Trams and transport in Manchester and Sheffield

One of the first things you notice when moving from London to live in Manchester and work in Sheffield is the differences in public transport. In London, public transport is part of everyday life. The tube and the train were part of my daily routine. Now, I'm traveling between cities a lot, but I'm using public transport within the cities a whole lot less. And when I do, the experience is remarkably different.

Both Manchester and Sheffield have city-centre trams. London has the Croydon tramlink of course, but that only resides in the peripheries, and the tube is king. It sounds obvious to say that trams aren't the same as underground tube lines, but the contrast really is quite striking, and interestingly so.

For a start, tram rails sit embedded within the roads, and can be casually walked over, with just a cursory glance in both directions. With train and tube lines, the rails are sacrosanct, a dangerous trough that you shouldn't even stand too close to, let alone walk over. This is, I'm told, more of a British phenomenon. Other countries have different attitudes. In America and Australia, where long distance railways roll across county after county, it's unusual for the tracks to be fenced off at all. And in India, where the rail network is huge, passengers will clamber down onto the tracks in order to nip across to other platforms, despite a footbridge, it being illegal, and a serious risk of getting squished by a train. Here though, walking and playing on the tracks is something the police come in to your primary school to warn you against. So crossing the tram tracks takes some getting used to, and even now I'll avoid stepping on the actual rail, under some unfounded fear of being electrocuted.

Riding the trams is a different experience too, with a street view more akin to buses, and where you can get held up in traffic jams or at red lights. The stations aren't buildings either, with ticket barriers and confectionary kiosks. They're more likely to be simple humps in the pavements, where you're lucky to even get an electronic display telling you when the next tram might arrive. This makes hopping on and hopping off more realistic, even for short trips. The DLR in London, a similar 'light rail' solution, is mostly elevated above street level, meaning stairs and lifts at each of the stations.

A difference between the trams in Manchester and the trams in Sheffield, which had me stumped for a good while, is that in Manchester you absolutely must buy a ticket before boarding, on pain of a penalty fine, whereas in Sheffield the only option is to buy from the on-train conductor. There are few signs to explain much of this in either city, with each one presuming that their system is the norm.

Whilst the trams are nice, neither city's transport system has the clarity of London. There's no TfL equivalent, with an integrated journey planner, consistent design, signage, and unified ticketing system. Instead there's a mishmash of private companies with their own systems and pricing schemes, where you can even buy weekly and monthly tickets that are only valid on some specific buses.

In Manchester some of this could be set to change. The government is offering the city a bribe. If the city implements a congestion charging scheme for cars, it'll get a huge dollop of investment to extend and improve the trams, trains, buses and cycle routes. There may even be an integrated smart-ticket system akin to the Oystercard in London. It's a political hot potato though, with numerous councils involved, none of them in charge. So it's currently out for 'consultation', with a likely referendum in December across the whole of Greater Manchester. There are more details at gmfuturetransport.com, for those of us with a vote, but as someone who can't yet drive, and who's now a signed up tram fan, I think I know which way I'll be voting.