The Great Manchester Gyratory: An orbital tram line for the Manchester Metrolink

The trams in action. Image: Getty.

Editor’s note: Let’s start 2019 off with a bang, shall we? 

As the Trafford Park Metrolink line progresses, the question of where the Mancunian trams could take us next is beginning to be raised. Many have called for Stockport to be brought onto the network. Others have suggested that Bolton deserves another chance.

But I’m going to suggest that Greater Manchester needs a line that connects almost all of the town centres in the ten local authorities. (Sorry, Wigan, but you are practically in Merseyside.)

Edinburgh may have a dormant orbital trackbed, but 25 per cent of this Manchester loop is already built and operational Metrolink line. A further 10km is currently laid as a “ghost line”, served by just one or two trains a week. This 12 per cent of the line just needs electrifying and modifying from trains to trams. Just under half of the proposed line operates on former railways.

Much of the groundwork has been done on these sections. There are old Victorian cuttings, viaducts, tunnels and bridges that conveniently separate the line from traffic and pedestrians. The remaining stretches would need to connect the sections above together on more expensive new lines, sometimes via roads.

Oooooh, a map. Click to expand. Image: TfGM/Peter White.

Greater Manchester needs an orbital tramline to support the city’s substantial population growth. Manchester’s population expanded more than all but two local authorities at the last census. The roads are already heavily congested, the air is polluted and an orbital line could help tackle both challenges as it makes many thousands of journeys more convenient via public transport.

Circular lines have many advantages. Firstly, they allow passengers to orbit the city without having to go through the centre. They reduce the number of interchanges and free up capacity in the centre of the network. Finally, orbital rail lines usually offer a more competitive alternative to roads, as radial routes more often run parallel to main roads. Many sections of this line would offer a convenient alternative to very convoluted routes via road.

Greater Manchester is ideal for an orbital tram, because it isn’t just one city but a constellation of smaller towns surrounding an urban core. An arch of mill towns encircle Manchester to the north, and to the south commuter suburbs and towns are swelling. This line could stimulate economic growth in the peripheral towns that have been, comparatively, left behind Manchester City Centre.

The route

A geographical version. Click to expand. Image: TfGM/Peter White.

Starting clockwise from 12 o’clock, or Rochdale, the route would follow the existing tram line to Oldham, then follow an abandoned railway line to Ashton where an enhanced interchange could be developed to better connect tram, train and bus. Then the line would follow the current “ghost line” through underused Denton and South Reddish to Heaton Norris, Stockport where it would cross the Manchester spur of the West Coast Mainline. Bringing the line into Stockport stations and town centre would ideal, but also challenging and expensive due to the infrastructure needed to bridge the Mersey valley and motorway. But what the hey, this is fantasy line so I propose a viaduct made of solid gold to guide the line in and out of Stockport.

From Stockport the line would make its way back to the old Sheffield & Midland railway line that includes the current East Didsbury Metrolink stop. The East Didsbury line curves toward the city centre and at Trafford Bar the line has an opportunity to utilise an defunct Victorian tunnel.

This is the exciting part for fellow transport nerds: as you enter Trafford Bar on the Didsbury line, from the South, there’s an old bricked up tunnel, which used to lead trains under Old Trafford to the Cornbrook sidings. The historical map below reveals the route of the abandoned tunnel, which starts just south of Trafford Bar tram station and could possibly be used to route the tram through the existing neighbourhood to join up with the existing tram at Pomona.

As the line crosses the Irwell into Salford it follows the existing line, through Salford Quays to Weaste. The establishment of the BBC in Salford Quays came under criticism for the lack of locals that were employed. Headlines suggested only 26 Salfordians were working there in 2012, which is less surprising when you highlight the physical barriers between most of Salford and Salford Quays, a motorway and the first passenger railway line.

A new circular tramline through Salford Quays has the potential to finally open the Quays up for Salford and beyond. From the Eccles tram line, the orbital line could continue up Langworthy Road through the heart of Salford and join the Manchester to Southport line, where a third and fourth rail line currently lay empty.


After Walkden station the trams could drop to the path of the former Manchester & Wigan Railway line. As the former line enters Bolton, there are some houses that have since been built in its path, which provides a good excuse to divert via the Royal Bolton Hospital, providing step free access to patients. Returning to the abandoned rail line there may be opportunities to use more Victorian tunnels that used to guide trains into Bolton’s Moor Street station, then follow the road to Bolton Station.

From Bolton Station the line can, more or less, follow the old Lancashire and Yorkshire line between Bolton and Rochdale and an interchange could be built above the existing Bury Metrolink line. Unfortunately, the East Lancashire Railway would probably need to surrender the portion of their line from Bury to Heywood but in many ways their wish to fully revive the line would be finally granted. Finally, from the Castleton junction the line could continue up to the Rochdale Metrolink line, although there may be a need for some large infrastructure or for it to hit the road on this stretch.

There are a plethora of benefits from an orbital tram line in Manchester. It would create greater connectivity between town centres and reinvigorate struggling high streets, such as Bolton’s. It would reduce traffic congestion and tackle air quality, a key concern in Manchester, by making many thousands more public transport journeys more viable. It would connect some of the conurbation’s most cut-off neighbourhoods and generate much more capacity for this rapidly expanding city.

Peter White is a programme support tutor in the Faculty of Health, Psychology and Social Care at Manchester Metropolitan University.

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.