Manchester Metrolink is England’s first modern street-operating light rail system. It includes three lines that serve the towns of Bury, Altrincham and Eccles and meet at Manchester city centre. Metrolink incorporates the features of heavy rail and trams.

Becoming the UK’s second operational public tramway (after Blackpool) when it opened in stages during 1992, Manchester Metrolink was the country’s pioneering modern-era system. In spite of success in attracting passengers and estimated to have reduced car usage by five million journeys a year, Metrolink’s clear potential became severely limited by a lack of investment.

Totalling 93km (58 miles), current routes comprise Altrincham-Manchester City Centre-Bury; Altrincham-Manchester Piccadilly station; Bury-Manchester Piccadilly, and Eccles-Manchester Piccadilly, Rochdale Town Centre-Ashton-under-Lyne, Bury-East Didsbury, Manchester Airport-Cornbrook, Rochdale Town Centre-Exchange Square, and Rochdale Town Centre-Ashton-under-Lyne.

Details of the Manchester Metrolink project

Metrolink is owned by Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive (GMPTE), which offers passengers in its area covering ten metropolitan authorities a range of tickets also covering heavy rail and buses. It is operated by RATP Dev under a contract.

“In May 2008, the government gave final approval for the Phase 3a expansion, a £600m project to almost double Metrolink’s length.”

From initial planning in the 1980s and construction beginning in 1990, the initial 31.5km (20 mile) Phase 1 operation was the product of the Greater Manchester Metrolink (GMML). The contract was worth £145m. GMML is a consortium of GEC Alstom Transportation Projects, John Mowlem, Amec and GMPTE.

The GMA Group consortium, consisting of GEC Mowlem, AMEC and GM Buses, was involved in Manchester City Centre’s Service diversions programme. GMA was succeeded by Altram (Manchester) between 1997 and 2007.

Operator Serco was replaced in April 2007 by Stagecoach (now RATP Dev) with a ten-year contract, already responsible for Sheffield Supertram. Phase 2, the Eccles line project costing £160m, was completed by 2000, thereafter stimulating rejuvenation of the former Manchester Ship Canal area in Salford.

In May 2008, the government gave final approval for the Phase 3a expansion, a £600m project to almost double Metrolink’s length. The longest section is the conversion of the heavy-rail ‘Oldham Loop’ and Rochdale route, leaving the Bury line near Metrolink’s Queens Road operations and maintenance centre. East from Piccadilly, a new eight-stop line leaves to Droylsden.

The extension also included lines to Chorlton in South Manchester and a small spur to MediaCityUK from Harbour City. Extension of the line to East Didsbury, Manchester Airport, Ashton-under-Lyne, and the town centres of Oldham and Rochdale were approved in May 2009.

The shortest of the new lines leave the Altrincham line near Trafford Bar for a terminus at St Werburgh’s Road in Chorlton-cum-Hardy. The project is part-funded by loans that are due to be repaid over 30 years.

Expansion work carried out by GMPTE included the construction of 20 miles of new track and 27 new stops. The tram fleet was expanded by 40 new trams to 72.

In May 2008, the UK Government granted £244m for extensions to Oldham, Rochdale and Chorlton. The government also granted £120.9m to two tram extensions to Ashton and East Didsbury.

GMPTE appointed the M-Pact Thales consortium (Laing O’ Rourke, Grant Rail and Thales UK) to design, build and maintain the Phase 3a lines. Construction work started in 2009 and the project was complete in 2013.

The funding for the next package of projected Metrolink expansions, Phase 3b, to extend the system into Oldham and Rochdale town centres from the Phase 3a line, from Droylsden to Ashton-under-Lyne, with two lines from St. Werburgh’s Road to Manchester Airport and East Didsbury, was approved in 2009. The Phase 3b line from Pomona to the retail concentration at the Trafford Centre also serves the Imperial War Museum North and Manchester United Old Trafford.

The trams to mediacity:uk began their operations in 2010 while services to Chorlton and Central Park began in early 2011 and to Oldham Mumps in 2012. The line to Rochdale was opened in March 2014 and Droylsde line was opened in May 2013.

The extension to East Didsbury included the construction of five halts and was completed in May 2013, while the extension to Ashton included the construction of new track and four halts. The Ashton extension was opened to traffic in October 2013.

The extension to Manchester Airport was opened in November 2014.

Infrastructure of Manchester light rail system

The first phase, Bury in the north to Altrincham in the south-west via Manchester city centre, mostly uses former heavy rail alignments. Creating Metrolink solved a problem shared by two free-standing railways (Manchester Victoria-Bury and Manchester Oxford Road-Altrincham) each a vital transport link but with life-expired, non-standard (but different) electrification.

A comparatively short section of on-street grooved track in the city centre linked the lines via a city focal point at Piccadilly Gardens, with a new connection also created between the main rail termini, Piccadilly and Victoria. The new system adopted the tramway standard of 750V DC overhead supply.

