A reward for getting to the airport early

From rather humble beginnings as the UK’s first second-generation tramway, there certainly is a buzz about the Metrolink tram system in Manchester. It has been through a period of unprecedented growth in recent years, with one particular high-profile project connected with the popular tramway coming to the attention of RAIL’s National Rail Awards judges. 

The so-called ‘big bang’ expansion of Metrolink has led to the tram network tripling in size over the past five years. A number of extensions have been built and new lines opened, while the original 26 Firema T68 and six Ansaldo T68A tram fleets have been replaced by a modern 120-strong fleet of Bombardier/Vossloh M5000 trams to operate services on the expanded 57-mile network. 

Opened in 1992, Metrolink originally featured two converted British Rail commuter lines (Bury to Manchester and Manchester to Altrincham) linked via a section of street running tramway through the city centre between Manchester Victoria and G-Mex, with a short spur line from Piccadilly Gardens to Piccadilly station, providing a direct link between the city’s two main railway stations for the first time. Services on the line were operated using a fleet of 26 Italian-built Firema T68 trams.

In December 1999, an extension from Cornbrook to Broadway (through Salford Quays) was brought into use as the first part of a new Phase 2 extension through Salford Quays to Eccles. The section from Broadway to Eccles opened a few months later, with six Ansaldo T68A trams procured for operating services on the route. 

In May 2009, a special £1.5 billion fund was agreed to further some 15 transport schemes throughout Greater Manchester. Central to these schemes was the Phase 3 expansion of the Metrolink system to add a series of new lines to MediaCityUK, Rochdale, East Didsbury, Ashton-under-Lyne and Manchester Airport. While the extension to MediaCityUK was just over a quarter of a mile in length, the Airport line was the longest of the proposed new routes - it was also the last one to be scheduled for completion, in the spring of 2016. 

The early stages of the Phase 3 expansion project proved to be initially troublesome for Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM), which owns the Metrolink system. Problems with the integration of a new signalling system caused several of the new extensions to be opened later than had originally been predicted, while the unreliability of the original tram fleets had brought Metrolink to the fierce attention of the local media.

However, fast forward to the end of 2014, and it seems that those early problems were a lifetime ago. Contractor MPact Thales (MPT - a consortium of civil engineering company Laing O’Rourke, rail infrastructure company VolkerRail and engineering company Thales) handed over a new line from St Werburgh’s Road to Manchester Airport more than a year ahead of its original predicted opening date. And to make the achievement even more impressive, it was delivered on budget. 

The completion of this project so far ahead of its target is one of the reasons why the NRA judges decided that Metrolink’s Manchester Airport extension deserved the Civil Engineering Achievement of the Year award at this year’s glittering ceremony at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel on September 17 (RAIL 784).

The establishment of a Metrolink line to Manchester Airport has long been an ambition of TfGM. While the Airport is well served by rail services, TfGM wanted a tram route to operate through many of the large residential areas of south Manchester that were not served by either train or tram (such as Benchill and Wythenshawe), to open up new travel options for local residents. Manchester Airport, the airlines and other companies that operate from it employs thousands of people, many of whom live locally.

MPT has been responsible for the construction of all of the new Phase 3 Metrolink lines. And with a wealth of experience, based on the construction of other Metrolink extensions during the past five years, the organisation has become very slick at construction. 

The airport line is nine miles in length and features 15 new tram stops at Barlow Moor Road, Sale Water Park, Northern Moor, Wythenshawe Park, Moor Road, Baguley, Roundthorn, Martinscroft, Benchill, Crossacres, Wythenshawe Town Centre, Robinswood Road, Peel Hall, Shadowmoss and Manchester Airport. Airport services also use the existing Metrolink tram stops at Cornbrook, Trafford Bar, Firswood, Chorlton and St Werburgh’s Road, where the airport line deviates from Metrolink’s East Didsbury Line. As with all other Metrolink stops, all the tram stops are fully accessible for all users. 

Park and Ride facilities have become an increasingly important aspect of the new Metrolink routes, with large, free car parks provided at various locations around the network. A 300-space Park and Ride car park for Metrolink users has been built at Sale Water Park, located just a few hundred yards from Junction 6 on the M60 motorway. 

Building the £450 million route wasn’t a straightforward process. The chosen route required the installation of three major bridges, as well as construction of a new underpass on the approach to the terminus at Manchester Airport. The installation of two of these bridges, each weighing 580 tonnes, required weekend closures of the M60 and M56 motorways while they were positioned. The third bridge is an impressive 337 metre-long concrete and steel crossing of the River Mersey at Sale Water Park, through an Area of Special Biological Importance. 

Other aspects of the route include more than 28 crossings of road junctions by the new tramway, along with extensive highway works and upgrading to accommodate the Metrolink line. 

Throughout the construction, the impact of the new line on the environment has been taken into consideration. 99% of the waste produced during the construction was diverted away from landfill, while extensive tree planting has been another environmental factor - more than 17,000 trees have been planted to replace 3,565 that had to be removed during the building of the line. 

By late 2013, progress on the Airport line was advancing at a rapid pace, and it was clear to most observers that the line could be potentially finished well ahead of its 2016 target. This proved to be correct, and in June 2014 the first powered testing was able to take place, with trams first reaching Manchester Airport for testing two months later. Once commissioning was completed, three months of driver training and shadow running began. 

Driver training was undertaken by Metrolink operator Metrolink RATP Dev, using a combination of a dedicated driving simulator computer programme and practical driving experience on the line.

The new line opened to passengers on November 3 2014. On the weekend before the opening, a special free preview service was organised between Barlow Moor Road and Manchester Airport, to allow local people the opportunity to travel on the new route before its formal opening. This was both a way of seeing how the new services would operate, and a thank you from TfGM to the residents, who had undoubtedly been disrupted during the line’s construction. 

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