City puts transport future on the line: Sheffield hopes that its new transit system will cement the second coming of the tram following Manchester's success, but doubts remain. Christian Wolmar reports

CHASING the tram is about to become a new sport for drivers in Sheffield.

The city's Supertrams, to start running in 'mid-March' - the operators are reluctant to give a precise date because of fears of last- minute hitches - will get priority at traffic lights and can even change them to green. Peter Gross, South Yorkshire Supertrams' marketing manager, said: 'Drivers are going to realise that if they keep close to the tram, they will get to their destination quicker.'

Whether people ride in them is another matter. Apart from the fact that fares have not been announced - for fear of bus companies immediately undercutting them, as happened in Manchester - there has been criticism that the pounds 240m, 18- mile network, to be opened in five phases until mid-1995, will do little to reduce the growing traffic congestion in the city. Major commuter routes have been ignored by the Supertram planners in favour of running through areas in need of redevelopment and on streets where disruption to car traffic could be kept to a minimum. And traffic delays, coupled with blocked access to shops during construction work, wore many locals' patience to the limit.

Yesterday's press launch of the first section - from the city centre to the Meadowhall shopping complex - illustrated concerns over the route. It travels through the industrial wasteland of the Don Valley and many stops are oases in a desert of decay.

While the elegant trams give a smooth and comfortable ride, they need to attract 20 million passengers per year to break even. Mr Gross is confident: 'If we had built the line only in affluent areas we would have been accused of ignoring the poorer ones. We have had a lot of interest from potential investors along the line who will bring custom to it.'

The system is likely to be the last new one for several years as the Government earmarks only pounds 100m per year for light rail schemes compared with 20 times that for roads. As it was almost all Government- funded, Sheffield consumed well over two years' worth of grant.

In Manchester, plans to expand the successful Metrolink tram network - with five new sections to be added to the 19 miles between Altrincham and Bury completed in 1992 - seem to have been derailed by a lack of cash.

In 1993, 13 million people used Metrolink, 2 million more than expected. Apart from a two-mile section in the city centre, the pounds 146m line uses converted British Rail track, which minimised disruption during construction.

The opening of Metrolink last April was the dawning of Britain's second age of the tram. Jack Flanagan, chairman of the local authorities' Metrolink working party, said: 'Trams were scrapped because the local authorities which operated them lost their role as electricity providers in 1948. As cheap oil came along, buses replaced trolleybuses and trams.' Trams were swept away by the motoring mania of the 1950s, and only the Blackpool promenade system survived beyond 1962.

The Metrolink line is franchised out to a consortium of three companies, which paid pounds 5m to run the line for 15 years, and the local Passenger Transport Authority.

The Government would not countenance publicly funded extensions like the first one, which was paid for by the public sector. So the search is on for private sector finance to extend Metrolink. Bill Tyson, its director of planning, said: 'We have to go out with a begging bowl. Even developers who know they would benefit sit back hoping that someone else will pay and they'll get a free ride. It's very frustrating.'

(Photograph omitted)

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