Fantasy metro maps: West Yorkshire edition

Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

A few months ago, I wrote about the benefits that the Tyne and Wear Metro has brought to Newcastle, Sunderland, the wider area. I suggested that more cities should follow its example, and floated the idea of a Leeds Metro – proposals that were promptly scorned on Twitter. Let me explain.

Leeds desperately needs some form of improved public transport. The problem with public transport is that it is expensive to build and run – Leeds’s supertram project got beyond the drawing board, but only as far as the wastepaper bin – while taxis or cars cost local authorities nothing, bar a few tins of paint for road markings. So, they seem to think, let’s have a private transport system instead! Yay!

West Yorkshire, of course, already has dozens of railway lines. Some are in passenger use, some are out of passenger use, and some only have the track bed remaining. There are so many, in fact, that some say the ancient proverb “all roads lead to Rome” is actually based upon an even earlier epithet of “every track leads to Leeds”. 

While this may sound positive, it means that Leeds railway station is one of the busiest in the country and simply cannot handle more local traffic. This in turn means the good people of West Yorkshire don’t see any real service improvements.

So let’s start with Bradford. This is, after Leeds, the second biggest city in West Yorkshire, meaning a light rail system would be particularly useful.

There are two Leeds-Bradford lines. The one that runs via New Pudsey should therefore be converted into light-rail metro trains only, with no heavy rail trains on the route. A tunnel would instead connect Bradford Interchange, via a new central metro station in Bradford, to Bradford Forster Square, for regular trains to Leeds.

Rather than reversing in to and out of the Bradford Interchange, trains from Manchester and Halifax to Leeds could use then use the Dewsbury, cutting out Bradford altogether – delivering significant route time reductions. Meanwhile, a seperate line of trains from Manchester could instead terminate at Bradford Interchange. This has already been written about on CityMetric here.

Since Leeds station is already far too busy, a new station should be built below it, probably using the old stub viaduct over the river, to cater for the light rail trains from Bradford via New Pudsey. This would be expensive, but it would clear up Leeds station and allow for an underground route through Leeds, with intermediate stops in the city centre. Anyway, this is a fantasy map – my fantasy map, in fact – and I’ll do what I like. Deal with it.

So that’s Leeds to Bradford sorted. Right. Good. Next, then: York.

There’s two active routes to York, and one mothballed one, making a total of three routes for those of us who can’t add two and one together – you’re welcome, Mr Grayling. But since traffic from York is extremely busy, making any routes exclusively light rail would have unavoidable negative impacts on heavy rail travel times, particularly with the TransPennine route.

So. Here’s what you do. You start running heavy rail trains from York to Leeds via the disused Castleford line. Castleford – a through station where trains reverse in and out – is currently a bit of useless since Network Rail has decided Leeds doesn’t need a third route to York (they’re wrong) – but it still has the necessary infrastructure.


Reopening the Castleford link to York adds greater capacity and resilience to the Leeds-York lines. Metro trains could then run on track shared with heavy rail trains from Leeds to East Garforth (via a tunnel portal on Neville Hill depot) and from Leeds to Horsforth (via a tunnel portal around Burley Park), both of the tunnels linking into the underground section in Leeds city centre.

This works because under the Karlsruhe model, light rail and heavy rail services travel on the same metals. Both bring different benefits: heavy rail trains can skip stops and thus reduce journey times, while light rail trains can add provision for more new stops, and go to places that heavy rail can’t – like, for example, Leeds Bradford Airport (the 15th busiest airport in the UK, despite having no rail or metro links).

The heavy rail services from the Harrogate Line would only stop at Horsforth, Burley Park and Leeds, while those from the Selby Line would only stop at Garforth and Leeds. Meanwhile, the light rail services would allow for new stops across both lines. This could include an underground portion south of Burley Park, on the Harrogate Line, to enter the city centre, also giving access to the populated Hyde Park and Leeds University.

But all this planning is at the moment focused on conventional rail routes out of Leeds. If this is going to be a real West Yorkshire Metro, rather than just being a Leeds Metro, wider solutions are needed – encompassing more lines, more towns, more trains, a real network, instead of three improved service patterns and an expensive digging programme south of the Trinity Centre.

One of these wider solutions uses an old railway track bed. South of Dewsbury, Ravensthorpe station lies on an old triangular junction, although two of the lines never actually touched, with one crossing over the top of the other by means of a bridge. (Obviously. I don’t know how they could have done it without a bridge). Only two sides of this triangle still exist, so by moving the station and using the currently non-existent side of the triangle, you have a connection to the rest of the network and a new line.

This line travels through the outskirts of Dewsbury, connecting other towns like the superbly named Marsh (extra ballast may be required) before joining the current network at Low Moor railway station. The line would then travel on National Rail metals, with an intermediate stop at Bowling, before running into Bradford Interchange and the tunnel to Forster Square.

We now have a Ravensthorpe-Bradford line, but this could be far more effective if it took in another major settlement – Wakefield. Fortunately, there’s a line that runs from Ravensthorpe, through Wakefield Kirkgate, to Pontefract Monkhill. Do you see where I’m going? (Wakefield, you say. You’re right.)

This route is currently fairly busy, but there’s ample space for four-tracking if necessary; allowing Metro trains to run alongside National Rail trains rather than sharing tracks and impacting on heavy rail services. All intermediate stops between Wakefield and Pontefract Monkhill could be eliminated and served solely by light rail services, which would also allow for a conventional express Wakefield-Pontefract service.  

There’s also a disused railway line between Garforth and Castleford, which provides a useful strategic link. If this is extended to Pontefract Monkhill using track-sharing on the Pontefract Line, two significant West Yorkshire towns can be brought onto the network. You could then link up from Pontefract to Castleford, with a line all the way from Bradford Interchange to Garforth. Mmmmmmmmmmm. (Although the train would have to reverse at Pontefract, which is less good.)

I’ve already mentioned a service between Leeds Bradford Airport and Horsforth, travelling on the Harrogate line. This line could be extended south to Ravensthorpe via Dewsbury, as a prominent southern corridor out of central Leeds. The Dewsbury line north of Morley could be easily converted to light rail metals alone by building a chord onto the line to Wakefield Westgate.

The line between Morley and Ravensthorpe, via Dewsbury, is more difficult, because if services from Manchester are routed via Dewsbury instead of Bradford Interchange, this line is going to become very busy. So another track or two is probably needed – meaning at least three new bridges and a new mile-long tunnel are required. Ouch.

This line would terminate at a relocated and expanded Ravensthorpe station to allow interchange between National Rail, this line and the Pontefract-Bradford line, making the network just that – a network – instead of the current haphazard collection of lines.

Finally, let’s build a tunnel into northeast Leeds, because a) I’m from the northeast of England and it’s objectively the best compass direction, b) because nobody has ever bothered to build a railway line there, c) because it allows a higher service frequency through central Leeds and down to Morley, d) because of the pleasing symmetry of the names of the stations, and e) because, as I’ve already said, this is a fantasy map.

From that tunnel you can run trains on part of the Bradford/Garforth line, and on part of the Leeds Bradford Airport/Ravensthorpe line down to Morley, and you then have yet another line. Whoop whoop (or, in a West Yorkshire accent, whewp whewp.)

Will all of this happen? No. Will some of it happen? Probably not. Are you bored yet? Probably yes. Is the article finished? Definitely. See you next time.

Here’s a demonstration of how the network would look infrastructure-wise (green=light rail only above ground, red=light rail only in tunnels, blue=shared between light and heavy rail):

Click to expand.

And here’s the completed network:

Click to expand.

Who wouldn’t want a bit of that?

 
 
 
 

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.