Next stop for Metrolink

In the mid-1980s, GMPTE had bought from BR the derelict railway land between Trafford Bar and East Didsbury (formerly part of the Midland Main Line out of Manchester), with the aim of reopening the route for Metrolink services at a future date. 

While BR was happy to offload the land and the liabilities of maintaining the structures on the route, this proved to be a shrewd move by GMPTE. The trackbed had been secured for possible future use, without the risk of land being sold off on a piecemeal basis for further developments that could have encroached on the trackbed and potentially jeopardised the reinstatement of the line. 

The smallest proposed route under the Phase 3 expansion was an extension to the Eccles line between Harbour City and Broadway, featuring a quarter-mile single line installed between Harbour City and MediaCityUK. 

The MediaCityUK development was being constructed by the Peel Holdings Group, and would become the main northern headquarters of the BBC along with ITV and a number of other large media organisations. The development was designed to bring a host of media companies to one central area in Salford Quays, and the construction of the Metrolink line into the heart of the development would provide a high-quality direct transport link from Manchester to the MediaCityUK piazza.

The largest single proposed route under the ‘Big Bang’ was another brand new line from St Werburgh’s Road to Manchester Airport, running through Northern Moor, Benchill and Wythenshawe. While Manchester Airport was already served by a good rail service, the route of the Metrolink line was designed to serve many of the large housing developments around Wythenshawe - many of the staff employed at the airport live in the areas which would be served by Metrolink services, giving an alternative to local bus services.

Additionally, a second Metrolink Depot and a new Control Room would be built at Old Trafford, on derelict former industrial land adjacent to the Altrincham line, to serve the increased tram fleet that would be required. Metrolink’s original depot at Queens Road would also have its main workshop building extended, with additional stabling sidings installed for increased tram capacity.

It was certainly an ambitious project, but GMPTE had proved on several occasions that it was not afraid of ambition when it came to the development of Metrolink. 

Funding approval for £520 million was subsequently forthcoming from the Labour Government, before being withdrawn at a later date as a result of rising costs during the tendering process for the construction works, when it became clear that the full project could not be delivered for the funds that had been made available. 

Representations from GMPTE, which mounted a high-profile ‘Get our Metrolink back on track’ campaign, resulted in the original funding being released, although the additional funds required for the full Phase 3 works would have to be sought from other sources. 

The release of the original Government funding enabled GMPTE to revise its Metrolink aspirations until such time as it could fund the full Phase 3 project, with the expansions effectively split into two sections (Phase 3A and Phase 3B). The Phase 3A works could be funded using the £520m released by the Government.

Now dubbed the ‘Little Bang’, the funding allocated by Government allowed construction work to begin on conversion of the Oldham Rochdale line, while the Ashton-under-Lyne route would be constructed from Piccadilly to Droylsden and the East Didsbury line would be built as far as St Werburgh’s Road in Chorlton. These lines would be constructed under Phase 3A, with funding to complete the remaining Phase 3B sections actively being sought by GMPTE. 

The consortium appointed to manage the construction works was M-Pact Thales (MPT). The MPT consortium consisted of Laing O’Rourke, VolkerRail and Thales UK, and was responsible for the design, construction and maintenance of the new Metrolink extensions. The existing Phase 1 and Phase 2 lines were to be maintained by the Metrolink operator, but the maintenance of all of the new routes would be the responsibility of MPT. 

The spur from the Eccles line to MediaCityUK was funded separately as part of the MediaCityUK development, but the construction would be managed by MPT. 

To serve the new lines a total of 32 new trams would be required to operate the level of services that were being proposed. 

In 2007, GMPTE had ordered eight M5000 trams from Bombardier to supplement its fleet of 26 Firema T68 and six Ansaldo T68A trams. As high-floor trams from Bombardier’s Flexity Swift design, the trams were similar to ones delivered to Cologne, and were fitted with traction equipment from Vossloh. 

This initial order was placed to allow Metrolink to increase capacity on the Bury-Altrincham line, which had suffered from overcrowding for many years.

The first M5000 (numbered 3001) was delivered to Manchester on July 13 2009. 

It was quickly followed by an order for another four M5000s (3009-3012) to operate the new MediaCityUK service, which was proposed to operate as a shuttle service from Cornbrook. The next order was for 28 M5000s (3013-3040) to complete the tram order for the Phase 3A lines, with GMPTE having options from Bombardier to order further trams.

In May 2009, the former Greater Manchester Integrated Transport Authority and the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities had established the £1.5 billion Greater Manchester Transport Fund - this would allow the funding of several key public transport improvements, including all of the Phase 3B construction works. The investment was funded from a combination of central government grants and £775m from a combination of borrowings to be repaid from future Metrolink net revenues.

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