April 16, 2018

Manchester on the move

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A major expansion programme has transformed Manchester Metrolink into Britain’s largest light rail network over the past decade. But what is the secret of this success? And what is next? Kevin Smith met Jon Lamonte, chief executive of Transport for Greater Manchester, to find out.

ST Peter’s Square in central Manchester is the site of two of the city’s most iconic buildings. The spectacular domed Manchester Central Library stands next to the neo-gothic Town Hall, which is widely considered one of the finest interpretations of Gothic revival architecture in the world.

Manchester MetrolinkThe large piazza, which is also home to several modern office buildings, is served by another more recent Manchester icon: the city’s yellow and silver trams. St Peter’s Square is the interchange between the original cross-city line, which opened in 1992, and the Second City Crossing, which carried its first services in February 2017.

Up to 45 trams now pass through the station every hour in each direction, with the fleet of 120 M5000 Bombardier LRVs serving a 97km network with 92 stations and seven lines.

“It is a great piece of public realm,” says Dr Jon Lamonte, chief executive of Transport for Greater Manchester. “It has made a real difference in terms of flexibility, and the high frequency of services running through. That’s what you want for a city centre. It is that sort of argument that firms like KPMG, which have got one of the office buildings there, and some of the other companies that have moved into the office blocks, make in order to attract staff. They love it because they can now get directly into the city centre.”

While the original Bury - Piccadilly - Altrincham line was extended 6.4km to Eccles in 2000, the network has undergone a major expansion over the past decade, comfortably establishing it as Britain’s largest street-operating light rail system.

An initial tranche of £244m of funding was secured from the Department for Transport (DfT) in 2008, enabling work to start on the phase 3A expansion of the network. Work encompassed converting a 23km heavy-rail line to Rochdale to light rail operation, with the section to Oldham opening in June 2012 followed by the extension to Rochdale Railway Station in February 2013. It also included a 6.3km extension from Piccadilly east to Droylsden, which opened in February 2013; and a 2.7km link on a disused railway from Trafford Bar on the Altrincham Line to St Werburgh’s Road which opened in July 2011. A 400m branch off the Eccles line to the Mediacity UK development on Salford Quays, which cost £18m, was funded separately by the now-defunct Northwest Regional Development Agency and opened in 2010

Loans, including from the European Investment Bank (EIB), Metrolink revenues, and other government grants made up the remaining £338m of the £600m budget for this phase. The EIB loan also contributed to the £604m in borrowing required for phase 3B. This is being repaid through a local council tax levy and Metrolink revenues, with the remainder of the £823m cost secured from the DfT (£121m), additional government grants (£90m), and other sources (£8m).

As well as the 1.3km second city crossing, this expansion included a 4.5km extension from St Werburgh’s Road to East Didsbury, which opened in May 2013, and the 14km line from St Werburgh’s Road to Manchester Airport via Wythenshawe, which opened a year earlier than planned in November 2014. A 3.8km extension from Droylsden to Ashton-under-Lyne also opened in October 2013, while light rail reached Oldham Town centre via a 2.4km loop in January 2014, followed by Rochdale Town Centre in March 2014.

“I have been here for five years, and the second month after I arrived, we opened the line to Rochdale railway station, and since then it has been a constant run of openings,” Lamonte says. “What’s the biggest challenge around all of that? It is keeping the core network going while you’re building these extensions. In the middle of that, we have built a new depot, we have installed new signalling equipment, commissioned new trams, upgraded stops. We have done that while keeping the network going and growing patronage.”

The other big story for Lamonte is the delivery of these projects on time, and on budget. “When we opened the airport line a year earlier than planned, that was a real success story,” he says. “That was all about getting utility companies to work together to do things once, rather than umpteen times. You can get nine months of extra time by working like that. I think it has been really challenging, but we know what we’re doing now, we have got a very well-organised workforce. We are used to working with the contractors that we have used.”

Trafford Park

More than £1.5bn has been spent on expanding the network, with work currently focused on the Trafford Park extension.

This 5.5km link with six stations will run from the existing Ponoma stop on the Eccles Line to the Trafford Park industrial site, which is home to around 1400 businesses and 30,000 jobs. The M-Pact Thales consortium of Laing O’Rourke, VolkerRail, and Thales secured the contract to design and build the link in July 2017, as it had with the previous extensions. The £350m of funding for this scheme comes from the “Earn Back” deal, which was part of the Devolution Agreement, and a £20m contribution from Trafford Council. With utility relocation complete, and some trackwork now underway, Lamonte says work is on course for completion in 2020.

