Manchester’s trams are getting their own concentric fare zones

A Metrolink tram in zone 1. Image: Getty.

Let's have a quick chat about the mathematics of transport fares.

Imagine you have a tram network with two stops on it. There's really only one journey you can do – I mean, you can do it in two directions, but that’s the same distance, so we can assume it’s the same fare. That means that, ignoring all that complicated stuff like child fares and other discounts, then there'll be a single journey.

Now let's add a third stop to the network. Now there are three possible routes: A-B, A-C, B-C. So, that’s three fares. With a fourth stop, there are six, as you're adding travelling between D and those three earlier destinations. With five stops it's another four, so 10; with six, it's another five, so 15.

You might dimly remember this sequence from your school days. These are the triangular numbers: the Nth triangular number is the number of dots you'd get in a triangle in which each side measured N dots, which is the sum of all the full numbers from 1 to N.

Three sides to every story. Image: Melchoir/Wikimedia Commons.

So, anyway, there are 93 stops on the Manchester Metrolink trams network. If every possible journey between each combination of two stops had its own individual fare, how many fares do you think you would need?

The answer is the 92nd triangular number, which is 4,278.

Which is a lot.

No transport network really wants to be administering a fare system involving 4,278 separate fares before you even get to discounts and so forth. So Metrolink, like most transport systems, has simplified things a little, by coming up with a zonal fare system.

But it has not, historically, simplified things as much as you'd think. Here's the status quo:

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By my count that's still 18 different fare zones, which is still 171 possible journeys, plus presumably fares for journeys which stay in each single zone. It's bloody complicated, is my point here.

A lot of transport systems have congregated around a different model to simplify their fares. Since the 1980s, London has used a series of concentric rings, ranging from zone 1 (central London) to zone 6 (the outer suburbs; on some lines run by the city’s transport authorities, the inner ring of commuter towns are now in zones 7 to 9). You can find other concentric fare zone systems in other cities, including Paris and Barcelona.

Metrolink has now been instructed by the Greater Manchester authorities, including mayor Andy Burnham, to introduce its own concentric zonal fare system. It’s even produced a map, to show where the boundaries would be. Here it is:

Click to expand.

And here's the geographic version:

Click to expand.

So, basically: zone 1 is central Manchester; zone 2 is within a couple of miles (including, pleasingly, the Salford Quays: the regional equivalent of Canary Wharf); zone 3 is a few miles beyond that and zone 4 the outermost bits of the network.

This isn't certain to happen: there'll be a "public engagement exercise" any day now, with the plan confirmed in July. But it seems probable that, from 2019, this is how Metrolink will work.

The fun thing will be to see if the new fare zones get tied up with matters of identity, as they have elsewhere. In Paris, zone 1 is restricted to the city proper. In London, the knowledge that your new flat is in zone 4, say, can have a direct impact on the how likely your friends are to visit it. Whether Greater Manchester will go a similar way remains to be seen.


But the point here, the most important thing of all, is that we had a chance to publish some maps.

Maps are great.

Sorry, where was I?

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

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Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.


There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

Click to expand. 

With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

Click to expand. 

While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

Click to expand. 

Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).