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 does the Greater Manchester Spatial Plan mean for the region’s housing supply and green belt?

Manchester. Image: Getty.

We’re not even halfway through January and we’ve already seen one of the biggest urban stories of the year – the release of Greater Manchester’s new spatial plan for the city-region. The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) sets an ambitious target to build more than 200,000 homes over the next 18 years.

Despite previous statements indicating greenbelt development was off the table, the plan allows for some moderate easing of greenbelt, combined with denser city centre development. This is sensible, pragmatic and to be welcomed but a question remains: will it be enough to keep Manchester affordable over the long-term?

First, some history on Manchester’s housing strategy: This is not the first iteration of the controversial GMSF. The first draft was released by Greater Manchester’s council leaders back in October 2016 (before Andy Burnham was in post), and aimed to build 227,000 houses by 2037. Originally, it proposed releasing 8.2 per cent of the green belt to provide land for housing. Many campaigners opposed this, and the newly elected mayor, Andy Burnham, sent the plan back to the drawing board in 2017.

The latest draft published this week contains two important changes. First, it releases slightly less greenbelt land than the original plan, 4.1 per cent of the total, but more than Andy Burnham previously indicated he would. Second, while the latest document is still ambitious, it plans for 26,000 fewer homes over the same period than the original.

To build up or to build out?

In many cities, the housing supply challenge is often painted as a battle-ground between building high-density homes in the city centre or encroaching on the green belt. Greater Manchester is fortunate in that it lacks the density of cities such as London – suggesting less of a confrontation between people who what to build up and people who want to build out.

Prioritising building on Greater Manchester’s plentiful high-density city centre brownfield land first is right and will further incentivise investment in public transport to reduce the dependence of the city on cars. It makes the goal in the mayor’s new transport plan of 50 per cent of all journeys in Greater Manchester be made on foot, bikes or public transport by 2040 easier to realise.

However, unlike Greater London’s greenbelt which surrounds the capital, Greater Manchester’s green belt extends deep into the city-region, making development on large amounts of land between already urbanised parts of the city-region more difficult. This limits the options to build more housing in parts of Greater Manchester close to the city centre and transport nodes. The worry is that without medium-term reform to the shape of Manchester’s green belt, it may tighten housing supply in Manchester even more than the green belt already does in places such as London and York. In the future, when looking to undertake moderate development on greenbelt land, the mayor should look to develop in these areas of ‘interior greenbelt’ first.

Greater Manchester’s Green Belt and Local Authority Boundaries, 2019.

Despite the scale of its ambition, the GMSF cannot avoid the sheer size of the green belt forever: it covers 47 per cent of the total metropolitan area). In all likelihood, plans to reduce the size of the green belt by 2 per cent will need to be looked at again once the existing supply of brownfield land runs low – particularly if housing demand over the next 18 years is higher than the GMSF expects, which should be the case if the city region’s economy continues to grow.

An example of a successful political collaboration

The GMSF was a politically pragmatic compromise achieved through the cooperation of the metropolitan councils and the mayoral authority to boost the supply of homes. It happened because Greater Manchester’s mayor has an elected mandate to implement and integrate the GMSF and the new transport plan.

Other cities and the government should learn from this. The other metro mayors currently lacking spatial planning powers, in Tees Valley and the West Midlands, should be gifted Greater Manchester-style planning powers by the government so they too can plan and deliver the housing and transport their city-regions need.

Long-term housing strategies that are both sustainable and achievable need to build both up and out. In the short-term Greater Manchester has achieved this, but in the future, if its economic success is maintained, it will need to be bolder on the green belt than the proposals in the current plan. By 2037 Manchester will not face a trade-off between high-density flats in the city centre or green belt reform – it will need to do both.  If the city region is to avoid the housing problems that bedevil London and other successful cities, policy makers need to be ready for this.

Anthony Breach is an economic analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.