Wednesday 29th July 2020
I thought it was time to take a ride on Mertrolink’s brand new line to the Trafford Centre so I headed up to Manchester today to take a look at what £350 million gets you in the way of a tram extension.
The new line has been in the offing since an extensive public consultation was held back in the summer of 2014.
In a piece of imperfect timing it finally opened to the public on Sunday 22nd March 2020.
The new line’s launch PR blitz saw Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham, telling the media: “it’s great that the Trafford Park line will open for business on Sunday 22 March. It is a much-needed addition to the Metrolink network and will encourage more people to use public transport to journey around our city-region, and in doing so reduce congestion on our roads and improve the quality of our air”.
And in case you’re wondering about no mention of ‘world-class’ in that PR puff, have no fear, it came in the next sentence: “last June I set out Our Network – a vision for the type of world-class transport network I want us to have here in Greater Manchester. This new line is a great step towards that, and a shining example of what we can deliver with the right funding and powers”.
Meanwhile an excited Alison Niven, Centre Director at the intu Trafford Centre, which forms the line’s eastern terminus, added: “we were presented with an incredible opportunity by TfGM to call the new stop ‘intu Trafford Centre’ and promote our destination across the network. We look forward to welcoming the first tram and our very first Metrolink customers on 22 March, in what is a really exciting time for the centre with Primark opening in the newly completed Barton Square development.”
Sadly the day after a rather low key opening on Sunday 22nd March Prime Minister Johnson locked us all down with the infamous ‘simple instruction’ to all ‘stay at home’ while in another twist of bad fortune, two months later came news the ‘intu’ company had been placed into Administration with a shopping mall full of debt.
But TfGM had set the wheels in motion and reckoned it was too late to change plans so trams continued running to the closed shopping centre throughout lockdown as well as serving a rather deserted business and leisure Trafford Park along the way.
“Trafford Park is the largest major employment centre outside Manchester city centre with more than 1,300 businesses and more than 33,000 employees travelling from across the region” according to the promotional blurb about the tram extension. Those were the days when people went to work in offices rather than work at home and spent leisure days shopping in vast centres such as intu’s Trafford Centre.
So what about that £350 million? It turns out £350 million buys you 3.4 miles (5.5 kms) of double track with associated highway improvements and cycle lanes, catenaries carrying overhead power lines and six ‘stations’, as well as additional trams – an order for 27 is in the pipeline for delivery in the coming months. Presumably that many extra trams are needed for the eventual planned cross-city running to Crumpsall on the line to Bury (where a turn back facility has been built) as well as increased frequencies along the way.
Back in 2014 the twelve week public consultation received an impressive 89% favourable comments. The biggest concerns came from ITV. As well as construction noise, they were worried wheel squeal and vibration noise on the tight bend alongside their Trafford Wharf Studios (where Coronation Street is made) would cause problems with filming.
ITV suggested a modified route avoiding this area but the Inspector ruled the original plans were the best option at a Public Inquiry held in 2015. He pointed out changing the route would lead to more difficulties with events at Old Trafford which is close to the Wharfside tram stop and less convenient access to Imperial War Museum and Media City.
After the Public Inquiry, Secretary of State Chris Grayling granted TfGM the necessary legal powers under a Transport and Works Act order in October 2016.
On ITV’s concerns Grayling accepted “construction noise should be able to be controlled through the Code of Construction Practice; that occurrences of wheel squeal could be reduced by changing the wheel profile of trams, by control of the track gauge at the bend and by the use of a vehicle-mounted friction modification system; and that the effects of groundborne noise could, if necessary, be reduced by use of a ‘floating track slab’ design in the vicinity of the studios”. So now you can watch Corrie in peace and still take a tram right alongside the studios.
The new Trafford Park line increases the size of the Metrolink network to over 66 miles (106.5kms) with a tantalising total of 99 stops.
It branches off the line to Eccles just after the Pomona tram stop passing under the Trafford Road Bridge to run alongside the promenade next to the Manchester Ship Canal before joining Trafford Wharf Road.
The route then turns left onto Warren Bruce Road, bears to the right onto Village Way and up to Parkway. It then crosses over the Manchester Ship Canal before turning right onto Barton Dock Road where the vast new Primark has opened, terminating alongside the intu Trafford Centre.
The six new tram stops are at Wharfside, near to Old Trafford football stadium, the Imperial War Museum then Village, Parkway and Barton Dock Road each of which serve key business areas through the industrial park and visitor destinations such as Event-City with the final stop at intu Trafford Centre.
The majority of the new route is ‘off road’ or segregated from the adjacent carriageway with the aim of achieving quicker, more reliable journey times.
The £350 million funding package to build the line was secured by Greater Manchester Combined Authority through the ’earn back’ funding arrangement as part of the Greater Manchester devolution deal. Trafford Council contributed £20 million.
Pre Covid, Metrolink was carrying 35 million journeys a year.
So that’s the background. How’s it doing in practice now in its nineteenth week?
Answer: very quietly.
Trafford Centre bound trams are currently only running a shuttle service from Cornbrook (located just to the west of the city centre and Deansgate). Interestingly I recall the same arrangement applied for the first few months when the new line to Manchester Airport opened in 2014. I suppose it’s a way of building up the new line gradually.
