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.

 
 
 
 

To make electric vehicles happen, the government must devolve energy policy to councils

The future. Image: Getty.

Last week, the Guardian revealed that at least a quarter of councils have halted the roll-out of electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure with no plans to resume its installation. This is a fully charged battery-worth of miles short of ideal, given the ambitious decarbonisation targets to which the UK is rightly working.

It’s even more startling given the current focus on inclusive growth, for the switch to EVs is an economic advancement, on an individual and societal level. Decarbonisation will free up resources and push growth, but the way in which we go about it will have impacts for generations after the task is complete.

If there is one lesson that has been not so much taught to us as screamed at us by recent history, it is that the market does not deliver inclusivity by itself. Left to its own devices, the market tends to leave people behind. And people left behind make all kinds of rational decisions, in polling stations and elsewhere that can seem wholly irrational to those charged with keeping pace – as illuminted in Jeremy Harding’s despatch from the ‘periphery’ which has incubated France’s ‘gilet jaunes’ in the London Review of Books.

But what in the name of Nikola Tesla has any of this to do with charging stations? The Localis argument is simple: local government must work strategically with energy network providers to ensure that EV charging stations are rolled out equally across areas, to ensure deprived areas do not face further disadvantage in the switch to EVs. To do so, Ofgem must first devolve certain regulations around energy supply and management to our combined authorities and city regions.


Although it might make sense now to invest in wealthier areas where EVs are already present, if there isn’t infrastructure in place ahead of demand elsewhere, then we risk a ‘tale of two cities’, where decarbonisation is two-speed and its benefits are two-tier.

The Department for Transport (DfT) announced on Monday that urban mobility will be an issue for overarching and intelligent strategy moving forward. The issue of fairness must be central to any such strategy, lest it just become a case of more nice things in nice places and a further widening of the social gap in our cities.

This is where the local state comes in. To achieve clean transport across a city, more is needed than just the installation of charging points.  Collaboration must be coordinated between many of a place’s moving parts.

The DfT announcement makes much of open data, which is undoubtedly crucial to realising the goal of a smart city. This awareness of digital infrastructure must also be matched by upgrades to physical infrastructure, if we are going to realise the full network effects of an integrated city, and as we argue in detail in our recent report, it is here that inclusivity can be stitched firmly into the fabric.

Councils know the ins and outs of deprivation within their boundaries and are uniquely placed to bring together stakeholders from across sectors to devise and implement inclusive transport strategy. In the switch to EVs and in the wider Future of Mobility, they must stay a major player in the game.

As transport minister and biographer of Edmund Burke, Jesse Norman has been keen to stress the founding Conservative philosopher’s belief in the duty of those living in the present to respect the traditions of the past and keep this legacy alive for their own successors.

If this is to be a Burkean moment in making the leap to the transformative transport systems of the future, Mr Norman should give due attention to local government’s role as “little platoons” in this process: as committed agents of change whose civic responsibility and knowledge of place can make this mobility revolution happen.

Joe Fyans is head of research at the think tank Localis.