Buses & Coaches, London, Tram & Light Rail

The Sutton Link

A tram extension to Sutton has been an aspiration of many South Londoners and transport officials ever since trams were reintroduced to London on the former Wimbledon to Croydon railway line (and onward to New Addington, Beckenham Junction and Elmers End). Supposedly, the original trams were even delivered with Sutton as an option on the destination blinds.

Eighteen years later and three route options are finally being presented to the public, in a consultation organised by Transport for London. In an intriguing twist, the consultation also asks for comments on whether the route should be a tram extension, or instead use Bus Rapid Transit technology.

Transport for London offer an overview of the route options and a comparison of tram and Bus Rapid Transport technologies alongside the consultation, which I have expanded upon with some of my own thoughts in this post. I will also set out the response I have submitted to the consultation and my reasons behind it, as someone who visits the area and uses the existing trams and wider South London public transport network regularly.

What is Bus Rapid Transit?

Whilst trams can offer a substantial number of environmental, operational and – debatably – placemaking benefits over a conventional bus on corridors with high levels of demand, the initial investment cost is high and opportunity to tweak and change the route once established minimal.

Bus Rapid Transit deploys high-quality buses as if they were a tram – that is to say they have a considerable amount of supporting infrastructure such as high-specification stations, dedicated higher-speed running lanes separate from general traffic and off-bus payment. The sole difference is that the vehicles run on rubber tires like a conventional bus, which can be steered so that they can travel freely in general traffic lanes when needed. As a result, there is no need to lay metal running rails at great expense, and should the route need to change to adapt to shifting travel patterns or to temporarily avoid disruptive street works it can, at short notice and low cost. This can create a helpful combination of ‘wow-factor’, highly-visible route and sense of permanency that is often associated with a tram, but without the high initial cost and without the same degree of commitment.

BRT – as Bus Rapid Transit is often known – came to prominence in South American cities that were looking to introduce metro-style services on a tight budget – originally and most famously in Curitiba (Brazil) and in Bogotá (Colombia). A wide variety of BRT schemes can now be found all over the world, including in the UK.

BRT is a subject I intend to return to in a future post, and I will return to my thoughts on the relevance of the BRT for the Sutton Link shortly; first its helpful to look at the potential routes that TfL are consulting on.

An example of a BRT scheme in the UK is the Luton Busway. This image shows the similarity between BRT and tramway infrastructure. Image credit David Kemp, Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0

Three route options

TfL are consulting on three route options, each broadly linking Sutton to the existing Croydon to Wimbledon tram corridor and onward connections to Central London, whilst also pursuing secondary aims of improving connectivity to the Rosehill and St Helier area (an unusual ‘rail desert’ in South London) and facilitating a future extension to the developing London Cancer Hub healthcare and science district in Belmont. The options are:

  • Option one: a (largely) street-based route heading north from Sutton through Rosehill to Morden and South Wimbledon
  • Option two: a (largely) street-based route that heads north from Sutton on a similar alignment to option one, but which misses Morden town centre and heads instead to Colliers Wood
  • Option three: converting the existing heavy rail line between Wimbledon and West Sutton to tram operation, with a short section of street running between West Sutton and Sutton town centre

TfL have produced brief overviews of each option, available here: [one] [two] [three].

I will argue that a version of option one is by far the most preferable, but it is useful to explore all three routes and the arguments for and against each.

Option three: heavy rail conversion

Whilst numerically not the place to start, option three is in many ways the simplest but also the least attractive in my opinion, and so is easiest to cover first. Under this option, the Wimbledon to Sutton railway line would be largely converted to tram operation, with trams calling at all existing stations between Wimbledon and West Sutton, before running on street into Sutton town centre. This is in much the same vein as the existing and successful Wimbledon to Croydon tram route, which as mentioned was itself principally a conversion of an existing railway line. (TfL are not proposing BRT for option three, probably because tracks are already in place along the existing railway line.)

