Published on April 20th, 2016 | by Reading On Thames2
Reading 2050 – The plan for the tram
A couple of weeks ago I attended an exhibition in town called Reading 2050. The initiative seeks to create a vision for the development of the town. Their representative was an enthusiastic Scottish lady who talked visitors through some glossy but fairly non-specific visuals. Their document talks of three alternative visions:
- Vision 1: A Smart-Networked City
- Vision 2: Compact City
- Vision 3: Self Reliant-Green City
I can’t really imagine a 2050 conversation where a visitor says to a local, “tell me about Reading?”, with answer given being “we’re very much a self reliant green city, as set down in our 2016 visioning exercise”.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t plan far ahead – if we don’t the answer will probably still be something along the lines of what you’d hear today: “the traffic’s awful but the Purple Turtle’s alright”.
The Reading 2050 team are to spend the period from 2014 to 2020 on a shortlist of fairly bizarre tasks such as
- Undertake social, economic and environmental assessments
- Develop a flexible futures framework for short, medium and long term development
- Begin retrofitting programme and consider means to drive for high quality, sustainable architecture.
- Develop the Vision and brand
After six years working on a logo, they do, however, at last arrive at the single-most important issue if Reading is to flourish into the middle part of the century:
- Consider opportunities for rapid transit
Why does Reading need a tram system?
I would suggest that Reading is held back by its traffic issues. Imagine you could instantly re-program the minds of everyone in the Thames Valley to believe they could reliably get from the edge of town to the centre in 15 minutes. Haunted by long Saturday afternoons queuing through Cemetery Junction, or to get in (or out) of the Oracle car park, I think those memories and similar tales shared by word-of-mouth impact town centre trade to the tune of as much as 50% or more. Equally, executives know that locating their offices in town comes at that cost, albeit offset by the high quality and improving rail links.
Now, I know this could be said of most towns and cities, but I believe that it would be particularly true in Reading. A tram system could make a massive difference. It could feature Park and Ride sites on the edge of town, halts for business parks, inner city institutions and serve local populations before arriving in town after no more than a dozen stops, before whisking those arriving at the station back out to those business parks. Quick boarding times, fast acceleration, fewer more major stops, frequent service, convenient interchanges… this is the way to give people a genuine reason to leave the car at home, or even sell it.
Could Reading get a tram system?
Britain has nine tram systems, eight of which have been built in the last 35 years. Reading/Wokingham/Bracknell is somewhere around the 20th largest built up area. It would only take a slight increase in the rate of development of these schemes, or for Reading to (justifiably, in my view) jump the queue by a couple of places in order to have a realistic prospect of having its own established tram system by 2050. This, and only this, should be the relentless focus of the Reading 2050 initiative.
I’ve taken the liberty of planning the tram system for them already, six years ahead of their schedule. I tell you what – I’ll do the branding too – you have each tram sound an old fashioned bell on arrival at each stop, then allow the service to acquire the colloquial name “The Ding”. My proposed official name would be “The Central Berkshire and South Oxfordshire Super-Tram”. After recent railing against the civic boundaries, let’s try a different tactic and omit any reference to Reading at all, and in a spirit of co-operation, acknowledge this would have to be a wider regional scheme to achieve its aims.
I think my scheme would cost around £1 to £2bn. That’s obviously a huge sum, but for the same cost as HS2 you could provide tram schemes for Britain’s 25 biggest towns and cities. I think this should be the focus for future government transport spending. We’re so far behind France and Germany – take a look at this list. If they’ve justified the investment then surely it can be done here, particularly with our higher population density and traffic congestion? So let’s take a look at my scheme.
This line runs from the east to the centre and south of the town. It provides park and ride opportunities at either end to offer a route into town for workers and shoppers, as well as providing for local residential populations. This is supplemented by catering for commuters arriving at Reading station (either by train or other bus route) whose final destination is either Thames Valley Park to the east or Green Park to the south.
