Could tram-trains finally connect Stockport to Manchester’s Metrolink network?

A tram, in Manchester. It’s going to Eccles, btw. Image: Getty.

On the January 22, Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, announced plans to extend Manchester’s Metrolink to Stockport. The extension relies on the success of the trials of tram-trains, which local Tories have previously signalled support for.

According to Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM), tram-train refers to “a light-rail public transport system where tram services like Metrolink can share lines with conventional trains”. The idea is that tram-train routes would “help to improve access to the city centre at the busiest times, while also offering more capacity on the heavy rail network”. Using existing or re-opened railway lines would also be cheaper than building new tram lines. 

It’s probably worth noting at this point that Stockport has two Tory MPs and that the Johnson government currently has a strong desire to please voters in the north.

While the prospect of Metrolink coming to Stockport is good news for the town, residents can be forgiven for shrugging and saying, “Believe it when I see it mate”. 

Aside from being glass half empty people a lot of the time, we have been here before.

Stockport should have had the Metrolink 15 years ago: It was promised to the town under the ‘Big Bang’ plan of the early 2000’s, which included a new line to Manchester Airport which would have continued on to Stockport. That line was scrapped, along with new lines to Oldham and Rochdale, by then transport minister Alistair Darling in 2004. Having been burnt once, Stopfordians won’t believe we’re getting Metrolink until we see the first tram pull into the town centre. 

Why should we be more hopeful this time? For one thing, Metrolink and Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) seem to have learned a series of very hard lessons since 2004. Chief among these is that, rather than going for large, expensive projects, any extensions to the Metrolink would have to be achieved by smaller projects, such as the lines to Manchester Airport (but not to Stockport), Rochdale and Oldham (which were all eventually built as separate projects) in a slower, more piecemeal fashion. 

Another reason why the Metrolink is more likely to come to Stockport this time is that work starts this year on the Stockport Interchange building project, intended to improve the existing bus station. The project was first mooted as one of the projects that would have been funded by a proposed congestion charge in 2008. Having spent £120m on Stockport Interchange, keeping it solely for the use of our far from perfect buses while providing a better linking route to our atrocious trains would be a missed opportunity: space for a tram route and tram stop are apparently included in the plans.

A tram-train network would also be cheaper than building a series of tram lines to Stockport. It’s been proposed before, alongside suggestions that closed railway lines could be re-opened to run the tram-trains. Three of the four potential routes TFGM has identified for possible tram-train development are in Stockport, or would pass through Stockport. 

A map of possible new routes and stations. Image: TfGM.

It’s this compromise of tram-trains rather than “proper” trams that makes me feel like a poor country cousin though. Not only have I spent the past 15 years feeling like an urchin peering in through the windows of the big house at the rich children with their luxurious toys, but I’m now not even going to get the same toys as those children. Personally, I’d take second hand toys, but there is still a suggestion of the Stockport Metrolink being an afterthought. 

Still, better second hand toys than no toys at all. The population of Bolton aren’t even mentioned in TfGM’s future plans for the Metrolink, despite having a better designed transport interchange than Stockport currently has. God only knows when Bolton will be getting any trams. 


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.