Rail group sees American light at the end of the tunnel

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Volunteers who have been working for eight years on a project for passenger trains to return to Stocksbridge and Deepcar are looking to America in the hope of building up speed.

They are aiming to make a submission to a charity created by the former Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg for an Ultra Light Rapid Transit scheme.

The fund offers either €5m or €1m to encourage innovation to “solve problems and improve city life”, and is now open to European bids.

Members of The Don Valley Railway Project will compete with other Sheffield ideas to be forwarded for consideration for the fund run by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

They see a potential source of finance to pursue their ambition of a passenger trains on what was once part of the Woodhead line, carrying passengers who might otherwise be adding to the congestion on the main road throught the valley.

The line is currently used only by freight trains travelling to and from the Tata steel plant at Stocksbridge.

The campaign group says one vehicle could provide passengers with a half hourly train service on the existing track between Stocksbridge and central Sheffield.

Despite research indicating strong local demand, it argues, the last regular passenger service along the Upper Don Valley was in the late 1950s.

Initially, volunteers were looking at a heritage railway, then standard trains, but their plans now focus on Ultra Light Rapid Transit, which has low-cost energy-efficient traction without the expense of overhead electrification and high performance vehicles.

It would be an alternative to the tram-trains - Supertram on heavy rail tracks - that are to run as a Government-financed experiment between Sheffield and Rotherham, which the council and South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive are backing.

At the least, the Don Valley team is looking for funding to carry out more feasibility studies.

If €1m could be secured from the former New York mayor’s challenge, it would “deliver a game-changing contribution that will take the project to a higher level,” said company secretary Chris Bell.

Last year there were grants for innovative projects in five American cities.

A petition to support the return of passenger trains to Stocksbridge has attracted 2,500 names so far.

But the campaign was “a bit of a long haul,” said Chris. “It seems to go quiet for a while and then pick up again. It goes through phases of activity and we are trying to get things moving forward”.

Bids are being submitted through the Sheffield Collaboration Network. The council will decide next month which goes forward.