I’m going to engage my public transport geek mode once again and talk a bit about the latest extension to Manchester’s Metrolink tram network.
Firstly, a bit of history. Metrolink first opened in 1992 and took over operation of two formerly ‘heavy rail’ (regular train service) lines, combined with track through Manchester city centre. Manchester has two main railway stations in the city centre – Piccadilly and Victoria – and the tram service allowed these stations to be linked together.
Of the two heavy rail lines converted, one was the line from Manchester Victoria to Bury; this used electric trains built in the 1960s and non-standard electrification equipment that wasn’t used anywhere else in the UK. Furthermore, this equipment, and the trains, were life-expired, so this was a good opportunity to upgrade to newer equipment. The trams could use the same track, but instead run from overhead electric cables.
The other line went south of Manchester towards Altrincham. This line had a lot of stations over a relatively short line, so using heavy rail trains wasn’t particularly efficient, so putting trams on this route made sense, on the whole. That said, not all trains called at all stations and this lead to some of the faster services being diverted through to Stockport, which now has capacity problems. This is because, unlike on other light rail networks such as the Tyne & Wear Metro in the north east where trains and light rail vehicles share tracks in places, Metrolink is kept separate from the National Rail network.
So that was the first phase. Its success spawned a second phase – a new line to Eccles, opened in 2000. This didn’t follow any existing railway lines, and served Salford Quays which has seen a lot of regeneration recently.
Getting the third phase – known as ‘The Big Bang’ due to it almost doubling the size of the network – built has been more of a challenge, due to money. It was denied central government funding in 2004, and so was split into two small phases – 3a and 3b – with work eventually starting in 2009. The first bit to be completed was a short 360 metre spur from the Eccles line to the new MediaCityUK complex in Salford which also better serves The Lowry and the Imperial War Museum North, and last year the first phase of the South Manchester Line opened to Chorlton-cum-Hardy – eventually, this will reach Manchester Airport. Although the South Manchester Line does follow the route of an old railway line, it was one that closed many years ago, as opposed to an existing line that was converted as with the lines to Bury and Altrincham.
The next bit to open was the line to Oldham, which I alluded to in the title of this post, and it is this particular line that I’m going to focus on. Like with the Bury and Altrincham routes, this follows an existing railway line that was converted – in this case, the Oldham Loop Line, which ran from Manchester Victoria to Rochdale where it met the Caldervale Line and looped back to Manchester. (I wrote about the Caldervale Line a couple of years ago – this is now the line I use to go to work every day, although not this particular bit)
The railway line closed in October 2009, and so it has been almost three years since Oldham had any public transport other than buses serving it. Opening last week, trams leave from a temporary station at the site of Oldham Mumps railway station, and head towards Manchester Victoria – they’ll then head through Manchester city centre and onwards to Chorlton-cum-Hardy. When the project is complete, trams will also serve Rochdale, new stations in Oldham town centre and continue through to Manchester Airport.
Trams will run roughly every 12 minutes – or five each hour – initially, but will increase to ten per hour (a tram every six minutes) in a few years time, once a second line through Manchester city centre has been built. This compares favourably with the old heavy rail train service, which ran four times an hour (but two of those only called at key stations), and once complete it will serve more destinations – there will be direct links to Deansgate railway station and Manchester Airport for the first time, plus there are extra stops on the new line serving places like the new Central Park development. The existing stations have all been rebuilt to be wheelchair friendly, and the trams can be boarded by wheelchair users without assistance, unlike the trains. And the trams are electric, so they won’t emit diesel fumes like the trains they replaced.
But arguably it’s not a complete improvement. The extra stops and slightly longer route means that the service is slower than the old heavy rail service, even with the improved acceleration offered by the trams over trains. The trams are smaller and have fewer seats that the trains, although they will run more frequently, and do not have toilets on board. Bikes also cannot be carried on board the trams, unlike on trains.
Tickets on Metrolink are not integrated with National Rail, so it’s no longer possible to buy a through ticket from, say, London to Oldham. And although the trams will serve more places than before, this does not include Manchester Piccadilly station, although they do call at Market Street which is somewhat closer than Victoria where the trains previously terminated.
On the whole I do hope it’s an improvement in service for the people of Oldham, and it will hopefully relieve pressure on the Caldervale Line which has been taking the strain from passengers displaced by the closure of the railway line. Issues like integrated ticketing with National Rail could be solved with computer and ticket machine upgrades, and there should be cycle storage at tram stops for cyclists. But converting lines to light rail like this, although providing many benefits, can also make things worse, especially for some groups of passengers.