The Metrolink tram system in Manchester received substantial amounts of EU funding to build new infrastructure and increase capacity. Where will funding come from to support future planned development of the network?
Manchester’s Metrolink tram system opened in 1992 with two lines to Bury and Altrincham. A further line to Eccles followed in 2000 with major expansion of the system occurring in the 2010s.
Metrolink upgrades in the mid-2010s
Metrolink’s Deansgate Castlefield stop was rebuilt from a simple two through platforms layout to a three-platform design incorporating turnback facilities to allow trams arriving from the south side of the city to terminate and turn back to destinations such as Altrincham or the Wythenshawe area.
This facility was used extensively during the rebuilding of the city centre St Peter’s Square stop in 2015-16 and is retained both for regular services as well as unscheduled turnback of late running services or in case of blockage of the city centre routes. The stop was rebuilt on a slightly different site with wider platforms and better shelters offering an improved passenger environment. New lifts and a new bridge to Deansgate railway station were constructed as part of the project.
These improvement works were part of a package to build the Second City Crossing; a short and highly strategic new tram line from St Peter’s Square via Exchange Square (a new stop built to serve the Arndale shopping centre) to Victoria. The line provides for an increased frequency tram service across the city centre and paths for the subsequent Trafford Centre line service to run through the city centre, relieving pressure on the First City Crossing via Mosley Street.
The European Regional Development Fund contributed £10.8mn to the project and helped to accelerate the construction of the new facilities. The opening of Exchange Square stop in December 2015 was made possible by the EU grant. The area of Exchange Square was additionally redeveloped using £21.5mn of EU funding (equivalent to over £42mn in 2021 prices) in the aftermath of the 1996 IRA bomb attack.
Part of the same overall project was the rebuilding of the tram stop incorporated into Manchester Victoria station. Prior to this rebuild the Metrolink area of Victoria was a single island platform offering two platform faces. The opening of the Second City Crossing through Manchester city centre, and with it the plan for more tram services to operate via Victoria, required more platform capacity at Victoria.
The Metrolink section of Victoria was therefore rebuilt in 2014-15 as two island platforms with a centre track between, allowing for services from the city and points south to terminate at Victoria and turn back.
Metrolink phase 3 expansion
Metrolink’s “phase 3” lines to Ashton, Rochdale, East Didsbury and Manchester Airport were financed in part via a £500mn loan from the European Investment Bank (EIB). The EIB is the non-profit long term lending institution of the EU which offers loans at low interest rates to EU member states for projects such as infrastructure development and private sector development. In the period 2006-11 it offered over £17bn in funding for UK projects.
The Metrolink expansion loan was described by the EIB as part of the bank’s aim to support sustainable public transport in leading European cities and to reduce reliance on private car use. The loans, over a 30-year term, were used to construct new lines and to purchase further trams at much more attractive interest rates than commercial lenders could offer.
The number and value of loans made to UK institutions by the EIB dropped very significantly once the UK confirmed its decision to leave the EU. The continued ability of public bodies such as Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) to take advantage of these cheap infrastructure enhancement loans is in doubt now that the UK has left the EU.
The tram system is operated by 147 Bombardier M5000 light rail vehicles (LRVs, colloquially known as trams). They are built in Austria and imported into the UK. In 2014, TfGM was able to purchase 16 LRVs at a cost of £34mn (approximately £40.5mn in 2021 prices). This order was originally for 12 vehicles but a combination of the bulk order placed by TfGM and the strength of the pound against the euro at the time enabled the order to be increased by four vehicles.
A further order for 27 extra trams to increase the total fleet size to 147 vehicles was made in July 2018, but the price had risen to £72mn (£78mn in 2021 prices) for this order – a combination of the production line having to be rebuilt and restarted and the post-Brexit drop in value of the pound against the euro. The 2018 tram order was funded using the UK government’s Transforming Cities fund.
Sourcing track for metrolink
Outside of street running areas Metrolink uses standard railway track sourced from UK suppliers. For street running areas the track must be laid flush with the road surface to avoid inconveniencing other road users.
This requires the use of grooved rail to accommodate the wheel flange on the vehicle and must be produced to the same chemical composition as standard rail. This can differ from the standards used in other European countries due to factors including temperature-related expansion behaviour, as the UK experiences a wider range of climatic conditions than other countries.
As with custom castings such as pointwork for segregated sections of the Metrolink network, where the tramway has exclusive use of a land strip, rail replacement in street running areas often incurs a lead time to obtain new rail due both to manufacturer supply constraints and post-Brexit shipping delays.
The Trafford Park line
An extension of the Metrolink network to serve the Trafford Park area of Manchester and the large out of town Trafford Centre shopping and leisure complex had been an aspiration for many years.
The Greater Manchester devolution deal agreed in 2012 included “earn back” clauses allowing the Greater Manchester Combined Authority to claim a proportion of additional tax revenue from gross value added increases resulting from local investment in infrastructure.
The 3.4 mile line with six new stops had a budget of £350mn and opened in March 2020, ironically on the eve of the first UK national Covid lockdown. However £125mn of the cost was funded by the EIB. TfGM notes that “the main source of funding for transport is from central government” however there are “serious questions” over the future of Metrolink as a result of a threat by central government to withdraw post-Covid operating financial support for the system.
The network upgrades made possible in large part by European Union grants and inexpensive loans more than doubled the size of the Metrolink network from 24 miles to 57 miles, and more than tripled the number of trams on the system.
Benefits of extensions and concerns over future funding sources
The Wythenshawe area of south Manchester in particular lacked a high quality public transport solution with the nearest heavy rail stations being at Heald Green and Manchester Airport, both some distance from the residential and commercial areas of Wythenshawe.
A bid for funding to extend the Airport line to terminal 2 at Manchester Airport has been submitted to the Department For Transport for consideration and Greater Manchester Combined Authority sought to develop a second Greater Manchester Transport Fund to finance other Metrolink extension plans. The Authority received a £1bn central government grant to modernise other public transport in the area with most of this to be spent on bus services.
The construction of the Manchester Airport Metrolink line has brought wider benefits to the area, both by providing an environmentally friendly public transport solution to Manchester city centre and also by allowing residents of Wythenshawe a way of accessing the major employer in the area – the airport itself – by means other than car. The Second City Crossing adds capacity, flexibility and resilience to the network, as incidents in the city centre blocking the First City Crossing route via Market Street can be diverted around.
The substantial expansion of the Metrolink network made possible by EU funding adds momentum to calls for yet further extension, with a continuation of the Ashton line to Stalybridge, a “western loop” to serve areas of Wythenshawe bypassed by the current Airport Line and extension of the Trafford Centre line to Port Salford all under consideration, although a 2021 document is vague on how these aspirations would be funded.
After Brexit however, it is not clear where funding for these projects will come from. Residents of Greater Manchester have a very tangible asset in the form of the Metrolink tram system to remember EU funding by.
Still, in the absence of substantial future funding commitments the full vision of a light rail system for the Greater Manchester region seems to be a long way from being achieved.
A previous version of this article was published on the Manchester For Europe website in 2017.
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