Everything you wanted to know about the forthcoming extensions which you were afraid to ask
In spite of numerous funding setbacks and delayed deadlines, work for the Phase Three extension is well and truly under way. In South Manchester, we see St Werburghs station and the first part of the South Manchester line months away from opening. In East Manchester, 2013 will see the line extended to Droylsden, with Ashton-under-Lyne’s extension ready the year after. Meanwhile in Oldham, the famed Seton Tubigrip bridge at Mumps Bridge has gone the way of the Dodo, Dinosaurs and the Trans-Lancs Express.
Given the miserable spending cuts imposed on Greater Manchester by the ConDems, I was more than happy to find Phase 3 of the Metrolink unaffected. However, there are some curmudgeons happy to think otherwise, most of which venting their spleen in the Tameside Advertiser or Manchester Evening News. Most of which possibly against the Transport Innovation Fund proposal including the congestion charging element in 2008.
This post aims to debunk these myths and half truths, and hopefully enlighten a few sceptics.
1. Metrolink is more expensive than the bus: some people need to do their homework. In Oldham and Rochdale, the off-peak return fare would probably be cheaper than two single fares and a single operator day rover ticket. In Bury, the off-peak tram fare is £3.60 – which is cheaper than First Manchester’s £4.20 FirstDay ticket on the 135. Maximum single fares on First Manchester buses are £4.60 (which would cover the entire 135 and, in Rochdale, 181 routes). The exception to that rule would be in South and East Manchester where Stagecoach’s maximum single fare is £2.80, with their day rover ticket 90p more.
2. It will take 50 minutes to reach the city centre: whoever made that assumption should take a long hard look at how long the parallel journey would take on the bus. The 135’s journey time is twice that of the tram to Manchester. A typical peak hour journey (and some busy off-peak journeys) can take 50 minutes from Ashton to Manchester (216 or 219). In 2014, I would assume that the tram will take you 30 – 35 minutes to reach Ashton from Manchester.
3. We already have a good bus service: yes, this may be true of the East Manchester route with the 216 – 221 service, but for how long will this persist once the trams arrive? The Metrolink system has guaranteed Bank Holiday and Boxing Day services, whereas commercial obligations and rising fuel prices for bus companies may jeopardise this. What is likely to happen is that the 216 will coexist with the trams [Ashton – Droylsden – Manchester], serving (in Heineken fashion) the parts that the trams cannot reach. Instead, there may be more focus on periphery routes like the 171, 217/218 and 231 connecting with the trams. In Bury and Altrincham, the 135 and 263 respectively coexist with the trams and are still well loaded.
4. The trams are killing [insert name of town centre there]: any engineering work on a busy route such as Manchester Road/Ashton New Road would have a fundamental effect on the town’s economy, be it a state-of-the-art tram system or gas pipe works. Though it is easy to blame Metrolink/Gas Alliance/A.N. Other Contractor, it is down to lack of recompense for its traders or a much bigger picture. That of internet shopping prospering, ideologically inspired job cuts and spending cuts and a massive squeeze in take-home pay and disposable income caused by rising fuel and food prices. Not least bus fares.
5. The train’s a faster and cheaper option: true to some extent, but less so by 2012 when rail fares will rise by at least 10% (as high as typical bus fare increases). In Ashton (as with Altrincham), the train will be a less regular alternative to the tram. If you have an aversion to bus based transport and prefer the Manchester Victoria train, there is a 40 minute gap between the 27 minutes past train and the 06 minutes past train (if you’re at the wrong end of the hour). In 2014, this’ll be where the tram will come in. If you cannot get on the crushed peak-hour Victoria train, the tram will become a viable alternative. Then you’ve got the joys of a direct link to Piccadilly.
6. The bus is more reliable: from past experience of boarding light rail systems myself, you can guarantee in most cases a constant journey time. Bus journey times are affected by traffic light phasing, diversions, temporary traffic lights, school terms and longer loading times (especially so when season tickets are being renewed).
7. There’s too many stops: true with the Oldham Loop Line. The number of stations on the Oldham loop line will double though the onus is on offering passengers at (for example) Freehold, hitherto unserved by rail. In my honest opinion, tram services on the Oldham Loop Line should include space for peak hour Limited Stop and Express options, mirroring the former Northern Rail/BR service. Consider suggesting this to your local councillor or MP.
8. The frequency’s not good enough compared with other modes of transport: a 12 minute off-peak frequency compares well with most frequent bus routes and would probably be better than some frequent bus routes by 2014. On the Oldham Loop Line, the 12 minute frequency is double the previous rail frequency – off-peak and in peak hours. Furthermore, six trams per hour with room for 208 persons means 1,248 spaces per hour (seated and standing), which carries 1.5 times more than seven double decker buses per hour (based on current 216 daytime frequency being every seven minutes).
9. The trams are a poor substitute for the trains they replace: by 2014, we should see the first of the Class 142 Pacer units disappear from Greater Manchester. Though the trams do lack the comfort of most trains, they are more accessible than the older DMUs and EMUs seen in Greater Manchester for wheelchair-bound passengers and the carriage of pushchairs. The seats are designed more for shorter journeys up to 30 minutes unlike heavy rail counterparts, and the comfort level reflects this.
S.V., 10 June 2011.