Could the London Borough of Havering really create a “Romford Tramlink”?

Romford is the cruelest city. Image: Sunil060902/Wikimedia Commons.

There’s a thread of CityMetric content called “fantasy metro maps“, in which people, basically, draw mini-tube maps for their cities and send them to me. Why this is the sort of thing anyone would enjoy spending their spare time doing remains a mystery to me…

…which is odd, really, because when I was a tiny nerd I did it myself.

At some point in the early 1990s I scrawled out what was, basically, a light rail network for the Havering, the Essex-tinged east London borough where I grew up. My putative tram network included north-south routes, linking the borough’s three main east-west railways (District line, Fenchurch Street-Tilbury line, and the Liverpool Street-Shenfield line soon to be known as Crossrail), and connecting the north Romford rail deserts of Collier Row and Harold Hill to London’s transport network. It absorbed the tiny Romford-Upminster shuttle train, today a part of the Overground. And, by a weird coincidence, it centred on the Drill roundabout, a big junction just five minutes’ walk from my childhood home.

You can’t see this map: I haven’t seen it in years, and assume it must have long ago gone to join the great atlas in the sky. But that doesn’t matter, because early this month Ian Visits unearthed a 2018 Havering council planning document, and it turns out that the local council have basically redrawn it for me:

The proposal. Click to expand. Image: Havering Council, via Ian Visits.



Couple of things to note about this map. One is the way it ever so slightly conflates proposed transport projects from completely different planes of reality. Beam Park railway station, on the Fenchurch Street-Tilbury line between Rainham and Dagenahm Dock, is a serious proposal, to serve a new housing estate, and is due to open in May 2022. The bridge across the Thames to Belvedere is also a serious proposal, in that Transport for London has actually been considering it – but given how difficult it’s been to get east London river crossings built throughout history, it’s still in that category best described as “I’ll believe it when I see it”. The same goes for the link to the Lower Thames Crossing, a crossing which does not, as yet, exist.

But then there are the bits where even that label would be too generous. The DLR extension not only to Dagenham Dock but beyond to Beam Park was not, last I checked, on the table. The idea of a Central line extension to Collier Row – presumably from Barkingside or Hainault – is as it happen another idea Baby Jonn came up with at some point in the 1990s (honestly, there’s nothing in the way but fields). But I am not convinced that a new branch of the Central line is something you could talk about to TfL without getting laughed at.

And then there’s the “light rail (tram)” network, which is extremely close to what I drew with my crayons all those years ago. It connects Rainham in the south with Collier Row and Harold Wood in the north, via the borough’s commercial centre at Romford. It even re-appropriates the Overground shuttle, Croydon-tramlink style. Throw in an entirely unnecessary diversion via the Drill Roundabout, and I could probably sue for copyright infringement.

But it feels unlikely, let’s say, that this is going to actually happen. “We’re now carrying out feasibility studies into a future tram link to improve connections between the north and south of the borough,” the planning document says. But councils don’t have that sort of capital funding – and TfL seems unlikely to prioritise orbital transport in a relatively low-density outer London borough.

And yet, two things. Firstly, as noted, something of this sort really did happen in Croydon, where several underused heavy rail branches were connected with on-street sections to form what is now the London Trams. Croydon is a bigger centre than Romford, but not an order of magnitude bigger. This proposal is unlikely, but it isn’t entirely crazy.

The other thing is that it’s really nice that council planning departments are being ambitious with their transport planning – even if it does look, from this distance, like they’re just playing Fantasy Metro Networks, too. And it’s given me something self-indulgent to write, and isn’t that really the true meaning of Christmas?

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.


Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.


Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.


The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.

The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.