TfL’s Dingwall tram loop wastes millions on ‘gold-plated’ pipes

John JefkinsCROYDON COMMENTARY: Transport for London has announced that it will steam ahead with its costly Dingwall Road tram loop, on the basis of a consultation which offered no real alternative and got just a couple of hundred positive responses. JOHN JEFKINS, pictured right, helped to organise a petition submitted last week with 2,000 signatures opposing the loopy £28m misuse of public money, and he reveals here that the new tram platforms just opened at Wimbledon are inadequate for projected increases in passenger use

Two thousand people signed our petition asking for “money proposed for the Dingwall Road loop to be spent instead on longer trams and longer platforms to cope”. The petition was handed over to London Mayor Boris Johnson last week by London Assembly Member Caroline Pidgeon, the transport committee vice-chair at City Hall, on behalf of a cross-party group which had organised the petition.

This petition was signed by four times the number of people that responded to the Transport for London consultation.

Soon to be a scene from history, a tram crossing the Dingwall Road junction headed for Beckenham Junction

Soon to be a scene from history, a tram crossing the Dingwall Road junction headed for Beckenham Junction

Our trams are crowded. We would agree with money spent on extra trams, dualled track or anything that actually adds capacity to the tram network.

But most of the £28 million cost of this loop is to move utility pipes out of the way of track,  and would actually cut the tram system into two, instead of adding extra passenger capacity.

A large percentage – perhaps most – of the project’s budget is being spent on moving phone, gas, electricity and  sewer service pipes out of the way, so that when BT or British Gas want to dig up the road, the tram services won’t be interrupted – even though they still interrupt the trams for plenty of other reasons, such as track replacement and “Connected Croydon” works.

Most importantly, services positioned under platforms would cause nothing like the same interruption to the trams if the utility providers need to replace them – especially if the platforms are lengthened by one metre, so the tram doors could be opened in places where the platform was not being dug up.

British Gas, BT and the other utility providers have a reputation for overcharging for the cost of moving their services, and that seems to be the case here, prompting some of us when seeing the costs being charged to wonder whether they are being provided with gold-plated pipes.

We are saying the £28 million cost of the Dingwall Road loop could be better spent, with about £8 million on longer platforms and £20 million spent on buying eight extra trams, which would enable 16 of the existing tram fleet to be coupled together – providing longer trams without loss of frequency of services. Extra trams could be stabled overnight at Wimbledon and on dualled track to Elmers End.

A sign of things to come...

A sign of things to come…

Our group – which includes several transport and engineering professionals – have investigated TfL’s worries about the costs of longer platforms, and we have even got quotes from the spare parts department of tram manufacturers Bombardier about the cost of couplers. Longer platforms and trams are a better use of £28 million than a loop to nowhere.

Our group had a meeting with TfL at City Hall, where the officials conceded the need for longer trams. TfL’s director Sharon Thompson said so at that meeting and they also showed us drawings of how they were investigating how to lengthen trams – albeit to 43 metres long, made up of three cars. Those written studies prove also that they are seriously thinking about longer trams.

We then went away and sent back a response showing solutions to the coupler cost, straight platforms and the Old Town traffic junction issues they raised.  We doubled our original cost estimate to £8 million to include those solutions. But TfL are only talking about longer trams in 2025, when the current trams “life expire”. We are saying the big need for increased capacity (the spike rise in their graph) will be earlier, in 2020 – when the Westfield shopping mall is due to open – so we need coupled trams sooner than life expiry.

There is also a compelling financial reason for ensuring that the £15 million provided by Westfield towards tram improvements is wisely spent, on increasing capacity, rather than those gold-plated utility pipes: with cuts in public spending likely to impact for a decade, this may be the only opportunity to get money to spend on longer trams.

The TfL Dingwall loop which they intend to impose on the tram network, for the benefit of utility providers, rather than passengers

The Transport for London Dingwall loop which they intend to impose on the tram network, for the benefit of utility providers, rather than passengers

And there’s another reason why we need longer trams, rather than just more two-car trams operating on the network. Where we already have trams at five-minute intervals, we don’t need more frequency – we need longer trams. Trams are already bunching up on the Elmers End route – where rush hour trams are often held up because they are too overcrowded for the doors to be closed. Meanwhile an emptier tram catches up and unlike a bus, it cannot overtake.

Those two trams would be better run as one tram coupled together. Coupled trams double capacity while halving how many trams cross each of the 17 road junctions on the route. Longer trams thus hold up other traffic (like buses) less.