“Built at street level but beneath the high-level main line platforms, Piccadilly is the only entirely covered stop on the system.”

Prior to access improvements, stations on the former railways were used with little modification beyond restricting the usable platform section to match tram lengths.

To be compatible with the railway-derived stops, 900mm-high platforms were built for the street stops, using ramps or lifts for level boarding of the high-floor tram fleet.

In addition to railway infrastructure, Metrolink features street running and some reserved stretches. A city centre stop south from Victoria for Manchester’s Shudehill transport interchange was added in 2003.

Built at street level but beneath the high-level main line platforms, Piccadilly is the only entirely covered stop on the system. Currently a terminus, it is the also only one where all trams normally arrive and depart from different platforms.

A £102m emergency track improvement programme necessitated partial temporary closures from May 2007, with 20 miles of noisy and rough-riding rails replaced. Funded by GMPTE and the UK Department for Transport, and with Carillion as main contractor, the programme also included new ticket machines and upgrading of stops.

Rolling stock

Components of the original 26 T-68 articulated two-car sets came from several suppliers, being assembled at Queen’s Road. Articulated bodies and bogies were assembled at Firema in Milan, under contract to GEC Alsthom. Alstom built the wheels and axles in Salzgitter, Germany. Other components were UK-made, including electric motors (Alstom, Preston) and pantographs (Brecknell Willis, Somerset). Maximum speeds are 80km/h (50mph) on rail alignments and 48km/h (30mph) on street sections.

In 1999, the fleet was bolstered by six (T-68a) for the Eccles extension, indicated by their 2000-series numbers, dot matrix destination displays, also retractable couplers and covered bogies, necessary for on-street running close to motor traffic. Three of the earlier fleet were similarly equipped.

In 2008, RATP Dev announced an 18-month refurbishment programme for the fleet of 32, giving at least another ten years of service. This allowed all fleet members work the Eccles line, as well as braking system and traction modifications to improve reliability. The vehicle interiors were reworked with improved lighting and security cameras, in addition to changes for disability legislation compliance.

“In 2008 RATP Dev announced an 18-month refurbishment programme for the fleet of 32, giving at least another ten years of service.”

Driven by a pressing need to increase Bury-Altrincham peak capacity, the next generation of Manchester trams was signalled by a £17m order for eight Bombardier /  Vossloh Kiepe trams from the Flexity Swift family. Similar to Cologne’s high-floor K5000 series, they were built at Bautzen and Vienna.

Bombardier and Vossloh Kiepe supplied 77 vehicles to Manchester Metrolink by the end of 2013.

Bombardier Transportation and consortium partner Vossloh Kiepe received an option order in September 2014 to supply 16 more Flexity Swift light rail vehicles to Metrolink system, bringing the number of vehicles to 120. The option forms part of $55m (£34m) contract awarded in 2007.

Signalling / communications

The system is overseen from the Queens Road control room. The Timperley – Navigation Road – Altrincham section is under Network Rail control, but operating procedures are the same as elsewhere. Previously poor in relation to modern international standards, communication with passengers using Metrolink is to improve under a programme, including CCTV coverage, real-time indicators and on-board information.

All former heavy rail alignments, also the portion of the new route from just beyond G-Mex to the intersection with the existing Metrolink route to Altrincham, at Cornbrook, are controlled by absolute block signalling, mainly controlled by two-aspect colour light signals. To reduce problems of reliability and delay relating to the installed signalling system, GMPTE is investigating increasing the proportion of the network using ‘line-of-sight’ control.

The future

Extra stations (Buckley Wells, Abraham Moss and Chester Road) have been considered to give better passenger access on the former railway sections. Even with likely on-site extension, the Queen’s Road depot could not handle the system’s expansion and new facilities will be built near Trafford Park.

Indicative of effects on passenger numbers caused by extensions, GMPTE identifies a longer-term need for the ‘Second City Crossing’, whereby congestion on the on-street section including St Peter’s Square and Piccadilly Gardens would be reduced by a new direct line from GMex to Victoria. The first stage of ‘Second City Crossing’ was opened in December 2015 and is anticipated to be fully operational in 2017.

Possible extensions are the completion of a loop from Roundthorn to Manchester Airport via Newall Green and an extension from East Didsbury to Stockport town centre.

“With the Phase 3a expansion complete, GMPTE expects over 90,000 journeys will be made daily on Metrolink.”

The implementation of a peak-time congestion charge scheme in Manchester was approved by the government in June 2008. The residents of Greater Manchester were called for their opinion regarding the introduction of congestion charge in the region, but about 79% of the people opposed it.

The failed plan, to include peak-time road charge, would have opened up a £2.8bn transport investment. The extension of the line to East Didsbury, Manchester Airport, Ashton-under-Lyne, and the town centres of Oldham and Rochdale, was initially linked with the failed plan.