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.
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.