Central Park - impressive structure for a little used station on the line from Victoria to Rochdale via Oldham
Staying from 3 to 9 July 2015, I had enough time to explore the large Metrolink system, the most extensive of its kind in the U.K., so it deserves a closer look. I used Manchester also as a base for day trips to Blackpool, Liverpool and Sheffield, which will be dealt with in separate blog posts.
Unfortunately I could not experience the Metrolink system in its normal form, as the network has been split into two parts since 28 June to allow for the reconstruction of the central St. Peter's Square stop and its connection to the second city crossing, now finally under construction. This division will last all summer and after that, service will still be restricted through St. Peter's Square until 2016.
Deansgate-Castlefield - during the temporary closure of the city centre route probably the busiest station on the network, now enhanced with three tracks
To start with, Metrolink is not bad, but in many aspects far from perfect, too. For British standards, it has been expanded so massively and so rapidly that the critical observer might easily get suspicious. So let's have a closer look. And the look of the system has also changed drastically within only a few years: the complete rolling stock has been replaced, all original Ansaldo trams are out of service, although I saw a few still in the yard at Old Trafford, and all stops restyled in yellow. The overall appearance of the system is very good, all pretty clean, no graffiti at all, no litter or signs of vandalism, maybe the old stations on the original lines could do with some facelifting regarding platform surfaces. Electronic next-tram displays worked fine at all times, and delays were within the normal. Ticket machines also worked whenever I needed them and are pretty easy to handle. No problem paying with a German debit card, and they issue proper receipts, good for my tax office. The tickets they issue, however, don't have a magnetic strip which is required to go through the gates at railway stations, so you'll need to show your ticket to an agent there who will open the gates for you. I'm not sure about the older lines, but the newer sections are all fully accessible, mostly via ramps, while some stops have lifts. Boarding the train is completely level, and on the platform surface there is a mark indicating where people in wheelchairs or with prams or strollers should get on to find the area reserved for them. Therefore even single trams always stop at the very front of the platform, in fact the tram's front is beyond the platform end, as the platforms are just long enough to accommodate 2-car sets. The new Bombardier Flexity Swift trams are quite nice, not too clumsy or bulky for street running, and the seats are certainly much better than those in the Cologne sister cars, where they have cheap plastic seats. They run as single or double units, the latter being shown on the next-tram indicators as 'dbl', so people can prepare themselves to use the whole length of the platform.
Let's start with the older legs, which I had visited ten years ago, when I was preparing my book 'Metros in Britain' (no longer available). At that time I was quite shocked by the hopping and shaking (hunting) of the Ansaldo trams on the old railway routes to Bury and Altrincham. Apparently, these lines were taken over from former British Rail without doing much track upgrading and remained so for a long time. I would assume that in the meantime there has been some track replacement, but still, even the new Bombardier Flexity Swift trams start hunting at some higher speed, but at least the up-and-down hopping has disappeared, making for a more comfortable ride. As said before, the stations have all been restyled in the new yellow corporate design, which is quite nice, although I didn't really see the necessity for such a drastic change, the turquoise used before was quite nice too and could have become typical of Manchester. Interestingly the colour change took place at the time when RATP Dev took over operation, and RATP has used a similar turquoise for many decades. Let's hope that the new livery stays, as this often becomes part of a city's identity. Many stations on these original lines preserve some old buildings, unfortunately not always in use, though, like at Trafford Bar, but mothballed. While most of the newer legs are only served every 12 minutes, the Bury and Altrincham lines normally have a tram every six minutes. I was quite surprised to find out that the Altrincham line is not signalled like a railway line despite its alignment and history, just the short single-track section around Navigation Road, where the second track is still used by mainline trains has railway signals, otherwise it's all 'line-of-sight' operation. The Bury line, however, uses proper signalling north of Queen's Road, where the second depot is located. Just tramway signals are also used on later built or converted lines.
