New tram lines could make a return to Southwark seventy years after the original network was ripped out, as councillors admit the Bakerloo line extension alone cannot solve the borough’s transport woes.
Days after the council unanimously voted through a motion committing to explore alternative transport infrastructure including tram lines, private company Trampower told the News it was on track to submit a new planning application for its “Southwark Supertram” by the end of 2021.
It is not the first time the company, which claims it can pay for the £70 million new tram line through private finance and not TfL or Southwark Council subsidies, has proposed the idea.
Previous iterations have been discussed in the 2010s and 2019, but have so far failed to make progress despite successful tram schemes being built in several British cities throughout the 90s and 2000s – including Croydon.
If it were to be constructed, tracks would be glued to the road rather than dug in, making construction far quicker and less invasive than other forms of transport including new railway lines or tubes. Maintenance is also minimal. As trams run on renewable electricity they quickly become a carbon neutral form of transport – unlike the costly process of creating new train lines or underground routes.
Trampower says, if approved, the new line could open to passengers as early as 2025.
At a council assembly meeting on Wednesday, March 26, the motion that backed exploring new tram lines along a host of other green transport options gained cross-party support.
During the subsequent debate the council not only confirmed it was actively looking into ideas to create the first new tramline in over a century in Southwark, but it also recognised the need for ‘rapid’ solutions in the next few years regardless of whether the Bakerloo line extension ever actually goes ahead, currently projected to not open for around two decades’ time.
Cllr Radha Burgess, deputy cabinet member for low traffic Southwark, confirmed: “We are proactively looking at tram systems, rapid bus routes and walking and cycling infrastructure. Our ambition is significant and political commitment solid.
“It should be noted that the government has removed a significant proportion of transport funding for our city.”
She described the process of identifying suitable routes and launching a public consultation into such a significant overhaul of the transport network as a potentially ‘mammoth’ task. “The collaborative work starts now,” she added.
Although many Labour councillors piped up to say the Bakerloo line had to be the priority for the borough, including ex council leader Peter John who told his colleagues to stop the self-defeatism, there seemed to be an all-round willingness to accept the extension was unlikely to happen anytime soon and in the meantime the council needed to explore lower carbon options that could be achieved more quickly.
One key point raised by Liberal Democrat Cllr Damian O’Brien, who put forward the original motion for debate, is that trams appealed to a broader demographic than cycle lanes – especially car users.
Croydon Tramlink, which took six years to build at a cost of £200m, has been running for two decades. Research has found that around one in five of its passengers had switched from driving cars, and the route generated around £1.5 billion of investment into the area.
Saying that trams put ‘smiles on people’s faces’, Southwark Liberal Democrat leader Cllr Nick Johnson told the assembly: “The Bakerloo line extension will not be delivered in the next twenty years.
“The administration has gambled a whole housing delivery plan for the Old Kent Road on the basis of this single line extension and it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.
“We need a plan B – or as I like to say a tram B. I think we all like trams in this council assembly and I’m pleased to see this administration’s willingness to consider them.
“The best way to kill a good idea is to agree to set up a committee to review it.
“Let’s not just agree to set up a committee this time, let’s make this happen. Trams are cool. We all know this.”
Fellow Liberal Democrat Victor Chamberlain said trams were a ‘tangible’ solution to the pollution, congestion and cost difficulties faced by the council, and slammed its record on transport delivery.
“The administration has failed to deliver Rotherhithe bridge, Camberwell train station remains closed, the RV1 was axed, and Bakerloo line funding still isn’t there,” he said.
“It is absolutely time that we recreated the Piccadilly of the south at the Elephant,” he added.
Former transport chief Richard Livingstone said he welcomed the council looking at all options and admitted: “We do need a rapid transport alternative along the Old Kent Road, that might be a rapid bus lane that might be a tram as well.”
But he cautioned that trams were still expensive to build and previous proposed schemes, including a much-hyped cross-river tram scrapped by Boris Johnson, had encountered funding difficulties.
“Putting all our eggs in the tram basket would be very dangerous,” he added.
And while Peter John said focusing too much on trams could see the key priority of securing the Bakerloo line being neglected, his backbencher colleague Richard Leeming said the idea trams were a cheap option when they can cost several million a mile was plainly wrong.
“I think this is less likely to happen than the Liberal Democrats winning again in Southwark,” he added.
But despite their warnings, the indications that the council’s cabinet are taking the option seriously are all there. Even if the Southwark Supertram application is not successful, the council’s public support for new tram routes could see any number of alternative proposals put forward – especially now it has the added pressure of aiming to achieve its carbon neutral status by 2030.
Southwark’s tram and trolleybus network once extended across the borough with routes connecting Waterloo and Dulwich and Walworth and Surrey Quays, and connected with mainline train stations. They were closed in the 1950s.
The proposed Southwark Supertram would see a route to run from London Bridge to Denmark Hill via Newington, Elephant and Castle and Walworth.
Although the Bakerloo line extension has been backed by the government and its route safeguarded from development – as the News reported last year- TfL didn’t ask the government for funding for the project saying it was being ‘realistic’ about what large-scale projects could be completed.
It came after a disastrous year for TfL’s finances as passenger numbers nosedived during lockdown. Crossrail is also heavily delayed and £450 million-and-counting over budget.