Manchester Metrolink 20 Years of Evolution

Manchester’s Metrolink first opened in April 1992, running from Altrincham to Manchester city centre and on to Bury. This was the first of the second generation light rail networks to emerge in Britain’s cities and building such systems was, at that time, an unknown quantity.

A consortium, with GEC, Mowlem and Amec as the main players, was appointed to design, build, operate and maintain this new network. The majority of the first phase was formed by taking over and linking the British Rail lines that ran to Bury (1200V DC third-rail side contact electrified) and Altrincham (25kV AC overhead electrified), converting these lines from heavy rail to light rail. New overhead catenary was installed on the city centre and Bury line sections whilst the existing overhead structures and wiring on the Altrincham line were adapted for 750 V dc operation.

In the city centre, a spur from Piccadilly Gardens to Piccadilly station created a tram link between the city’s two main rail stations, Piccadilly and Victoria. This city centre section involved developing a street running system, with all the legal and civil engineering challenges that encompassed.

Signalling in the central section was similar in design to systems in Europe, with the familiar vertical (go) and horizontal (stop) white bars interlinked with road traffic lights and track loops for tram detection and recognition. The former heavy rail sections were equipped with new traditional block signalling, using only red and green aspects and ‘train stops’ linked to red signals. Some repeater signals where installed where sighting was poor. Operation commenced with 26 T68 trams and a single depot and control centre at Queens Road, just north of Victoria station.

Phase two

The second phase of the network was a new line to Eccles in Salford. A consortium called Altram, consisting of Serco, Ansaldo and Laing, was appointed to build this line and included six new T68 tram vehicles from Ansaldo, which also provided the signalling. The Eccles extension was a very different design, much more akin to a traditional tramway with some steep inclines, sharp curves and ‘driven on line of sight’ throughout. Construction work began in 1997, with the new line subsequently opening in 2000 in two stages, first to Broadway and then on to Eccles.

Expanding the Network

The success of Metrolink led to demands for further expansion, using the tramway to open up new transport links for employment, leisure and education opportunities across the region. In early 2009 the Department for Transport gave its approval for a £575M Metrolink expansion northwards to Oldham and Rochdale, east to Droylsden in Tameside and to Chorlton in South Manchester, with the provision of a second depot facility near the Old Trafford tram stop. At nearly 20 miles, these extensions almost double the size of the network and, when open, are expected to take five million car journeys off local roads every year, increasing the daily passenger journeys on Metrolink from 55,000 to around 90,000.

The MPact-Thales consortium, made up of Laing O’Rourke, VolkerRail and Thales UK, was appointed to design, build and maintain the new lines plus an additional 0.4km extension off the Eccles line to the new MediaCityUK development in Salford Quays.

2009 proved a landmark year as in May, the Greater Manchester Integrated Transport Authority (GMITA) and the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA) formally agreed to create the Greater Manchester Transport Fund, with an investment programme of over £1.5billion in 15 major public transport schemes including further Metrolink extensions.

The MPact-Thales (MPT) contract was extended to cover design, construct and maintain responsibilities. Separate contracts were also let for the replacement and extension of the signalling system with a new Tram Management System (TMS) from Thales, 62 new trams from Bombardier, and the replacement of the existing Ticket Vending Machines and provision of new ones for the extended network.

Complex construction

Construction of the extensions is a major capital programme, with each of the lines having their own, differing characteristics:

  • Oldham and Rochdale – 22.5 km of tram track running along the route of the former ‘Loop Line’ railway between Victoria and Rochdale rail stations.
  • Oldham town centre extension – A 2.4 km line into the centre of Oldham, replacing the temporary Metrolink route on the old railway line which bypasses the town centre.
  • Rochdale town centre – A 1.1km line into Rochdale town centre, providing an interchange with the new bus station.
  • Manchester Airport – A 14.5 km branch off the Chorlton line on new track via Northern Moor, Baguley and Wythenshawe to Manchester Airport.
  • Chorlton – A 2.7km line branching off the Altrincham line at Trafford Bar and running along a disused railway formation (the ex-Midland main line into Manchester Central).
  • Chorlton to East Didsbury – Extending the Chorlton line by 4.5km from St Werburgh’s Road to East Didsbury along the disused railway formation.
  • MediaCityUK – A 0.4km spur from a triangular junction near Harbour City station on the Eccles line.
  • Droylsden – A 6.3km line running from the existing Metrolink stop at Manchester Piccadilly to Droyslden and including a new underpass at Great Ancoats Street.
  • Droylsden to Ashton – 3.9km of track, part on street and part segregated, connecting the town centres of Droylsden and Ashton-Under-Lyne.

The new MediaCityUK spur opened in September 2010 and the new line to St Werburgh’s Road in Chorlton opened in July 2011. The remaining routes will open in phases up to 2016.

Plans are underway for a second Metrolink line across Manchester from the Deansgate-Castlefield stop to Victoria to provide flexibility and capacity for the extended network. Subject to successfully obtaining Transport and Works Act powers, it is envisaged construction will take place between 2013 and 2016.

