reservations. The main road through Headingley wouldn’t be suitable as the trams would get stuck in traffic, however, Headingley already has a train line. This train line would benefit from electrification and tram-trains could provide suburban services before moving onto the streets in the centre, avoiding and reducing the congestion at Leeds station.

      Ideally, in my opinion, the best solution would be to have a ‘common tunnel’ where suburban rail services would be diverted, however, I read that in Leeds digging underground is very difficult due to the composition of the ground. So it seems that, at the moment, light rail/tram train and expansion of overground rail infrastructure is the only solution.

Comments are closed.