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.

 
 
 
 

A Century after radical leftists were elected to its city hall, Vienna’s social democratic base is slipping away

Karl Marx Hof. Image: Kagan Kaya.

Karl Marx-Hof, a kilometre-long municipal apartment block in Vienna’s wealthy 19th district, was first named after the father of the communist movement by Austria’s Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP) in 1927. Its imposing structure borrows from an eclectic mix of modernist, Bauhaus, art deco, neoclassical and baroque architectural styles. In the mould of early soviet experiments, the building, nicknamed The Palace of the Proletariat, housed shared childcare services, gardens and washrooms.

The building is Vienna’s most prominent physical reminder of a period known as Red Vienna, when left-wing radicals found themselves at the helm of the Hapsburg’s former imperial capital during the aftermath of the First World War. 

After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy in 1918, the SDAP won the fledgeling republic’s first elections held under universal suffrage and commenced an ambitious programme of social and economic reform. Leading intellectual lights of the party sought to unite the two great strands of the 20th-century labour movement, reconciling parliamentary socialism and revolutionary communism under their new current of non-Bolshevik “Austro-Marxism”. Karl Marx-Hof epitomised their radical ambitions. “When we are no longer here”, Mayor Karl Seitz told an assembled crowd of workers at the building’s opening in 1930, “these bricks will speak for us.”

When I visited Karl Marx-Hof on a sunny day in June, Monica and George, two of its residents, were walking their two Chihuahuas around the estate’s leafy, quiet courtyards. “We moved here last year,” Monica tells me. “It’s really nice because you’ve got a lot of green space in the middle of the city.”

The young couple are the beneficiaries of a generous system of public housing provision. Vienna has a relative abundance of high-quality municipal flats compared with most large capitals. “We weren’t waiting long for the flat – moving in here was really fast”, Monica says. Currently, 60 per cent of Vienna’s residents live in either municipally owned, subsidised housing, or in social homes run by not-for-profit cooperatives. The remaining portion of private homes is subject to strict rent controls and regulations.

The social democrats and their less radical successors have remained the dominant party in Vienna since the city’s first election, save for an 11-year hiatus of fascist dictatorship from 1934, followed by Anschluss and Nazi occupation from 1938. The city remains a red statelet in an otherwise conservative country. Indeed, Austria is now more associated with the far right than the radical left. But even Vienna is no longer immune to the trend of waning support for centre-left parties that has gripped European countries since 2008, and cracks are beginning to appear in its social democratic project.

Two exhibitions in the city – one in the former communal wash house of Karl Marx-Hof, the other in the grand Wien Museum MUSA – note the achievements of Red Vienna’s experiment in local socialism: the introduction of pensions and unemployment support; the establishment of a nascent public healthcare system; the opening of kindergartens, schools run on Montessori principles, public baths, open-air swimming pools, libraries, parks, leisure facilities, arts centres; and, of course, a programme of mass council house building, all paid for by a system of progressive income taxation coupled with duties on luxury goods, including servants, champagne, private cars and riding horses.

Unlike the Bolsheviks, (and partly because, as a provincial government, it lacked the powers to do so), the SDAP did not expropriate or nationalise factories or private industry without compensation, but instead paid former owners whenever buildings or land passed from private to public hands. The party built what it perceived to be the chrysalis of a new egalitarian society, while leaving the market and private ownership of the means of production largely intact. In many ways, its policies palliated the worst effects of early 20th century industrial capitalism like slum housing, mass unemployment and extreme poverty. Red Vienna laid the ground for the modern European welfare state, inspiring other social democratic governments across the continent to implement similar policies after the Second World War. 


“Back then the social democrats were good,” Monica tells me, attempting to calm her excitable dogs by pulling on their leads. Does she intend to vote for the social democrats in the upcoming national elections in September? “We vote for the blue ones,” she answers. Monica and George will cast their vote for the Freheitliche Partei Osterreichs (FPO), the Freedom Party, an organisation founded after the Second World War by a former Nazi minister of agriculture and high-ranking SS officer. “It’s because of all the refugees and all the violence that’s going on here,” she claims. “Shootings are more frequent in Vienna.”

Austria has one of the lowest murder rates in the world, almost half that of England and Wales, and Vienna itself is known for its relative safety compared to other European capitals. But hundreds of thousands of refugees have travelled through Austria over the last four years. Many have made the city their home, but most have transited towards Germany, at Angela Merkel’s invitation. The mass movement of people from across the Mediterranean to central and northern Europe has ruptured the country’s social-democratic pact. In 2016, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party narrowly missed out on victory in the presidential election, receiving 46 per cent of the vote.