This option would displace the current ‘Wimbledon Loop’ service, a recently upgraded, high-capacity, frequent service into Central London and beyond to Hertfordshire by way of the ‘Thameslink Core‘. Trains on the Wimbledon Loop travel south from London to Streatham, where half travel to Sutton, then Wimbledon and back to Streatham, and half travel around the loop the other way (first Wimbledon, then Sutton, and then back to Streatham). There are additional peak hour services to London Bridge, too. Should the trams take over the Wimbledon – Sutton Common section of the line, the loop would split in to two separate branches from Streatham instead: a Streatham to Wimbledon branch, and a Streatham to West Sutton (via Sutton) branch, with trains terminating and reversing at the end of the line rather than heading ever-forwards around a loop.

The main arguments in favour of this option are that

  • the route is relatively self-contained, minimising the need for trams to compete for space with general traffic and potentially making construction cheaper and less disruptive;
  • theoretically, conversion of railway lines to tramways can create opportunities to add new infill stations along the route (as trams have better acceleration so can stop/start more regularly whilst maintaining a fast end-to-end journey time, can viably serve smaller catchment areas, and stations are cheaper to build and operate and require less space to build); and
  • there are very good operational reasons to not run loop services, not least that as the train does not terminate no time can be allowed for at the end of the line for a train to recover from a delay to the previous service.

However, the self-contained nature of the route also reduces the benefit of any upgrade – replicating the existing railway line means that the trams wouldn’t serve new places and wouldn’t improve connectivity to Rosehill and St Helier. TfL are (currently) only proposing to serve the existing stations, and useful opportunities for those infill stations are few as the current railway line has unusually short distances between its existing stations. (In my view, the only candidate locations would be Elm Grove in Wimbledon, Hillcross Avenue in Morden and at Reigate Avenue, of which Reigate Avenue is the only one in any sort of proximity to Rosehill and even then 500m from the neighbourhood centre and a full 1km walk from St Helier Hospital, which would remain woefully inaccessible by public transport.) As for the operational arguments for ending the loop service, in practice the Wimbledon Loop has thus far been one of the more reliable routes on the Thameslink network, and there seems to be little pressing need to alter current arrangements.

All of this comes with a disbenefit of stopping direct services to Central London, and an estimated price tag of £300 million – which comes in as the cheapest tram option, but it is hard to see what the money would really buy above and beyond what’s already in place. For that reason we should rule it out and move on.

Options one and two: new route through Rosehill and St Helier

Under both options one and two, a new tram or BRT route would be created, primarily following Rose Hill (a road; Rosehill is the associated neighbourhood) and St Helier Avenue through Rosehill and St Helier to Morden Hall Park.

Neither option takes in St Helier Hospital, which is a significant missed opportunity but would require a more involved route one way or another so there is some method behind TfL’s decision to leave that option out, for now at least. I intend to return to this, too, in a future post.

Both routes would, however, offer greatly improved transport options for Rosehill and St Helier and are in my view substantially superior to option three for doing so.

The difference between the potential routes is what happens to the north of Morden Hall Park. Option one heads northwest to Morden town centre, before passing over the existing Wimbledon to Croydon tram line at Morden Road (for a potential interchange) and then terminating by South Wimbledon tube station (for Merton High Street and the Northern Line to Central London). Option two heads northeast instead, skirting the park to meet the Wimbledon to Croydon tram line at Belgrave Walk before continuing along Church Road into Colliers Wood (where it would also connect with the Northern Line for Central London).

Option one is superior, as it takes in Morden town centre (a useful local destination and transport hub for residents of Rosehill and St Helier) and would run along wider roads, with greater opportunity to segregate trams and traffic, or at least minimise their interference with one another. Colliers Wood, the ultimate destination of option two, would attract commuter traffic connecting to the Northern Line, but lacks substantial employment or retail/leisure destinations to generate its own demand for trips. (The retail/leisure offering that there is is large, low density, car-oriented warehouse-style development which won’t generate sufficient trip demand and which any tram/BRT would struggle to get sufficiently close to.) Further, Church Road, along which option two would need to travel, is a narrow residential street plagued by high volumes of car traffic – trams or BRT vehicles would need to share the narrow street, picking up delays from snarled traffic and causing cars to queue each time they stopped.

The scheme needs Crossrail 2

Adding commuters to the already overstretched Northern Line is not a clever move – whilst those boarding the Northern Line from the tram or BRT at either South Wimbledon or Colliers Wood would be able to board the tube without difficulty, it will exacerbate a desperate situation at later stations on the route into London such as Balham, where it is already routine to let several tube trains go past before being able to board in the morning peak. Indeed the Sutton Link really cannot exist in the long-term without Crossrail 2.