See the Manchester Metrolink future network map

Major renewal programme

Also in 2009, the then GMITA embarked on a £100million investment programme to upgrade parts of the existing network and so improve Metrolink. This renewal programme saw the city centre tram tracks replaced, resulting in a temporary closure of the city centre section while work was completed. This closure presented an ideal opportunity to carry out further improvements in this busy section, including:

  • Widening the Piccadilly Gardens tram stop to give more room and better shelter facilities for passengers
  • Heightening and rebuilding St Peter’s Square stop to give improved access and level boarding for double-length trams
  • New street finishes across the city centre network, including Yorkstone paving, granite, and exposed aggregate concrete with granite banding, delivered in partnership with Manchester City Council
  • New finishes at Piccadilly Gardens, Piccadilly Place, High Street and Shudehill Metrolink stops
  • Installation of a new passenger information display system and ticketing machines.

Stagecoach Projects was appointed as the main contractor for most of the work but with Balfour Beatty being responsible for the tram stop rebuilds and refurbishment. During the closure the tram system operated in two sections: St Peters Square to Altrincham/Eccles and Victoria to Bury. The overall work was anticipated to take around three months.

Work began in August 2009 but the job was not without its challenges. A safe pathway was needed through the city centre site for Altrincham trams to get to and from the Queens Road depot for essential maintenance. This was achieved by ensuring one track was available throughout the entire period, allowing vehicles to be moved through the works section at the end and beginning of service every three days. Trams were otherwise “outstabled” during this period.

Major renewal work also took place on the Altrincham and Eccles lines, including replacing the electrical overhead line system and some of the supporting structures on the Altrincham section. Other work included extensive improvements to stops, building a replacement tram stop at Old Trafford and laying in connections to both the new tram depot site in Old Trafford and the new Chorlton line. The triangular junction for the new spur to MediaCityUK was built while the track layout at Cornbrook was remodelled both to accommodate the new MediaCityUK line service and to provide greater operational flexibility.

Upgrading the operations and renewing the signalling

In addition to the construction of all the new lines, a new Tram Management System (TMS) is being rolled out to provide an integrated solution for the entire network and bring a number of passenger benefits, such as increased service frequencies and real-time passenger information displays.

The ex-British Rail block signalling system on the Bury and Altrincham lines will be replaced with line of sight operation to achieve consistency across the network. With a maximum permitted speed of 80km/h on the ‘open country’ sections, the ability to stop quickly and easily will be safeguarded by magnetic track brakes. Improved slip/slide controls prevent skidding and the unwanted generation of wheel flats.

Key to the new signalling and control arrangements is the ability to know where trams are at any given time. This is achieved using periodic ‘hard’ track loops plus a system of ‘virtual loops’ created from a series of low power ‘MESH’ radio beacons installed along the routes. The beacons continually ‘talk’ to the trams and each other, allowing control to monitor the position of each tram. This information is used to trigger the anticipated call for junctions, with the final call made after the preceding ‘hard’ loop is passed.

This new signalling system will permit closer headways, resulting in a more frequent service, as well as providing real time service information. Disseminating real time information to the new passenger information displays and public address facilities requires a robust telecom/data network. The original Siemens 36Mbit OTN (Open Transport Network) ring system is being replaced with a High Speed 1Gbit Ethernet LAN. This is an industry standard product and will give improved flexibility and security.

Contract Management and the Future

It has been a busy few years for Metrolink in Greater Manchester. A Metrolink partnership with Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB) has created a unified, integrated Project and Programme management team to oversee the construction of the new lines, which is very successful and will continue for the remainder of the modernisation and extension programme.

To ensure the safety management and change control processes are properly analysed and approved in accordance with ROGS Regulations, an independent ‘Competent Person’ has been appointed.

In more recent times, RATP Dev UK, a subsidiary of the French state-owned company which runs the Paris Metro, has taken over the operational contract to run Greater Manchester’s Metrolink network from Stagecoach plc. The Metrolink system – trams, track and associated infrastructure – will continue to be publicly owned by Transport for Greater Manchester.

New trains

To date a total of 62 new M5000 Flexity Swift trams have been ordered from Bombardier to serve the expanding network. Each has a distinctive yellow and silver colour, making them strikingly different from the older T68 fleet. The first of the new trams entered service in December 2009, running between Piccadilly rail station and Eccles. More trams continue to arrive on a phased basis.

Approval by Greater Manchester’s transport leaders has been given to ‘retire’ Metrolink’s oldest trams and in September, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) agreed to order 12 more M5000s in order to replace these T68 vehicles, which have been in service since the network opened in 1992.

These are certainly exciting times. When complete, Manchester’s Metrolink system will stretch across the conurbation to reach new passengers and open up new public transport opportunities. Greater Manchester is investing £1.4 billion to upgrade and expand this iconic network which will almost treble in size, becoming the largest tram operation in the UK.

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