“Lots of people say they’re just racists,” Monica continues, visibly uncomfortable with the idea that people would attribute malice or prejudice to voters like herself. But she hastens to add that her views, and those of her partner George, aren’t necessarily typical of Vienna’s affluent 19th district. “There are very rich people here, so they vote for the party who protects their interests… You’ll see a lot of big houses, so I think the OVP, the People’s Party, would do well.”

The OVP is the more traditional centre-right party of Austrian politics, and wins the most seats in the 19th district. Yet the city’s voting patterns are diverse. This is partly a result of the policies of successive social democratic administrations placing the integration of social classes and income levels at the heart of their municipal agenda. Subsidised housing can be found alongside wealthy private apartments in the city centre designed by Renzo Piano, and at the foot of the city’s vineyards near up-market wine taverns. Kurt Puchinger, chair of wohnfonds_wien, the city’s land and housing fund, tells me that the council “do not want to have a situation where you can identify the social status of a person by their home address.”

Despite the SDAP’s century-long efforts to promote social cohesion, recent years have seen the rise the FPO’s vote share at the expense of the left. Favoriten is a more solidly working class area of Vienna in the 10th district. There, according to Monica, “most vote for the Freedom Party because they are for stopping migration.” She pauses to consider her words. “Not stopping. Trying to find a way to filter them and control them. Every country has a problem like this.”

Monica’s feeling for the electoral preferences of each of the various Viennese districts proves accurate. After the war, Favoriten elected communists as their local representatives. The district's loyalties quickly switched to the social democrats, and until 2005 the party could comfortably expect to receive over half the votes there, consistently getting more than double the votes of both the far-right Freedom Party and the centre-right People’s Party. But in the most recent 2015 election, the Freedom Party won 24 seats and 38 per cent of the vote, only two points and one seat behind the social democrats. In Austria nationally, the People’s Party, headed by a 32-year-old leader, Sebastian Kurz, with Patrick Bateman overtones, has formed a government with the Freedom Party – but their coalition collapsed ignominiously in May.

Neither Austria as a whole, nor Favoriten in particular, are outliers. In France, Le Pen’s National Rally polls well in the Communist Party’s former “ceinture rouge” outside Paris. In Britain, Labour’s post-industrial heartlands are turning towards the Brexit Party, while blue collar workers in America’s rust belt have backed Donald Trump. And in Vienna, neither the impressive legacy of the SDAP nor the continually high standard of living (the city was rated as the world’s most liveable for the 10th time in 2018 by Mercer, the consultancy giant) is enough to stem the tide of right-wing populism.

Until he was unseated as leader following a corruption scandal in May, Heinz-Christian Strache positioned the FPO as the party of the working class, a guarantor of Austrian identity, and the protector of a generous welfare system now threatened by an influx of migrants. “We believe in our youth,” ran one of his slogans, “the [social democrats] in immigration.”

Sofia is a masseuse who has lived in Karl Marx-Hof for 19 years with her partner and his son. “People are angry with the social democrats now because of refugees,” she told me. “They should change this... They should say ‘we are on the left but we can’t accept everybody here.’” The view that the party have abandoned their traditional voters is widespread, but Sofia isn’t fond of the alternatives. “The FPO – the Nazis – you can’t vote for the Nazis… anyone who votes FPO isn’t my friend… But I won’t vote for the People’s Party because they do everything for rich people, not normal people.”

Sofia reserves her strongest criticism for the youthful Sebastian Kurz, who is likely to become head of another People’s Party-led coalition after elections in September. “I’m scared of him,” she says. “I think he’s a psychopath. I think he’s not a normal person.”

Like many Viennese, Sofia admires the legacy of Red Vienna: “The socialists did a lot of really good things. We are the only city in the world that has so much state housing. And they brought in pensions, health insurance, a lot of things.” But she’s not sure they will get her vote in 2019. In an era of polarisation and anti-establishment rhetoric, the most fertile yet unoccupied political ground seems to be for a radical, redistributive economic programme, coupled with a more conservative vision of shared responsibilities and values, national sovereignty, and sociocultural issues.

“Even in the working class areas of the city,” sighs Kurt Puchinger, the city’s housing fund chair, “less people are voting social democrat. And this is a pity.” 100 years since the old radical Social Democratic Workers’ Party was first elected by a restive, war-weary working class, the working class remains restive, but while the SDAP’s flagship Karl Marx-Hof still stands, the bricks no longer seem to be speaking for them.