If Sutton ever gets a new tram service, we now know which way it'll go.
A consultation in 2018 proposed three possible routes, one replacing the existing Thameslink service and two linking to the Northern line by road.
Last week the outcome of the consultation was announced, and the selected route is the easternmost, connecting to the Northern line at Colliers Wood. This was the public's second choice, behind South Wimbledon, but practicality and cost have won out so Colliers Wood it is. [factsheet]
Here's my attempt at depicting the route as it might appear on the tube map.
(although the extra bit would extend off the bottom of the existing map, and also nobody's yet confirmed how many stops there might be and what they might be called, so it won't look like this)
The new tramline would head south from Colliers Wood station to cross the existing tramline at Belgrave Walk. Services are expected to stay separate, rather than passing from one line to the other. Trams would then continue south through the St Helier estate via the Rosehill roundabout, terminating with a loop around Sutton town centre. Total distance five miles, 21 minutes end to end.
This is where the proposed Sutton Link would start, somewhere amid the relandscaped plaza at the foot of the once-hideous Colliers Wood tower. There'd be plenty of room to squeeze in a tram terminus here, whereas there wouldn't have been outside South Wimbledon station which is one key reason why this route was chosen. Connecting with the tube here, and onward connections to central London, would be relatively straightforward.
The first section of the route passes a couple of retail parks, likely without stopping. Christchurch Road is busy and broad but junctions are complex, so that's going to be fun to reengineer. Most local traffic heads off towards Morden or Mitcham but the tram will continue down Church Road, an impressively ordinary street with the added bonus of being slightly wider than average. Church Road doesn't even merit a bus service all the way down at present, but could be gifted a regular tram service simply because of what it connects.
Cutting across to Belgrave Walk tramstop will require entering an industrial estate and taking land off local businesses. One looks like it'd have to lose its portakabin offices and parking for a hundred cars, while another has a large warehouse firmly in the firing line. Discussions are underway, we are told. Initial plans had suggested that a bridge would be required for the new tram track to cross the old, but latest thinking is that the whole thing can happen on the level. The relative simplicity of the interchange is the other key reason why this option was preferred - trying to cross the line at Morden Road would apparently have been prohibitively difficult.
If there's a serious downside to the Colliers Wood option it's the next stretch along Morden Road. This is narrow with two awkward bends, on the second of which an old mill building beside the Wandle sticks out onto the pavement. In a philistine world tracks would be laid direct across Morden Hall Park, but the National Trust would never agree to that, so expect trams to share space with other traffic slowing journey times somewhat.
Negotiating the next roundabout will require an awkward left turn, possibly to the detriment of some trees and daffodils. We've missed the centre of Morden by half a mile, which is a further downside to this particular route (which I suspect has been selected as the least worst option). But from this point on the two potential tram routes merge because there's no argument about which way to go now, indeed St Helier Avenue is pretty much tram-perfect.
When the London County Council planned the massive St Helier estate in the 1920s they gifted it a broad spine road in homage to the newfangled motor car. Hundreds of houses sprawl to either side of a hedge-lined dual carriageway, a major thoroughfare and red route, but also with additional parking spaces a speedy tramlink might steal. Trams would probably stop a couple of times along this all-residential mile, transforming public transport connections hereabouts.
When the idea of a Sutton tram was first floated it was suggested that they loop off at the Rose Hill roundabout to serve St Helier Hospital, easily the most significant location in the vicinity. The latest plans leave patients 400m short, but speed up journeys for everyone else. The roundabout is a serious six-armed affair so will need substantial modifications. For some reason the proposed route veers right down Reigate Avenue rather than carrying straight on, then cuts across a park at the bottom of the hill to get back on track.
Rosehill Park isn't beautiful but it is well used, and a tram running diagonally across the lower slopes may not be popular. A Phantom Laminator has already covered the tennis courts with dozens of angry notices protesting about their replacement by a 'prison block school', so expect further imminent frothing about the damage caused by trams. Local drivers may instead be delighted that there's at least one section of the route where their journey times won't be adversely impacted.
Angel Hill, on the descent into Sutton proper, is one of the most awkward sections of the route. At present a two-lane road runs in cutting between two rising flanks of housing, with access ramps to either side and a cute little footbridge in the centre. As the northern entrance to the town centre Angel Hill has to stay open to all traffic, so a fairly dramatic reconstruction is going to be required. TfL's engineers have been "exploring a number of potential options" which will be the subject of a future consultation.
All traffic was banished from Sutton High Street in the 1980s and forced to follow a one way loop to either side, greatly improving the town's shopping experience. There is technically room for the new tram to thread through the pedestrianised zone, but Sutton doesn't want to be like Manchester so the proposed route follows the outer circuit too. Balancing the needs of cars, trams and several bus routes is going to be challenging, but central Croydon copes so I'm sure Sutton will too.
The far end of the loop will be close to the station where a new highrise Sutton is emerging. It feels quite out of place in these outer suburbs, if perfectly normal in many other parts of London. If nothing else it allows the Mayor to claim that the new tram will "unlock new development opportunities", because there's precious little opportunistic brownfield elsewhere along the route. Instead the Sutton Link is more of a kindness to existing residents and to encourage them out of their cars, rather than the usual flat-flogging exercise.
If funding can be found then construction of the new tram route could begin in 2023 and be complete by 2026. The big problem is that TfL don't have £425m lying around so are expecting somebody else to come up with most of the cash, which'll have to be Merton and Sutton councils and they're not exactly flush either. I wouldn't bet money on the five mile extension happening any time soon... but if Sutton ever does get a tram, we now know which way it'll go.