The core route follows the A33 to the south, before heading into the town centre via Berkeley Avenue, Pell St and the lower part of Southampton St, then passing the Oracle, a redeveloped Broad St Mall and cutting through the Station Hill development along Garrard St to the station. To the east, Napier Road and the planned link across Kennet-mouth lead to Thames Valley Park, whilst providing a stop to service the lido and new Thames-side theatre. These routes are broadly consistent with current plans for more bus-lanes.
I’ve extended that core route by splitting into two branches at each end. To the east, one branch crosses the long-mooted third bridge to a park and ride site located near the Marina and rowing lake before terminating just north of Henley Road on the farmland located between Caversham and Playhatch. The sunny south-facing ridge has been considered for development in the past, and with a fast tram link into town and with just a short walk to the river at Sonning, it could boast some of South Oxfordshire’s premier addresses. Development in South Oxfordshire, owing partly to the AONB, would be, rightly, constrained to a handful of sites such as this, but the tram would support high density here.
The second eastern branch stays north of the railway and cuts through to the A4 at Sonning lane. With no professional cricket between London and Bristol, or between Southampton and Birmingham, Sonning Lane could be redeveloped to provide a 10,000-capacity home to a Thames Valley team. Summer evening T20 matches would regularly fill such an arena as the popularity of that format continues to grow. Spectators could be whisked away after the match back into town and the station, or further east along A4 branch where my scheme sees the line continue to a Twyford Parkway park & ride site. Here, the line drops down a new ramp to take over the existing rail line between Twyford and Henley. The rail line will see its direct services to London ceased post-Crossrail, so incorporating it into the tram network offers its users the huge advantage of a significant increase in frequency, together with the option of staying on to Reading rather than having to change, with London-bound commuters destined to have to change at Twyford anyway. Frequency would be every ten minutes on each branch, with one in every two Twyford branch services continuing to Henley.
To the south, the line splits after a stop at Smallmead on the former speedway site. One branch stays on the A33, where I could see a future Concert Arena on the Reading Gate retail park site. The line crosses the M4 to the Mereoak park and ride, and on to a new mini-town at Grazeley. The other branch cuts through Green Park, stopping at the staircase to Madejski stadium and Royal Elm Park development. The stairs could be upgraded to a covered escalator and lift complex. Trams would continue to Green Park railway station and over the railway to feed further new developments and the M4 Reading services site. I see this as having the opportunity to provide a new full motorway junction, or at the very least a significant park and ride site. I would ultimately continue the line across the motorway to service new housing around Burghfield, particularly if we ever decide to stop storing weapons there.
Line 1 would be the first to open as Line 1A, and potentially only as a bus route initially, with 1B following later and conversion to tramway necessary before the Henley branch line is incorporated. Servicing the station, the shopping centres, two regional business parks, football, cricket, and easily accessible park and ride sites, this line would be the first to demonstrate sufficient volumes to justify the infrastructure costs of a tramway.
Line 2 would operate from the west to the east and south-east of the town. It would re-use the Line 1 route through West St to the station. Similar to line one, two branches would operate at each end of the line. Line 2A would begin from a site around Scours Lane, and in fact could potentially be extended further under the railway, across the Thames up to the A4074 to a park and ride site. However, this extension might struggle to justify the expense and encounter our traditional local bridge-building issues and restrictions being on the fringes of the Chilterns AONB. Sites to the west of Scours lane could be used for a park and ride encouraging visitors from the west to venture no further with their cars. The area could also house a depot for the trams.
The other western branch would begin on Richfield Avenue near Caversham bridge and service a redeveloped Rivermead and substantial new residential schemes in the Tessa Road area. Passing under the new cow lane bridges, it would cut through past Tesco and join up with 2A on Oxford Road. To the east, the line uses Town Hall square, Market Place and Kings Road, splitting temporarily at Prudential in-line with the current one-system (I can’t see a better way of arranging it). One branch would continue to mimic the current 17 bus route passing Cemetery Junction and Palmer Park before finishing at Earley Gate to support intensification at that side of the university campus.
