Network Rail let me have a play on Manchester’s new rail bridge. Here’s what I learned

The new bridge in all its glory. Image: Network Rail.

By the time the railways arrived in Manchester, the city was already built up, forcing trains to finish their journey on the edge of the urban area. To this day, it still has two main stations: Victoria, which sits on the northern edge of the city centre, and serves destinations across the north; and Piccadilly, which serves a smaller chunk of the north, but also provides trains to Birmingham, London and points south.

There are many ways in which this situation is less than ideal. For a start it means that travellers get off a train, only to find they’re still surprisingly far from the city centre. For another, terminating services take up more space (because you need more platforms) and time (because crews need to change ends) than through ones.

Then there’s Manchester Airport, the busiest in the north, used by travellers right across the region. But that’s to the south of the city, on a line into Piccadilly, which makes it annoyingly hard to get to by train.

The proposed PiccVic tunnel. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

So what with one thing and another, linking up Manchester’s two stations in some way has been an ambition for decades. In the mid-1970s, there was a plan for a “Picc-Vic” tunnel, which would have served five underground stations in the city centre – but that, inevitably, got cancelled due to lack of funds. The city council instead started to focus its efforts on the new Metrolink tram network; but while that’s been great for locals and commuters, it’s not done much for longer-distance travellers

A few weeks from today, though, trains will travel directly between Piccadilly and Victoria for the first time. To do so, they’ll use existing lines to the south and west of the city centre, as well as 300m of new track, known as the Ordsall Chord.

And, for reasons that aren’t exactly clear, the nice people at Network Rail let me have a go on their new bridge. Here I am, in my fetching new personal protective equipment:

Jacket, trousers, boots, gloves, eye protection, hard hat: all present and correct. Ability to take a remotely flattering selfie: conspicuous by its absence. Image: author provided.

(The trousers were my size, which was unexpected, because I hadn’t actually told Network Rail what size I was. This lead me to worry they kept a database of such things, but the press office assured me that this had literally never happened before, and was extremely unlikely to happen again. So anyway.)

The Ordsall Chord has been talked about for a very long time: parliament actually agreed to build the thing, then known as the Castlefield Curve, all the way back in 1979, just after the cancellation of the Picc-Vic tunnel. In some ways it’s an obvious missing link – remember we’re talking about just 300m of new track, costing under £100m, which isn’t that much as these things go. But Britain being what it is, it proved rather easier to persuade ministers to build London’s £15bn Crossrail instead.

A schematic of the new curve. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In 2011, though, then chancellor George Osborne unexpectedly announced £85m of funding. The project somehow survived austerity and the new bridge, in the borderlands between Manchester and Salford, officially opened last week (although the first trains won’t run until next month).

A scale model of the new link, nearby in what was Manchester Liverpool Road station; it’s now a part of the Museum of Science & Industry. Image: author provided.

I say it’s a bridge: as it happens, it’s actually two bridges. The bit your eye is drawn to is a structure known as a “network arch”, which means those wires crosses at least two others. That part will carry trains over the River Irwell, which divides Manchester from Salford.

Beyond that, though, there’s a second bridge: a flat one, across a section of the inner ring road. Linking them is a slight dip in the metal sides of the bridge (though not, obviously, in the track).

A map of the area. New curve highlighted in yellow. Image: Google.

This, along with the asymmetrical shape of the arch which facilities it, is a purely aesthetic feature. So is the colour: the metal was allowed to rust in the Manchester climate, partly to protect it from the elements, but also to make it look cool. “We don’t want it to read as different structures as you look along the river,” Peter Jenkins, the head of transport at architects BDP and lead architect on the project, explained at the official opening ceremony. The design, he added, was “not uncharted, but rarely charted”.

To be fair, it is a great looking bridge: something that looks like a landmark, rather than just a piece of infrastructure. One of the guys who’d worked on the project told me, as a group of us stood on the bridge, that he hoped it would be illuminated at night, just to show it off and make it a feature of the city’s skyline.

(Incidentally, as excited as I was to go play on the bridge, it wasn’t entirely clear what I was meant to do once I got there. I tramped up and down a bit, took some pictures of the city’s skyline, and occasionally checked nervously that there was no way a train could get near me. But what was I actually meant to do? And what was a decent interval before it was acceptable to, y’know, get off the bridge again? Ah well, better take another photo I suppose.)

A view from a bridge. Image: author provided.

Looking good is all very well, of course, but what will the Ordsall Chord actually do? 


For a start, it’ll allow travellers from Yorkshire, the north east and other parts of the north to travel directly to the airport for the first time: that should hopefully work out well the airport, the road network and the wider economy.

It’ll also speed up journey times. Longer distance services will no longer have to reverse, or trundle all the way around Manchester on far-flung bits of track. Instead, they’ll be able to go straight around the city centre.

(Seriously, I’ve been up here 20 minutes now. Is it okay to get down again yet? Surely they must all have noticed that I have no idea what I’m doing right now. Surely.)

Mike Heywood, the director who managed the project for Network Rail, pointed me to another, less obvious benefit. At the moment, the various trains terminating at Piccadilly often have to cross each other’s paths to reach their platforms. This, if you don’t want trains to crash into each other, limits the number of trains you can actually run.

By diverting a share of trains via two new through-platforms and the chord, Heywood told me, you can reduce that, and add 25 per cent to Piccadilly’s capacity at a stroke.

The side view. Image: author provided.

Oh, and by making the new bridge look good, those who built it also hope it’ll help kick-start regeneration along a rather neglected stretch of the River Irwell, too.  Not bad for 300m of new track.

This is only one part of what the industry has termed the Great North Rail project. Others include an extra platform at Manchester Airport, electrification on assorted routes in the north west, and – best of all, given the state of the existing rolling stock – vast numbers of new trains, due to appear next year.


 The region’s transport network is still not getting anything like the care or attention that we take for granted in the south east, of course, but all the same, it’s nice to be able to write about a new railway line in the north for once. AND they let me go play on a bridge.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

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

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