As part of the consultation, TfL set out that they are pursuing connections to the Northern Line in options one and two, rather than through trams to Wimbledon, as it means that the Sutton Link can be undertaken independently of Crossrail 2, which would see Wimbledon station substantially remodelled and connected to a new high-frequency cross-city railway. However, I would argue that Crossrail 2 is in fact also necessary to unlock options one and two, which will need a Crossrail 2 interchange further up the line at either Tooting Broadway or Balham to ease capacity on the Northern Line in order for the Sutton Link scheme to not just create a huge headache for residents of Balham and Clapham. If all three options are dependent upon Crossrail 2 in the long-term, the Sutton Link should be planned accordingly. And that means the northern terminus of the Sutton Link needs to be Wimbledon, in the long term at least.

Destination Wimbledon

We have already discounted option three, which to its credit does reach Wimbledon. It is included, despite being an obviously poor use of public money, because TfL need to show how they have considered a Wimbledon option. Wimbledon is an important employment and administrative centre for south west London, and would offer a far superior connection to Central London than the Northern Line once Crossrail 2 is opened. It has the additional benefit of mainline services to Clapham Junction (one of the four proposed ‘orbital hubs‘) and good connections to West London by way of the District Line. I wouldn’t mind betting that most people along the proposed Sutton Link route who haven’t been following developments closely would naturally expect that the line would ultimately end at Wimbledon – it is where the desire lines lead, even if the timing and engineering does not.

Indeed so strong is the attraction of a Wimbledon connection, that one of the primary benefits touted by TfL of option two is that there is space at Belgrave Walk to lay tracks connecting a Sutton Link tram to the Wimbledon to Croydon tram. TfL note this as a disadvantage of option one, which crosses the Wimbledon to Croydon tram on a bridge surrounded by existing buildings and Morden Road tram stop itself, making a connection much harder.

BRT for now, with tram later

Taking stock of options, we have established option three brings little to the table. The best feature of option two is the potential future connection to Wimbledon, but this would take an indirect way around missing Morden town centre and would leave a legacy of an impractical and under-used spur between Belgrave Walk and Colliers Wood. TfL must pursue option one, undoubtedly. But what to do about that Wimbledon connection?

At the start of the post, I mentioned how one of the benefits of BRT was its flexibility. TfL should use this to its advantage to turn the Sutton Link into a two phase scheme. Phase one should see BRT introduced along the route of option one, from Sutton to South Wimbledon. This can be introduced quickly and relatively inexpensively, it can make immediate improvements to connectivity between Sutton, Rosehill and St Helier, and it can begin to grow demand for the service and cement the transit corridor into people’s mental travel maps. Other than the rails themselves, BRT and tram infrastructure such as stations and running lanes can be designed to the same specification, so these should also be constructed, bringing about a sense of permanency and quality which will encourage investment along the route – and encourage residents to leave their cars at home.

But the long-term plan should be, once Crossrail 2 upgrades Wimbledon station, for rails to be laid along the route and trams introduced, with a ‘Merton Chord’ introduced just south of South Wimbledon station along the alignment of the former Wimbledon to Tooting Junction railway, skirting the recreation grounds – as shown in pink on the map below.

Proposed Merton Chord. Existing tram line is shown in green, an interim Bus Rapid Transit line along the alignment of the Sutton Link’s ‘Option One’ shown in orange, and a short chord shown in pink which could be constructed in the future to allow trams to run between Wimbledon, Morden and Sutton.

Investing in BRT in the meantime would not be a wasted investment, as all the infrastructure could be simply transferred to tram operation. The bus vehicles could be found another home, or, most likely, would be about at the end of their expected service life at around the same time as Crossrail 2 would complete and the trams would be introduced, so little to no waste their either.

What will TfL do?

TfL’s consultation is ongoing at the time of writing (but closing on 6 January 2019  – so if you want to input the time to act is now). It will be interesting to see what comes back. As I have set out, I think option one is the standout route option, and I would urge TfL to consider the merits of two-step implementation of BRT at first, and then a tram to Wimbledon once Crossrail 2 is built.

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