Our campaign has gone cross-party with meetings with Labour and UKIP supporters, too.

As the chair of Croydon’s Liberal Democrats, I am quite willing to take any politics out of this. I am just using any political connections I have to further this goal – of more capacity for our trams. Let’s join together for the same aim – and make sure that limited resources of public or Westfield money is focused on carrying more people to our shops, instead of just paying for pipes under a loop designed to curtail cross-town trams.

In the meantime, Wimbledon’s new platforms have just opened – but they are just too short for coupled trams. The Wimbledon design clearly predated TfL’s acceptance of the need for longer trams.

They are already playing catch-up with their own demand graph, talking of waiting until “life expiry” in 2025 before they buy longer trams – and even then talking of 50 per cent longer trams to cope with 100 per cent more people.

Our existing trams can be coupled together to provide 100 per cent more capacity where it is needed without causing extra traffic problems as they cross Wellesley Road or any other junction. Westfield shoppers are better served by that extra capacity, instead of wasting Westfield’s money paying service companies to move pipes out of the way of useless new bits of track on the Dingwall loop. If any trams need to turn around, it is at rush hours only – and the third platform at East Croydon is already used for that purpose. It could easily turn five trams an hour around, without spending £28 million.

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10 Responses to TfL’s Dingwall tram loop wastes millions on ‘gold-plated’ pipes

  1. Nick Davies says:

    “Those two trams would be better run as one tram coupled together. Coupled trams double capacity while halving how many trams cross each of the 17 road junctions on the route. ”

    That’s the same number of trams at half the frequency. How does it double capacity?

  2. johnjefkins says:

    Pairs of existing trams could be coupled as we add each new one – to thus retain frequency whilst enabling doubled capacity at targeted times – eg the 8 am trams into Croydon arriving at Addiscombe, Lloyd Park and Waddon.

    Spending the £28m as £8m on longer platforms and £20m on new trams would let us couple together 16 existing trams (2/3rds of the old trams) to double capacity for 8 of our trams whilst still keeping them as frequent.

    When trams start to bunch up (ie at about 5 minute frequency) each of them need to be longer rather than even more frequent.

  3. johnjefkins says:

    And at 5 pm this evening there was a queue of SIX trams down George St – all in a queue waiting to get to stop at East Croydon.

    Longer platforms in central Croydon would double throughput as each platform could handle two trams at once.

    The tram stopped just behind the one at the platform (stopped where the new Box Park will be) would have been able to open its doors to let people on and off. Both trams could have then left one after each other (they are after all allowed to drive like road vehicles – at a safe distance behind each other) and twice as many trams could get through East Croydon at busy times.

    Longer platforms at East Croydon and Wellesley Rd could help us NOW – without waiting for the rest to be lengthened or the trams to be coupled. That;’s what “connected Croydon” should have been doing…..

    • Nick Davies says:

      Longer platforms only double throughput if you’ve got twice as many trams, whatever length they are. You can only shift the same number of people on the same number of trams. Once you’ve sent those six trams through all at once you’ve got a long wait for them to come back round again. Bunching means there was some delay somewhere and the ones in front are running late. People elsewhere will have been waiting some time and long platforms won’t help them. Having three trams go by in 5 minutes then a 25 minute wait for the next isn’t helpful.

      What you actually need, in that scenario, is extra platforms where trams can wait either to even out the service or turn back early, which is part of the purpose of the Dingwall loop proposal.

      • johnjefkins says:

        We only need double the capacity in 2030, so I was showing how we could start climbing the capacity graph (and get a chunk done by the time that graph shoots up in 2020).

        Once frequency gets below 5 minutes, bunching occurs – especially at rush hour when people overcrowd the tram, the doors cannot be closed and it gets stuck at a platform with an empty one seconds behind. Unlike buses, trams cannot overtake each other. So we HAVE to lengthen trams – or at least add longer trams as every other tram and schedule the long ones to arrive at the most crowded places at 8 am and 5 pm.

        The delay is happening at Lloyd Park or mostly Addiscombe when the next tram catches up with one that cannot close its doors. That’s why the next tram catches up.

        Last night, at 5pm the Dingwall Road loop would have still meant a queue of SIX trams up George St (and probably more around the corner into Wellesley Rd too). I asked TFL staff and was told that there was no “delay” at that time – other than “shear weight of traffic” and congestion on an East Croydon platform narrowed by too much concrete!

        So doors could not be closed at overcrowded East Croydon – and THAT caused delay.
        By making that platform longer, twice as many tram doors could have been loading at once – be they two trams coupled or even two trams behind each other.