Such a rapid extension of services has naturally translated into higher ridership. The network carried nearly 41 million passengers in 2017, or around 110,000 per day, with patronage growing by around 10% each year. And the signs are that this growth will continue.

In order to keep up, Lamonte says TfGM will purchase further LRVs in the coming weeks using funding from the Transforming Cities fund. Lamonte says “almost certainly” TfGM will use the current supplier and he says the authority has been very happy with the performance of the M5000s. The additional trams will help to meet morning peak demand and enable the operator to use more double-units.

“I am very conscious that there is high demand, particularly on the Bury - Altrincham line at both ends in the morning,” Lamonte says. “I am also very conscious that we have got heavy event traffic, whether it is Manchester City or Manchester United playing at home, plus all the events that happen throughout the year, where it is certainly advantageous to run double trams. We already do that where we can and there is an opportunity to do more.”

With the rate of expansion now slowing down, Lamonte says the network is entering a period of stability, and the emphasis is increasingly on improving performance. This is a key element of the work of the KeolisAmey joint venture, which secured a 10-year contract to operate and maintain the network in January 2017, taking over from previous operator RATP Dev in July that year.

Since then, Lamonte reports that the operator has added around 100 new staff to enhance frontline services and security. The contract ultimately calls for the creation of 300 new jobs, including drivers, customer service agents, apprentices and trainees. There is also an emphasis on using data to improve both services for passengers and maintenance.

This includes further development of the Agility asset management system and improvements in passenger communication. Harnessing data from the city’s smart ticketing platform, Get Me There, is also a priority. Get Me There was expanded to multimodal tram and rail tickets in 2017 and it complements the smart ticketing app launched in 2016. Metrolink will also begin to accept contactless payments later this year ahead of the switch to a zonal charging system in 2019.

Research

Lamonte reports that TfGM is engaged in various digital research and development schemes, including working on connected autonomous vehicles, green fleet technology, and smart city projects. It is similarly looking at automatic passenger counting technology for rail services and is working with Atkins on a Mobility as a Service (MaaS) pilot.

“MaaS is probably the one that excites us most,” Lamonte says. “I think it offers us an opportunity to think in two ways: firstly, how you can charge better across a number of modes, but also how you can start to tune what forms of public transport you have and where they operate, which is increasingly based on your knowledge of where people want to go. Why should you have fixed routes for buses? There are great opportunities in all of that beyond a simple retail model which is probably where MaaS is stuck at the moment.”

Improving the transparency of communication with passengers is another priority for TfGM. Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), and specifically the city’s mayor, Mr Andy Burnham, has instructed TfGM and the operator to provide performance reports from every stop on every line to show the public clearly where Metrolink has reported problems, but also where it has done well, something Lamonte welcomes.

Similarly, Lamonte was set to participate in the inaugural regional transport board meeting at the end of March, where national agencies and individual operating groups will come together to discuss transport issues facing the city now and in the future. “We will see how it works in practice, but I think for the mayor and for the transport portfolio to have all the operators and the agencies sitting around the table, has to be the right way forward,” Lamonte says.

Meeting current and future passenger demand has to become a priority for the board over the next few years. Manchester’s economy is currently growing by 2.4% per year, and according to a 2016 study by the Office of National Statistics, the population of Greater Manchester is expected to swell by 10.2% to 3.1 million by 2036.

A revision to GMCA’s Greater Manchester Spatial Framework project is currently considering where an estimated 227,000 new homes will be built up to 2035. Approximately 200,000 jobs are expected to be created in the same period, which is likely to translate into an extra 600,000 public transport journeys by 2035. A second draft of the plan is due to be published in June and will consider the rapid and mass transit services required to support this growth.

Inevitably, further extensions of Metrolink are envisaged. Lamonte says possible projects could include an extension of the Trafford Park Line to improve its reach in that area and to Salford, including to the AJ Bell rugby stadium and to support the Port Salford tri-modal inland port project. An extension at Manchester Airport to the new £1bn Terminal 2, which is under construction and is expected to double airport patronage to 50 million per year when it opens in 2023, is another logical expansion and Lamonte says TfGM is awaiting confirmation from the DfT that its bid to take Metrolink there has been successful.

High-speed line

Integrating Metrolink with HS2, the 338km London - Birmingham - Manchester/Leeds high-speed line, which is scheduled to arrive in Manchester in 2033, is another priority. This includes at the proposed Manchester Airport station, which if it is located close to the M56 highway as expected, could warrant a further extension of Metrolink back to Wythenshawe to create a loop. It also encompasses the proposed expansion of Manchester Piccadilly to accommodate both HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) services.