Cornbrook is also served by trams on the Ashton-under-Lyne to Eccles and Piccadilly to Altrincham lines and both also run under Manchester Piccadilly station which is handy for train connections.
I found a ticket machine on the platform below Piccadilly station and with two taps on the screen had purchased a reasonably priced £4.30 day ticket covering zones 1, 2 and 3 – intu Trafford Centre being in zone 3.
Frequency of trams to Cornbrook is very good so I was soon on my way on a lightly loaded tram to Eccles via Media City.
As we passed through the three platform Deansgate stop I spotted an out of service tram laying over on the ‘middle’ platform which shares the same ‘island’ as the city centre bound platform.
This is where the Trafford Line shuttle trams are waiting time in between journeys as there’s no room at Cornbrook with its single island platform for them to wait and there are facilities for drivers at Deansgate
Passengers make the change at Cornbrook as in the westbound direction there’s no cross platform interchange at Deansgate.
It’s not particularly efficient as I noticed just as the tram arrived at Cornbrook from the Trafford Centre to run out of service to Deansgate to layover, the next tram to the Trafford Centre had just left Deansgate heading for Cornbrook to start its journey.
The journey time from Cornbrook to the Trafford Centre is 16 minutes but with the dead time to Deansgate and layover time it’s taking five trams to run the shuttle at its current 10 minute frequency. So that’s 18 minutes dead time per tram in every 50 minutes. Quite an expensive and inefficient method of operation.
The journey was very quiet with just a handful of passengers travelling – which was the case on all my journeys along the route today and with other trams I saw.
As you can see from the map shown earlier it’s a journey with quite a few twists and turns.
It diverts off from the Eccles line immediately after the Pomona stop – actually it carries straight on over a new incline that’s been built as the Eccles line turns right.
We proceeded over the newly created junction at crawling pace so I don’t know if there’s something not yet in place as a permanent link but it seemed an odd start to the newly installed track riding experience.
The first ststion, Wharfside, is close to Manchester United’s ground which you catch a glimpse of as you pass by.
The next stop, Imperial War Museum is obviously alongside that venue as well as close to a cut through for Media City and old style employers like Rank Hovis – although now known as Whitworth Bros Ltd.
After the infamous sharp left hand turn, with its risk of wheel squeal to disturb patrons in The Rovers Return, the Trafford Centre bound track doubles up with a centrally located passing loop and crossover to the city bound line – which I’m guessing is there to provide a facility for short working trams to wait time in the event of extra journeys when Manchester United are playing at home.
The next two stops, Village and Parkway, are alongside industrial units, factories, offices and wasteland waiting development. Walking time to and from the stops to ultimate destinations is quite high though.
There’s a natty piece of highway engineering which takes the tram tracks through the centre of a large roundabout at Parkway and it’s always reassuring to know trams have priority as they glide through the middle non-stop.
I noticed signs for a Park and Ride appropriately enough at Parkway but didn’t spot the car park so I’m not sure how close it is to the tram stop.
The penultimate stop is Barton Dock Road which is part of the vast intu Trafford Centre complex and where the new Primark has opened.
And just a short distance further on is the island platform and ‘buffer stops’ at the end of the line by another part of the sprawling, and to my mind, unappealing huge shopping centre.
Surprisingly the terminal stop (see red arrow on map below) is located ’round the corner’ from the bus station and although the shopping centre is a destination in its own right I would have thought the opportunity for a transport interchange between bus and tram would have brought some benefits.
There were two cleaners at the terminus who gave all the terminating trams’ touch points a disinfectant spray and wipe down during the layover.
There was no information about times or frequencies here or at any of the tram stops nor anything to explain the new arrangements for the shuttle service. I suppose TfGM think everyone studies the information provided online before setting out. But even there you have to know the extension has opened to find the relevant information. It didn’t seem a very ‘shining example’ of a ‘world class’ tram extension in that respect. But I acknowledge Covid has intervened.
There is a poster setting each stop in its local context with basic information about nearby bus routes.
There are aspirations to extend this newly opened line beyond the Trafford Centre as far as Port Salford which is a freight terminal on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal in Salford but for the immediate future there’s the small matter of having enough funding to keep the existing wheels turning.
Mayor Burnham has already threatened to mothball the entire system in the run up to that initial Government funded £30 million Covid bail out for England’s tram systems announced in May but that money is going to run out in a few weeks.
Based on today’s experience, much as it’s lovely to see a shiny new tram extension open, and I appreciate it’s cost a cool £350 million, in the current demand dampened climate I can’t help thinking it would make financial sense to save the operating cost of those five trams, drivers and cleaners currently carrying minibus size loads by mothballing this extension until better travel times beckon.
In the meantime I notice Stagecoach’s alternative route X50 is still providing a frequent link to the Trafford Centre with a journey time of around half an hour from Piccadilly Gardens – about the same as the tram journey takes including that connection at Cornbrook.
I used to run a bus company but in retirement am a full time passenger travelling all over Britain enjoying its splendid scenic delights by bus and train. Currently social distancing at home.