The Bury and Altrincham lines were first linked via a surface route through the city centre, with a branch going to Piccadilly railway station. This was certainly the cheaper option and the tram got integrated into the urban environment, but I still think that Manchester would have deserved some kind of Liverpool-style underground solution. I do recognise that the current solution has some advantages, the crawling speed is compensated by the easy accessibility of the surface stops, but the enormous and ever increasing amounts of trams passing through Piccadilly Gardens is quite horrible, if not dangerous. I guess the second city crossing will only partly alleviate this situation. Piccadilly Gardens could be quite a nice place, but I find it rather unpleasant. While the garden part is separated from the transport part by an ugly concrete wall, buses and trams seem to run over pedestrians any second, and strange that this does not occur more often. And this time I only saw the reduced version as normally the trams come from all sides (trams from Market Street towards Piccadilly Gardens additionally use a by-pass track, making things even less clear for pedestrians!). Further down, next to the Piccadilly 'tunnel' portal there is a huge field marked on the roadway to remain clear for trams to pass, which is hardly possible during rush hour traffic, so it is quite amazing that the trams can make their way through this point without much problem. All in all, priority at traffic lights works well around the system, although it could be faster by a few seconds so that the trams don't almost come to a halt and then have to accelerate again. But I hadn't observed any annoying waits caused by road traffic turning first or so.
Victoria station - new cityside access with complicated track layout
The Metrolink's Victoria station layout has been completely rebuilt recently, but the result is one of the least convincing elements of the whole system. The new track arrangement includes the junction for the future second city crossing plus a three track station with two island platforms, so the middle track can be used in either direction, and all that laid out in a curve, resulting in a weird approach via numerous points and winding tracks. I will be curious to see this area in full operation in 2017.
MediaCityUK - on weekends served by Eccles-bound trams
The next branch to open was the Eccles line, which offers nice views of the Salford Quays, but technically speaking, it is Manchester's weakest line, as it virtually crawls through this former docklands area at minimum speed until you get to Harbour City where a single-track branch diverges to MediaCityUK. I was there at the weekend, when this branch is served by trams running through to Eccles, so they have to reverse here. But this situation seemed rather confusing, not just for me. Noone seemed to know which side platform is for which direction, as the next-tram indicator on the southern platform showed both directions, and that on the northern didn't show anything. I assume they always use the same platform for either direction, so it should clearly be signed. During the week, when the stub is served directly, probably just one platform is enough anyway. For passengers travelling on towards Eccles, the detour via MediaCityUK certainly adds several minutes to their journey. Once the trams reach Broadway, they can continue at reasonable speed, despite the street-running, but as the stops are offset from the roadway, traffic lights hold back road traffic so the trams can proceed without obstacles (may not always be the case during rush hour traffic, though). At Eccles, some buses unload their passengers directly at the Metrolink platform, otherwise the bus station is just a short walk west.
Chorlton - typical station on line to East Didsbury
All the other branches were opened as part of the big-bang expansion during recent years. The South Manchester Line that terminates at East Disbury is probably the best of all. It diverges from the Altrincham line in a grade-separated junction with quite steep ramps and then runs fairly straight along an old railway corridor to its final stop, so it offers a good speed, and despite using a railway corridor, its stations seem to be close enough to the adjacent housing estates. The latest addition to the system diverges from the East Didsbury branch, and boasts everything from light rail-style interurban routes to street-running. Again, the street-running sections seem to work fine by holding back road traffic before the trams enter those sections. The branch, however, has several very tight curves which are negotiated at minimum speed, not really up to state-of-the-art tramways - interestingly, the latest edition of "Tramways & Urban Transit" has an in-depth article about this issue, which seems to be related that too many tramway engineers come from mainline railways and don't quite understand the design differences, so this is not just my non-expert observation. The worst such curve is actually off-street, just south of the Shadowmoss stop before the final run towards the airport. I think that actually what is known as the Airport Line would deserve being called South Manchester Line, and the South Manchester Line could be called the Didsbury Line instead, as although the airport is its final destination, it is certainly not the preferred option to go to the airport, with a ride to the city centre taking some 50 minutes every 12 minutes, while direct trains run every few minutes and just take some 15 minutes to Piccadilly. On the Airport Line there is certainly one stop missing along the long street-running section between Martinscroft and Benchill, but obviously they couldn't find a location where neighbours would give up some parking spaces in front of their houses.
