Manchester Airport hits new heights

The days of airline passengers relying on road transport to and from major airports are firmly over. With road congestion increasing and car parking becoming more expensive, few (if any) new airports are being built without a dedicated rail or light rail link to the city they serve.

For existing airports, adding these facilities where they do not exist can be problematic. But Manchester Airport has proved that a long-term strategic approach can bring huge benefits for the travelling public, airlines and airports. It is the third busiest in Britain, with almost 23 million people flying to, from or transiting through it in the year to August 31. And there’s more to come, with an ambitious £1 billion expansion plan set to double passenger numbers by 2050.

In this context, it’s surprising that it took until 1993 - 58 years after it opened in 1935 - for the airport to be rail-served at all. Since then any doubt about the importance of a rail link has been thoroughly eliminated, and 3.3 million people used the station in 2013-14 - more than double the numbers of just a decade ago.

With a journey time of around 20 minutes, and trains departing on average every ten minutes to or from Manchester Piccadilly, the service frequency to the city centre alone is comparable with other major European cities. 

When the huge range of additional destinations is factored in - they include Edinburgh Waverley and Glasgow Central, as well as local services to Stockport, Wigan and Southport (among many others) - Manchester Airport station is a transport hub of national importance. 

Better still, trains run through the night to Manchester Piccadilly and beyond, allowing passengers with late night or early morning flights to leave their cars at home, and when flights are delayed to complete their journeys safely and in good time.

Capacity has been upgraded massively from the two platforms the station started with. A third platform was opened in 2008, but such was the growth in demand that a fourth was completed in May this year. It is due to begin operation this autumn. 

Construction of this platform was achieved three years ahead of original estimates in 2012, in order to coincide with construction of Manchester Metrolink platforms. And at a cost of £20 million, it was completed on budget along with associated track and signalling works.

Electric trains have started serving the Airport from Liverpool using newly electrified lines, as the railway in the North West is improved. And there are longer-term ambitions for extending the railway west towards Northwich to offer even more possible connections. Completion of the Ordsall Chord (see pages 48-53) in 2016 should also improve journey opportunities for passengers. 

The station is managed by TransPennine Express and is located between the airport’s Terminals 1 and 2. Signage throughout the airport is excellent, with passengers pointed towards ‘The Station’ - as it is known to the booking office in the airport terminal. 

Customer service is excellent, with a warm welcome for passengers arriving from overseas, and staff are very evidently willing to go the ‘extra mile’ to ensure connections are made and destinations reached. This is customer care of the highest order - after a long flight (possibly ending with a passenger making their first visit to the UK), access to easy, simple and reliable onward travel can make a massive difference.

The station is well equipped with facilities that passengers require, including a variety of retail outlets as well as toilets, cash points and escalators. There are fast ticket machines, while passenger help desks are provided for passengers using not only the trains but also buses and coaches, thereby further enhancing its interchange opportunities. 

Judges highlighted these interchange options, which as well as National Rail and through bus services now include Manchester Metrolink. 

The light rail system began serving two dedicated platforms at the station (in addition to the four National Rail platforms) in November 2014, and operates a 12-minute frequency to Cornbrook. Approved in 2009, the tram link opened 18 months early, and it will be further improved when the Second City Crossing opens (meaning trams from Victoria can serve the station from 2017).

Currently TransPennine Express and Northern Rail operate services to the station, but this is set to change radically in around 2033 when the second phase of High Speed 2 begins operation. Whether the platforms for this will be incorporated within the existing station is uncertain, but it emphasises the importance of the airport and its public transport links to the North West and beyond.

The expansion and enhancements at this station (which a decade ago may not have made the Large Stations category at all) have not come about by accident. They have been driven by train operators, Network Rail, industry partners, and regional and national government.

Capacity upgrades have been matched by timetable changes designed to maximise the use of train paths, while the construction of Platform 4 and the adjacent Metrolink facilities required close liaison between Network Rail, Manchester Airport, train operators and Transport for Greater Manchester.

The result is an interchange that is doing exactly what was intended from the outset: attract passengers to the airport, and reduce pressure on congested roads and parking facilities. The growth in passenger numbers at the airport and station alike is tribute to those efforts.

These are exciting times for railways in the North West, and Manchester in particular. Railways in the region are being transformed, with Manchester a focus for capacity improvements. If the dream of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ is to come true, then the airport will play a vital role in delivering the economic benefits so long sought. 

The future looks bright, and even before HS2 reaches the airport, it may well be that further expansion is developed to meet rapidly growing demand. More services to more destinations - and possibly further extensions of the Metrolink network - are set to add to this station’s importance.

Those are all possibilities for the future. For now, the National Rail Awards judges were tremendously impressed by what they saw. Manchester Airport is a modern station offering solutions to modern rail problems, and is showing the way forward for other major regional airports. 

  • This feature was published in RAIL 786 on October 28 2015

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