GMCA launched its vision for HS2 and NPR last month (see panel) which for Lamonte, depending on the scenario that is ultimately selected, could mean linking light rail to regeneration areas north of the station.

“We are developing a business case around that and it needs to be tested against demand for Metrolink,” Lamonte says. “It is the same for the other proposals. Clearly there is an opportunity with HS2 when it comes to Piccadilly in 2033, and Manchester Airport at the same time, to coordinate with these events.”

Other possible rail projects include tram-train operation and feasibility studies have identified several potential routes. Lamonte says a service via the Mid-Cheshire line to Altrincham is one option, as is an extension south to Hale, and TfGM is working with Mott MacDonald and Network Rail (NR) on these proposals.

In the city centre itself, TfGM is looking at the potential of tunnelling to provide future rail capacity. “We can only do so much on the surface, so sooner or later you have to think about whether we have to go underground,” Lamonte says. “But that is a lot of money. We are now talking about billions of spend. So, we need to work with heavy rail colleagues, councils and the combined authority, and we need to look at what is the tipping point when the current systems get to their saturation point, when it makes sense to go underground.”

Lamonte envisages funding of these future projects will take on the same hybrid model used to successfully deliver network expansion. However, he says, TfGM is open to new suggestions - whether this is utilising land-value capture, as London has done successfully, or third-party funding, which it has deployed successfully on the airport and Trafford Park lines.

“We do need to think more innovatively,” Lamonte says. “We have had discussions with the DfT and the treasury about what that might look like, and we will carry on those conversations to see where we go. The difficulty with all of that when you have private finance in there is whether you can generate the level of return to make this worthwhile. That is not always easy. Transport schemes don’t always pay back the right amount. That is not to say we can’t do it, but it is challenging to work out how that might work.”

Metrolink’s success has given Manchester a lot to celebrate in recent years. New connections are helping to revive communities and high ridership reflects the popularity of the service with passengers. It also has a lot to think about for the future. With substantial population growth expected, it is important to maintain the momentum of the last 10 years. Making the right decisions now could ultimately prove crucial to keep Manchester moving well into the middle of this century.

 

Manchester sets out HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail growth strategy

GREATER Manchester Combined Authority held a launch event in Manchester on March 16 for its HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) growth strategy, which sets forth the region’s ambitions for high-speed rail and details how these two major rail projects can stimulate growth and opportunity both in Greater Manchester and across the north of England.

“The stops are just the start” strategy focuses on four areas designed to support economic growth and the potential of HS2 and NPR:

  • station design and infrastructure
  • improved transport connectivity
  • regeneration of land around the stations, and
  • investment in people, skills, and employability.

HS2, Britain’s new 338km high-speed link between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, is set to reach Greater Manchester by 2033. NPR proposes improving east-west connectivity between the north’s major cities, offering a journey time of 30 minutes from Manchester to Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield. The business case for the estimated £13bn project is set to be released by the end of the year.

Speaking following the launch, Manchester mayor, Mr Andy Burnham, told IRJ that the strategy represents a unified vision from the region’s political and business communities, and is intended to maximise the opportunities on offer.

In particular, the strategy emphasises maximising the opportunity to transform Manchester Piccadilly, the future terminus of HS2, into an integrated transport hub which links international, national, regional and local services. Current plans for HS2 propose an extension of the existing station concourse, which would add five extra HS2 platforms. The line would run in a 12.1km twin-bore tunnel from Rostherne to Ardwick.

However, the GMCA study favours a tunnelled high-speed rail station and stresses the importance to “build it once and build it right.” It hopes the project can spur a significant regeneration of the area around the station, creating 40,000 new and sustainable jobs, 13,000 new homes, and nearly a million square metres of commercial developments.

The strategy calls for a similar approach to Manchester Airport, another stop on the HS2 alignment, and says HS2 presents the opportunity to create a brand-new station at the airport as well as new homes, offices, and hotels. The site could create up to 20,000 new jobs in the next 10 years.

“The vision we are putting forward today is pretty compelling,” Burnham says. “It’s a vision about maximising connectivity and opportunity, the challenge comes to the government: are you going to go for a sub-optimal option, or are you going to do the thing that will rebalance this part of the country?

“So far with HS2 we have failed to explain clearly to the public what this can mean in terms of rail connectivity and also economic prosperity. This document begins to fill in those gaps, and I think begins to explain to the public why so many people are committed to HS2.”

 

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