The big bang theory of Manchester's Metrolink

12 April 2013

Rejected in 2004 for being too expensive, the expansion of Manchester’s Metrolink has now become the UK’s largest transport project outside of the capital. Jack Wittels speaks to Philip Purdy of Transport for Greater Manchester about how the project is progressing, and whether its success could lead to a change of attitude toward light-rail transit in the UK.

Whether you think of the rouged brickwork of its iconic terraced houses, the scarlet shirts of the world's most famous football team, or even the communist writings of Marx and Engels inspired by its working classes, Manchester is undoubtedly a city of red.

But now a dash of yellow is being added to the mix: Manchester's Metrolink is building 55km of new track that will be graced by a fleet of brightly coloured M5000 trams. Dubbed 'The Big Bang', and due to be completed in 2016, the £1.5 billion expansion will forever change the face of the city.

For Philip Purdy, Metrolink director at Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM), the project could represent something far more significant than a new colour scheme: namely, a turning point in the UK's attitude toward light-rail transit (LRT).

"There are over 200 tram networks in Europe," says Purdy. "None of them are closing down, and the vast majority have plans to expand. Yet the UK's Department for Transport (DfT) treasury still tends to see light-rail transit (LRT) as an unviable form of travel. This project is a fantastic opportunity to prove them wrong."

The common criticism of LRT in the UK has long been that it is too expensive, a view perpetuated by the spiralling costs of Edinburgh's tramway extension - the Scottish capital's original £545 million budget has now reached £776 million.

But while Manchester's expansion has not been without its setbacks, they have been largely logistical rather than financial.

"We're still confident that we'll meet the project's deadline of 2016," says Purdy. "We've learnt a lot of lessons from the lines we've already constructed, particularly in coordinating different contracts, dealing with utility companies, and arranging the delivery of services and materials."

Coordination is key

One of the greatest difficulties the expansion has faced is the integration of the new lines with the existing network, which resulted in the Rochdale extension being delayed by over six months. The cause of the technological problem was the installation of the £22 million tram management system (TMS) that will eventually run across the entire network, replacing the old block signalling system.

Unlike its predecessor, the TMS will provide live information on the trams' locations that can be used by workers in the Metrolink operational control centre to effectively coordinate the network. Similar details will also be available to passengers via station displays, and on the Metrolink smartphone app, allowing for more effective journey planning.

"Drivers will also have additional in-car information on their headway, helping them operate on a line of sight," says Purdy. "Compared with the old system, it means the trams will be able to travel a lot more closely together; the aim is to have 90 an hour running through our busiest station when the expansion's complete."

"Trams join a lot more communities together than trains and that brings huge benefits for the job market"

Increasing capacity is crucial if the project is to live up to expectations. Patron numbers have been steadily rising since the Metrolink's inception in 1992; two decades on, the near tripling of the line length, together with a rapidly growing citizenry (Manchester's population jumped by 19% between 2001 and 2011), will no doubt contribute to a substantial increase in Metrolink passenger figures.

Yet despite this obvious demand, the project is still primarily known for its wider business and economic credentials.

"A large part of the decision to go ahead with the expansion came down to the Metrolink's redevelopment and regeneration potential," says Purdy. "You've only got to look at the benefits brought by the existing system to see it makes sense. The reason so many of the local districts here are crying out for the Metrolink is that they've seen the regeneration it's created in other areas, and they're saying, 'Hey, we want to be like that'."

The economic forecasts certainly support Purdy's argument. The Metrolink is estimated to facilitate 3,200 new jobs in central Manchester by 2026 - the year that capacity is expected to be reached - and increase house prices in Metrolink-affected areas by an average of £12,000.

Impressive environmental credentials also attract support for trams compared with other forms of urban public transport."

"Trams also join a lot more communities together than trains, and that brings huge benefits for the job market," says Purdy. "Take the old Oldham Loop track for example, which we've replaced. That used to call at 11 stops between Manchester Victoria and Rochdale, and run every 30-45 minutes. The Metrolink will have 20 stops, and will run a 12-minute service."

Impressive environmental credentials also attract support for trams compared with other forms of urban public transport. The Metrolink is a case in point: billed as "the first tram system in the UK to be powered by water", it will run off hydroelectricity, and is the first network in the country to be powered entirely through green energy. It will also continue to feature regenerative breaking, and is in the process of replacing its T68 models with more energy-efficient M5000s.

"There will be no more of the old T68s on the network by 2014," says Purdy. "The new M5000 models are a lot more economically friendly, and up to four times more reliable than their predecessors."

A smart move

In the same year that the last of the T68s are to be phased out, the Metrolink will also pioneer a potentially revolutionary mode of travel in Manchester: smart ticketing.

Functioning in much the same way as the London Oyster card, the Mancunian equivalent will allow passengers to pay their Metrolink fares by tapping on and off the LRT service. The system will then register their journey and charge the lowest possible fare - it will also be possible to use contactless debit and credit cards.

"That's phase one of the smart ticketing plan," explains Purdy. "Phase two will see us introduce the system across bus operators, and phase three will incorporate the trains. We're beginning with the Metrolink because, as owners, the fares and revenue risk are within our control."

"This is the largest transport project in the UK outside of London, and that certainly says something about the growing profile of LRT."

In addition to quicker transactions, decreased journey times and tackling over-riding, TfGM is hopeful that smart ticketing will facilitate a better understanding of people's public transport habits and the provision of services more closely aligned with passenger's needs.

The reality of expanding the system across other forms of transport, however, will not be easy. Unlike London, there are over 40 different commercial bus operators in the Greater Manchester area, all of whom will need to agree on how to integrate smart ticketing into their systems and achieve a consensus on a comprehensive fare structure.

"We're currently in discussions with the bus operators," says Purdy. "With the trains, we're hoping to come to an arrangement with First TransPennine Express and Northern Rail during their refranchisement, which is due to come up in the next couple of years."

As for the future, there are already plans for an additional Metrolink line via the Trafford Shopping Centre terminating at Port Salford to the west of Manchester.

"It certainly ticks all the boxes of what to do next in terms of benefits to cost ratios," says Purdy. "But it has yet to funded and power secured. In terms of the bigger picture, this is the largest transport project in the UK outside of London, and that certainly says something about the growing profile of LRT. Manchester is definitely on the right track."

Annual share of passenger journeys: England, 1983/84 to 2011/12
Manchester Metrolink’s distinctive M5000 trams
The world switches to smart ticketing
Philip Purdy is Metrolink director at Transport for Greater Manchester, with responsibility for overseeing improvements to the Metrolink network.

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