        Longer platforms at East Croydon and at Wellesley Road could help RIGHT NOW.
        Longer platforms elsewhere in Central Croydon (eg out to Sandilands) would help too.

        But wasting £28 million on a loop in a time of transport cuts is a red herring that will delay the REAL solution. That Westfield money is valuable. We need it focused on REAL capacity enhancements.

      • johnjefkins says:

        I should also add that, I DO agree with you that the Dingwall Loop adds resilience (ie the means to turnback trams when there is a problem). Croydon council also want to cut the number of trams crossing Wellesley Road.

        But the 3rd platform at East Croydon can do that too – as it is frequently used to turnback a lot more than 5 trams/hr. Automatic points would help.

        And longer trams would also deliver a lot more people to Westfield whilst keeping tram numbers across Wellesley Road the same.

        So £28m spent on the first stage of that (ie longer platforms + the 1st 8 new trams) is money better spent. The other new trams can be added through the 2020s – with each one of the new ones longer (or able to be coupled) and each new tram enabling 2 of our existing ones to be coupled together.

        • Nick Davies says:

          The Wellesley Road crossing is interesting; apologies if this has been done before. A prime motivator for reducing tram movements there is to provide a ground level pedestrian crossing from The Bridge To Nowhere to Hammersfield. People avoid footbridges and subways for all sorts of reasons, and in any case they attract undesirables and come with a maintenance cost. The developers want to make access to their shops as painless as possible, including pedestrian operated lights on Wellesley Rd on a cycle so frequent it would seriously impede tram operations. The lazy solution is simple: spend millions getting rid of the trams. Other solutions could be found, for example rafting over a stretch of Wellesley Rd with a tram station below and landscaped access from East Croydon above. Or putting the road in an extended underpass and leaving the trams at ground level. But that requires imagination, and more crucially means the developers would have to pay, rather than the taxpayers.

          • Nick is entirely correct and I have commented on this before. The plans that I have seen have a pedestrian crossing across Wellesley Road in one stage (ie no break half way). That will cause a significant period of stoppage to trams and vehicles on Wellesley Road whilst pedestrians cross. Unless the numbers of trams using the town centre loop are reduced it will not be practicable to have such a pedestrian crossing. All other issues re capacity and length of trams/stops are secondary.

            Not that long ago Croydon was promoting schemes (at significant expense) to radically reduce the vehicular capacity of Wellesley Road and even infill the underpass. All those have been abandoned now that Hammersfield are in town.

          • johnjefkins says:

            I agree with both of you. Croydon Council’s plans for Wellesley Road are at the heart of the problem. I appreciate the desire to allow people to cross at street level but we need to retain a similar number of trams to cross Croydon. TFL directors were clear on this at the meeting we had. They blamed Croydon for causing this problem.

            As we add capacity, at some point frequency has to turn into length. You would not for example want Addiscombe Road blocked with trams crossing every minute (which a doubling of tram frequency to 2 minute intervals each way would cause). Far better to instead have a longer tram every 4 minutes and keep the same number crossing Wellesley Road as planned by TFL (ie turning 5/hr at East Croydon’s 3rd platform).

            Coupled trams enable a similar FREQUENCY whilst doubling capacity. By 2030 we could lengthen EVERY tram. But by 2020 we could get 8 new trams (at a cost of £20m) to enable 8 coupled trams and spend the rest of this £28m on lengthening platforms.

            Ideally the 8 new trams should themselves be either longer or able to be coupled.

            We have been striving to find a solution that helps BOTH aims – ie we turn as few trams as possible around at East Croydon instead of via the loop, and we send LONGER trams across Wellesley Road (and all the other road conflicts).

            And we want to spend this £28 million to add TRAM CAPACITY instead of pay service companies for some nice new pipes.

            As I said above, longer platforms at Wellesley Road and East Croydon can increase the rate at which our CURRENT trams can get across Croydon (by stopping 2 trams at once at busy stops, throughput is increased).

            So we can MAXIMISE the number of trams we can get across the new Wellesley Road design, we can DOUBLE the number of people on each of those trams and we can still turnback those we have left (ie only 4 or 5 per hour) at the 3rd platform of E. Croydon.

            And we can do all of that by spending this £28m more wisely – on platforms & trams.

  4. Lewis White says:

    Sounds sensible. Let’s hope that longer trams happen.

    It is pretty amazing that such basic ideas have not been planned in to the original, but well done to John Jefkins and group for pushing this forward.

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