Airport Line - street-running section near Benchill
The East Manchester Line connects to the former stub at Piccadilly. It is a mix of grade separated light rail with two underpasses, and an old-fashioned tramway with street-running through Droylsden, maybe the most conflictive of this type as far as interference with road traffic goes, as the trams may even have to stop for buses stopping along the same road. In fact, quite weird that a bus line (216) is maintained basically all the way from Piccadilly to Ashton parallel to the tram line. The outer section is on a separate right-of-way, but this doesn't really help to get higher speeds as it crawls through a large roundabout and then to the terminus.
Tram approaching Ashton-under-Lyne terminus in the background
Like the early Bury and Altrincham lines, the Rochdale Line again is mostly a converted and rebuilt railway line, but unlike the older lines, the trackbed was completely renewed. It features Manchester's most outstanding light rail station at Central Park, a quiet business park, with its cable-stayed roof structure. The flyover that crosses the Leeds main line is a massive structure with a think wall in the middle, similar to what you can see on the Bury Line on its way across the M60 motorway.
Just before getting to Oldham, the trams leave the old railway alignment in a sharp curve to serve Oldham town centre, however not what would be the town's main street, but parallel to eat, so when you get off, you get to see the ugly back side of a major shopping centre, while the real High Street is a pedestrianised street on the other side. The street-running Oldham section terminates as the line rejoins the old railway corridor east of Oldham Mumps. The trams actually have to negotiate a steep ramp, as the old railway used to cross that point on a viaduct, now demolished, though. The ride then is pretty fast north to the point where the Leeds main line has to be crossed again, this time the flyover is only single-track as is the adjoining ramp down to Rochdale railway station. It is not really convincing why the tram stop is located across the street from the railway station and not right next to it, I would think that space could have been made available to allow for a 2-track full-length stop there. This way, passengers would not need to cross a busy street to change from tram to train, and many do, as trains from there to Victoria station are frequent and much faster than the tram.
Change from single-track to double-track near the Rochdale Town Centre terminus
From the railway station, the trams wind down towards Rochdale town centre, the last section being single-track for no obvious reason, maybe to avoid a scissors-crossover in what is a large curve. Anyway, as the traffic lights seem to work fine, this should not be a bottleneck.
Construction for second city-crossing in full swing between Victoria and Exchange Square
The second city crossing is now under construction, at least around St. Peter's Square and between Victoria Station and Exchange Square, which is actually the only stop on this new link. I would have preferred a second stop close to Albert Square. Interestingly, St. Peter's Square was initially one of those stops with only a short high-level platform and the rest as a ramp or low-level, all to reduce the "visual impact" in this urban environment. It was later rebuilt to become a proper full-length high-level, and now it is even expanded and will have two full-length high-level island platforms and four tracks.
Farewise, Manchester is not too bad, maybe the range of available tickets is almost too large. You have to choose between daytickets covering just one type of transport or two or three, i.e. train, tram and/or bus. The area covered is the entire Greater Manchester region, all the way to Wigan, for example, so the prices are not too excessive. But being raised with the concept of integrated transport, I do not really understand why one should choose different types of transport, when one "journey" should normally be able to be done using all different types to get from A to B. So, the differentiation should rather be done by area than by mode. In many cases, people will not have the choice whether to use tram rather than train, or depend on an additional bus, and as the fares for individual day passes and those for combined modes are not too different, I think a simple unitarian cover-all-modes pass would simplify the whole fare structure. Single fares are valid for a single operator, anyway, Metrolink's fares start from 1.20 for a trip in the central area to 4.70. for the longest possible journey. There are frequent inspections on the trams! Those who can't resist can also get electronic tickets, but after my recent negative experience in London with the Oystercard, I cannot recommend any of these for real urban rail explorers!
As the system has grown so much in recent years, I think it was about time to introduce some line numbering system. Unlike the Docklands Light Railway, for example, Metrolink lines are at least shown in different colours on the network maps, but these colours are not used to actually name the lines, so they wouldn't say the "Blue Line", instead it is always something like the "Bury-Altrincham service"! I have never understood the British reluctance to using line numbers, as this is nothing that hurts, it just helps! Funnily, on the Croydon Tramlink, the trams display a route number, but this is not reflected on their maps! I bet the old first-generation tram systems must have used line numbers, or didn't they either?
Metrolink at TfGM
Metrolink at UrbanRail.Net