However, the main eastern branch would target the hospital and the university for additional significant demand, before following the A327 out to the motorway and new Science Park. Here it would continue on to service the new housing developments to the south of the M4, up to Arborfield Garrison. I believe the relatively short additional section through Barkham to Wokingham Station could be justified and really help to make this a wider Central Berkshire solution. It would offer Wokingham residents the benefit of convenient access to the university, RBH and, via line 4, the business parks. Wokingham businesses would benefit by luring in some extra custom from the new residential developments around Arborfield and Shinfield.
The most ambitious line is from Theale to Bracknell, via the town centre. Starting from a park and ride terminus on the south of the existing M4 footbridge linking to Ikea, the line would use Theale High Street to pass under the A4 to the station and Arlington business park. It would cross the motorway and follow the railway line behind Calcot and Southcote, although the A4 could be considered as an alternative. It would cross the railway to serve Coley Park and merge with line 1 at Rose Kiln lane, using that line’s infrastructure right up to Broken Brow.
From Sutton’s Seeds, my plan would see the western Reading-side lanes of the A3290 commandeered for the tramway, with the grass central reserve used for a replacement northbound carriageway. Barring the need for some traffic lights around the Sutton’s flyover, the tram wouldn’t interrupt the road users and it would disappear down the current bus-only slip road to the Showcase site. En route alongside the A3290, interim stops could be accommodated to access existing routes over and under the road, e.g. at Palmer Park or Earley St Peter’s. But I would definitely include a stop at Earley station, which could benefit from further parking on the Woodley side of the footbridge at Nightingale Road if the electricity works could be relocated. After Showcase, the tram would serve Winnersh Triangle business park, station, and park and ride. I would continue the route through the estate and over the A329(M) to serve new housing developments north of junction 10, before crossing the M4 to satisfy further demand from more residential schemes to the north-west of Bracknell, and more park and rides, which this time would serve journeys both to Reading/Winnersh but also on into Bracknell.
The line’s path onto Bracknell would take in Binfield and Popeswood before using the Western Industrial area, including stops to serve the Cain Road area and the Downmill Road underpass for a short walk to the Southern Industrial area. The journey would continue into Bracknell town centre and its Lexicon shopping centre on its way to the station. I would like to see trams continue out of the other side of Bracknell along the A322 to the Coral Reef area, including, you guessed it, a park and ride. This would provide a pretty comprehensive Bracknell solution in its own right, but also draw business from those areas into Reading town centre, as well as taking many cars off the road where people would have made those journeys anyway, or commuted into the business parks.
Finally, I would like to see a line linking up the south Reading business parks. Starting at Winnersh Triangle (or even Thames Valley Park), the route would skirt Earley, potentially cutting in to serve its Asda complex, before using the disused Cutbush Lane bridge across the motorway to join up with line 2A’s Shinfied section. It would next head to Mereoak to join line 1 and use its route to Green Park station and Burghfield services park and ride. Then a further new section could link through to line 3 and Theale. The route would be valuable for people coming in from Wokingham, Bracknell or Theale who need to reach the Green Park area, or for people arriving at Green Park station from the south needing to reach Winnersh Triangle or Arlington business parks (or Ikea).
The tram would include connections to rail stations at Theale, Green Park, Twyford, Earley, Winnersh Triangle, Wokingham, Bracknell and, of course, Reading. I would propose a rail/tram annual pass including use of Tilehurst, Pangbourne, and Winnersh and Ascot stations. An extra Ascot to Reading shuttle service could be added to increase train frequencies to every 15 minutes, without encountering the congestion on the tracks nearer London that currently constrains the service.
The Central Berkshire and South Oxfordshire Super Tram would provide the whole area with a genuine alternative to the private car – which will still prevail in 2050 even if it’s self-driving, or scheduled by Uber. It would make expansion to the south and south east of town viable, without compromising quality of life for those already there. Crucially, it would provide a critical mass of custom to support new facilities and businesses in town. It also majors on events, servicing festivals and sports, whilst providing access to major recreation facilities to be enjoyed by everyone thus providing health benefits to us all. It’s time to start work to plan the tram, so that maybe our 2050 visitors can be told “The Purple Turtle’s alright, but the tram system rocks”.
This post was originally published on Reading On Thames.