Retro Transportation: The Forgotten Sheffield Minitram Concept

Artist's impression of the Sheffield Minitram concept, abandoned before it was built (Image: via Social Sheffield; abandoned Sheffield Minitram concept of the 1970s)

Guideway transit is a familiar form of transportation worldwide, including monorail systems that serve airports, amusement parks, city downtowns and the like. But as we’ve seen before on Urban Ghosts, such forms of rapid transit haven’t always stood the test of time – and those are the ones that were built in the first place.

In the decades after World War Two, as many urban areas sought to redevelop their tired infrastructure, various solutions were proposed to connect different parts of city centres. One interesting example was a Minitram monorail system slated for the old “Steel City” of Sheffield during the 1970s. Even today, many locals remain unaware of this project.

Abandoned Sheffield Minitram monorail passes over the Hole in the Road at Castle Square (Image: via Twitter; a Sheffield Minitram passes over the Hole in the Road)

Visual renderings from the period offer an intriguing glimpse of a transportation system that never got off the ground. The artist’s impressions show an automated Minitram, travelling along a guideway over various Sheffield landmarks of the era – including the “Hole in the Road” at Castle Square, itself now long gone. Forty years ago, these retro images must have seen positively futuristic.

James Hargreaves of Social Sheffield writes that: “Way back in the 1970s Sheffield Council and Transport Department were looking for a way to connect various parts of the city centre and upgrade the public transportation system which was viewed to be becoming increasingly strained since the ‘old’ trams stopped running in the 1960s.”

HUD reports from the US had concluded that personal rapid transit, or PRT (in essence, small driverless vehicles carrying from three to 20 passengers) was the only concept able to compete with the convenience of cars. The UK’s response was an extended minicab system, giving taxis their own ‘stations’ around city centres. But the concept was abandoned due to a political backlash and technical complications.

A more simple solution using on-line stations, rather like a small metro system, was proposed instead. In 1974, a report by Robert Matthew Johnson-Marshall was exhibited on the third floor of Cole Brothers department store in Sheffield, and the city’s Minitram project was unveiled to the public. The report called for nine stations, running in a U shape along a 2.5 km double track. British Rail was also commissioned to study a maglev (magnetic levitation) system on the same route.

Early 1970s proposal for the Sheffield Minitram monorail personal rapid transit system (Image: Unknown via Tower Blocks & Council Estates)

Hargreaves writes: “Placed on tracks running above the existing streets (many of which have had traffic restrictions or been pedestrianised since) the Minitram system would have run from the bottom of The Moor up to Pinstone Street past the Town Hall, down Fargate and High Street before running over the infamous ‘Hole in the Road’ roundabout. From there the service would have run down Waingate, stopping by Castle Market before looping back round by Victoria Quays up to Pond Street and finishing its journey at Sheffield Station.”

At peak times, three-car trains could transport 5,400 passengers per hour, while single cars would carry as few of 180 per hour off-peak, running at five minute intervals. But it wasn’t to be. What appeared to be an innovative solution to Sheffield’s post-war rapid transit needs was abruptly cancelled by the Minister for Transport on May 22, 1975, who claimed the system wasn’t ready for deployment and that Sheffield should consider other transport options. The rather less-interesting result, which became operational 20 years later, is the city’s Supertram, part of which runs along the proposed route of the abandoned Sheffield Minitram.

James Hargreaves points out that the Sheffield Minitram concept caught the attention of other boroughs, including Greater London Council, which launched its own study for a similar system in Croydon. But as the Sheffield writer concludes:

“The only similar system that was eventually built in the UK was a Maglev solution which ran in Birmingham between 1984-1995. The service was the world’s first low-speed Maglev shuttle and operated along a 600 metre route from Birmingham International Airport to Birmingham International Railway Station.”

Related: 9 Abandoned Cableways, Aerial Tramways & Ropeways of the World


About the author: Tom




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