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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extensions have been built and new lines opened, while the original 26 Firema T68 and six Ansaldo T68A tram fleets have been replaced by a modern 120-strong fleet of Bombardier/Vossloh M5000 trams to operate services on the expanded 57-mile network.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. 

On the opening day, Chancellor George Osborne visited the Metrolink depot at Trafford to announce further government funding for Metrolink’s proposed extension to Trafford Park, before then travelling along the new Airport line.

Services on Metrolink are operated by a fleet of Bombardier/Vossloh M5000 trams, with the earlier T68 and T68A fleets having been retired from service between 2012 and 2014. Although the trams are capable of operating as coupled units, services on the Airport line are currently operated using single trams, as capacity does not currently demand coupled units. 

Eight trams are required each day for operating the 12-minute frequency of services between Cornbrook and Manchester Airport, and the end-to-end journey time is currently 42 minutes. Due to the existing city centre line operating at capacity, the Airport service is the only Metrolink service to terminate outside the Manchester city centre area.

The use of Cornbrook as a terminus is a temporary measure. Passengers travelling into and beyond the city centre have to change services at Cornbrook because of a large amount of civil engineering works that are under way in the city centre, as TfGM and MPT build a second tram crossing of the city centre.

Once the second city crossing is completed in 2017, plans are in place for the Airport services to be extended towards Manchester Victoria station, giving passengers on the line the opportunity to travel directly into the city centre without having to change trams. 

And it seems users of the new line approve. Within 12 months of services being launched, the route is already carrying 20% more passengers than had been predicted for the first year. With a regular service between 0600 and midnight, it is proving to be a flexible and popular form of transport for locals, as well as airport employees and passengers. 

Another boon from the arrival of the trams has been the regeneration effect, with areas served by tram routes becoming increasingly popular for people looking to move house. This has certainly been the case in Wythenshawe, where initiatives have been under way for some time to regenerate the area. 

In the summer, website Rightmove reported that the M22 postcode area (Wythenshawe) had experienced a growth of more than 60% in house prices over a four-month period, second only to Chelsea. The arrival of Metrolink services is clearly part of the appeal - estate agents around Greater Manchester have reported increased house prices for areas that are directly served by Metrolink services, against those that do not have a tram service in their locality. 

At Wythenshawe, a new bus interchange station has been built alongside the new tram stop, offering better transport links to passengers using both the local bus and tram services. TfGM is currently going through a programme of improving its bus interchange stations, with high-quality interchanges replacing more outdated facilities at several locations. 

One problem that has seemingly dogged the new Airport line more than some of the other new Metrolink routes has been an unfortunate spate of incidents whereby cars have been driven onto segregated sections of the line and become stuck. This causes tram services to be suspended while the offending vehicles are removed from the tracks, which is often a time-consuming and costly exercise. TfGM is carrying out a programme of installing improved road signage across the network, to discourage motorists from encroaching onto the tram tracks. 

After winning the NRA Civil Engineering Achievement prize, TfGM Chief Executive Dr Jon Lamonte said: “The Metrolink Airport line provides a vital connection between Manchester city centre, Wythenshawe and Manchester Airport, improving access to thousands of jobs. It really is a transformative project that delivers real economic benefits to Greater Manchester, and one that we completed a whole year ahead of schedule. I’d like to thank everyone who has contributed, directly or indirectly, to the success of these projects, and to those who helped to prepare the awards submissions and spread the word about the positive work we’re doing.”

The success of the Airport line and the achievements of its early completion has been a real boost for TfGM. And hot on the heels of the NRA, the project has also won a Light Rail Award and a British Construction Industry Award. 

But TfGM clearly has no intention of resting on its laurels. Construction of the Second City Crossing of Manchester city centre is advancing rapidly, with the first section of the route due to be opened before Christmas, and the project due for completion in 2017. Once it has been completed, it is anticipated that Airport services will be extended to operate into Victoria station.

This route will allow services to be improved, as well as relieving some pressure on the existing congested city centre line. A public inquiry is due to take place into the construction of a new Metrolink line to Trafford Park, which it is hoped will be completed in 2019. 

Metrolink has come a long way in its 23-year history, and the recognition by the NRA judges shows that the expanded network really has become the jewel in Manchester’s crown. 

  • This feature was published in RAIL 787 (November 11 2015)

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