Letter: Manchester’s Ordsall Chord was not the cause of its rail network’s problems

The Ordsall Curve. Image: Network Rail.

One of our occasional forays into the CityMetric postbag


Whilst the article on 11 reasons why Northern rail is in chaos was generally accurate and informative, I feel that the paragraph on the Ordsall Chord came to the erroneous conclusion that it is becoming a curse. I believe this was a result of a common misunderstanding of what the chord is actually there to do.

 The article stated, “The Ordsall Curve has created more demand without creating any new capacity.” This is not the case at all. The Ordsall Chord, at least with the services running over it in the current timetable, cannot create any new demand whatsoever. Besides journeys between the central Manchester stations (where you can often walk faster than the train, or get a much more frequent tram or bus), no direct journey opportunities are available now that weren’t available before the chord. The trains that use the chord do not gain any time through doing so. The idea of the chord is emphatically not to (directly) increase passenger demand.

It is true that there are now more services passing through Victoria, but this isn’t fundamentally a bad thing – Victoria is a through station and is used most effectively when trains run through it. Previously, most trains terminated there, so having them pass through – whether they are Transpennine trains going long distances or Northern ones terminating at Rochdale or Stalybridge instead – increases capacity at the station.

There is a case to be made that there are too many trains are at Victoria, and that the station isn’t big enough to cope. The solution is to make improvements at Victoria to help it cope with the number of trains, not to keep them causing similar trouble at Piccadilly.

It is also certainly true that problems do occur when these services are not running on time – but this is not, in general, caused by the Ordsall Chord, or by trains running through the station rather than terminating, but by wider issues with Northern at the moment.

The real advantage of the chord is to improve capacity at Piccadilly. Piccadilly is built to be a terminus for trains from the south, not a through station for trains to and from the east – yet that is what Transpennine used it for until the timetable change.

The old timetable saw trains arriving from the Airport, reversing at Piccadilly and carrying on towards Huddersfield. This isn’t a very good use of the station. These trains were using the terminating platforms despite not terminating at the station, and were getting in the way of other trains as they came in and out.

Worse still was the Liverpool to Scarborough service, which used the through platforms at Piccadilly and then ran across the main lines out of the station in order to get towards Stalybridge, getting in the way of everything in the process.

It is far preferable to switch these services to Victoria, which is built as a through station, and to use that as the main station in Manchester for West Yorkshire and destinations beyond. To achieve this, the chord is needed – to get the airport trains to Victoria, and to maintain links to Piccadilly for the Transpennine trains.

The hope is that now paths will be freed up into Piccadilly from the south, allowing more trains to run on the lines that converge on Stockport, and improving reliability, too. These services haven’t yet been realised for many of the reasons you state, but will undoubtedly be of benefit when they do arrive.

Of course, all of these advantages of the chord are theoretical, and the reality since the change has not live up to the hopes. The important point, though, is that the Ordsall Chord was not the cause these problems: instead it’s an example of the kind of infrastructure that is needed to improve capacity in Manchester. It is indeed correct to say that the lack of extra through platforms at Piccadilly undermines the purpose of the chord – but to suggest that the chord is in itself a curse is very much mistaken. The problems highlighted have been despite the chord, not because of it.

Kind Regards,

Philip Chandler, Halifax


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.