Greater Manchester’s Metrolink network is undergoing a period of expansion at present. Last summer I wrote about the new line to Oldham, which has now been extended a little further to Shaw and Compton, and the new line between Piccadilly and Droylsden is due to open imminently. Further extensions will see it reaching Rochdale, Ashton under Lyne, Wythenshawe and Manchester Airport over the next 3-4 years. But one key destination that’s missing from that list is the Trafford Centre.
The Trafford Centre is one of Britain’s largest shopping centres – third largest by floor area – and its lavish mock baroque design was intended to attract more upmarket brands, such as Selfridges and John Lewis, who have large anchor stores there. Its located in south-west Manchester means that it is easily reached from Cheshire, a largely affluent county which is home to, amongst others, a number of millionaire footballers who play for teams like Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool.
Consequently the centre provides ample car parking and is located just off the M60 motorway. This is essentially Manchester and Salford’s outer ring road and connects with all of the major roads going into the city, so getting there by car is quite easy.
However, if you’re not a car driver, and need to use public transport, then buses are your only option. There is a bus station with 16 stands at the Trafford Centre, but it’s almost an afterthought – located at the far end of the site, accessible via one of the car parks. It’s rather open to the elements with just one canopy providing some shelter for the rain.
Unlike other big shopping centres, like Meadowhall in Sheffield and the MetroCentre in Gateshead, a railway station was not built at the same time. In fairness, those two shopping centres already had railway lines nearby – the Trafford Centre does not, so any requirement to build a station would also require a new railway line at a considerable extra expense. A light rail link, however, would have been cheaper, and when the Trafford Centre opened in 1998, Metrolink had been running for six years, with construction already underway on the second phase to Eccles.
So why wasn’t a Metrolink line included in the building project? The simple answer is that the plans to build the Trafford Centre pre-date Metrolink. The original planning application was submitted way back in 1988 – a full 12 years before the Trafford Centre opened, and indeed 8 years before construction began in 1996. The 8 year delay was due two public enquiries, a rejection of the planning permission by the Court of Appeal in 1993 and eventual intervention by the House of Lords.
By comparison, work to build Metrolink only started in 1988, and it would have been premature to require the construction of a tram line for a system that didn’t exist at the time. And considering the battle that the developers faced in getting it approved, I doubt that they would have been receptive to demands to change the planning permission to include such a line. So, in summary, the developers of the Trafford Centre, Peel Holdings, were under no obligation to provide a Metrolink station.
The Trafford Centre expanded in 2006, after Peel Holdings were granted planning permission in 2005 to build Barton Square. This could have been an opportunity to force the developers to build a tram line, using a ‘Section 106′ agreement – this refers to a section of Town and Country Planning Act 1990 which allows local authorities to include extra conditions when granting planning permission, usually to insist on associated infrastructure improvements. For whatever reason, this never happened; the only transport-related improvements that Barton Square brought was yet another car park.
Essentially, plans to build a new Metrolink line to the Trafford Centre were at an impasse. The local authorities, represented by Transport for Greater Manchester, were keen for private sector funding for the new line. And the private sector owners of the Trafford Centre weren’t particularly willing to pay for it; after all, they’re a more upmarket shopping centre aimed at affluent people who can drive. So the plans were essentially shelved and have not formed part of Metrolink’s recent expansion plans.
This leaves the present situation where the quickest way to get to the Trafford Centre from central Manchester is actually by bus, using the X50 service from Manchester Piccadilly station. This, however, takes around half an hour, and costs £3.90 return. Alternatively, it is possible to get a tram to Stretford Metrolink station, and then catch a connecting shuttle bus (the ML1) to the Trafford Centre. The trams also serve Victoria station, but it’s slower, requires a change of mode at Stretford and more expensive at £4.40 for a return ticket.
Stretford isn’t even the closest Metrolink station to the Trafford Centre – it’s around 2.5 miles away. The nearest tram station is actually Eccles, which is a little under 2 miles away but at the very end of a line which takes a rather circuitous route around Salford Quays and therefore not ideal. Trafford Park station, on one of the national railway lines between Manchester and Liverpool, is also a little under two miles away. But with trains every two hours and no Sunday service it doesn’t compare favourably with Stretford’s 10 trams per hour from Manchester. For now, at least, the X50 and the shuttle bus service from Stretford probably provide the best compromise.
There may, however, be some hope in the future. In 2011, Peel Holdings sold the Trafford Centre to Capital Shopping Centres (CSC), who own many other shopping centres in the UK, including the MetroCentre and the large Lakeside centre in Kent.
As an aside, CSC is rebranding as ‘intu’, which will see all of its properties gain the ‘intu’ prefix, so later this year the centre will become the ‘intu Trafford Centre’. Personally I doubt anyone will use its new name in casual conversation.
Perhaps the Trafford Centre’s new owners may be more amenable to part-funding a new Metrolink line. Although the plans are on hold, it is still a long-term aim of Transport for Greater Manchester to get trams running out there. We shall have to see what the future holds.