In 1984, we were promised jetpacks; we got Pacer units instead
We haven’t had a Not So Perfect Ten on here for a while. With urban public transport forever in the news agenda, our latest NSP10 reflects this. Given how Northern Powerhouse Rail and Manchester Piccadilly’s 15th and 16th platforms hang in the balance, we are going to take a look at ten unrealised transport projects.
Some of which were futuristic or far-fetched for the time. Some of them are still outlandish today. Back in 1972, the SELNEC Transportation Study suggested that we could be travelling around Manchester on monorails, automated taxis or on underground trains. Minibuses were also suggested, paving the way for today’s Free Bus shuttle service.
By 1984, there was no automated taxis nor city centre underground railways. Light rail was mooted as an effective way of getting from one part of Manchester to another. Our buses wore the white, orange and brown livery of Greater Manchester Transport – providing a unified look that passengers yearn for today. As for our trains, new rolling stock came the year after – in the form of converted Leyland National buses. The infamous Class 142 Pacer units.
Had everything gone to plan, as per 1972’s SELNEC Transportation Study and SELNEC PTE’s Picc-Vic Project, you would be reading a different story.
Our Ten Great Unrealised Mancunian Transport Plans
- Underground railways and tramways;
- Overhead walkways;
- Passenger conveyors;
- Moving pavements;
- Manchester Victoria Heliport;
- The Trafford Park Busway;
- Self-routing taxis;
1. Going Underground?
Greater Manchester has had some of its fair share of underground railway and tramway plans. The most famous one, which got as far as the construction of a tunnel under the Manchester Arndale Centre was The Picc-Vic Project. Though there was assurance of the project going ahead, inflationary pressures kyboshed what would have been a valuable link from Piccadilly to Victoria stations. The project was cancelled in 1977.
The Picc-Vic tunnel wasn’t the only subterranean mass transit project for Manchester. In 1903 and 1914, underground tramways were proposed to take the pressure off Market Street as well as linking Victoria and Piccadilly stations. The 1903 route bears some resemblance to today’s Metrolink system. This proposed stations at Piccadilly Gardens, what is now St. Peter’s Square, the Royal Exchange, and tram/train interchanges at London Road, Victoria, Central, Exchange, and Oxford Road stations.
The 1914 route was a straightforward cut and cover tunnel from London Road to Exchange station. 1938’s underground railway plans were more comprehensive. One line would have linked London Road with Oxford Road, Central, and Victoria stations; another from London Road to Victoria with intermediate stations at Piccadilly Gardens and Shudehill. A third line would have begun at Thorpe’s Bridge Junction continuing to Shudehill (via Miles Platting station).
In more recent times, the idea of an underground railway have bounced back. This time, to alleviate capacity issues on heavy rail routes whilst complementing the successful Metrolink trams.
2. …Or Overground?
The sheer scale of the University of Manchester has given the South Manchester area one of the largest student populations in Europe. A sizeable chunk of Greater Manchester’s bus patronage is along the Wilmslow Road corridor which until recently was a hotbed of competition.
North of the Victoria University building is the University’s more modern architectural additions – particularly the Manchester Education Precinct, the Royal Northern College of Music and the Aquatics Centre. Back in the 1960s, architects Hugh Wilson and Lewis Womersley proposed a network of high level walkways and bridges. These would have made for clear circulation between campuses whilst leaving additional pedestrian space at ground level.
The key to this was the University precinct which had a bridge over Oxford Road. Before its demolition, the foyer made for an airy covered space. From upper level, there was escalators to street level, and bridges leading to campuses. A bridge connected the precinct with the RNCM; bridges connected the (sadly demolished) Maths Tower with the Computer Building and St. Peter’s House.
If fully implemented, there would have been a system of high level walkways from St. Mary’s Hospital (apart from a ground level section) all the way to Oxford Road railway station. Oxford Road would have been crossed by several bridges near the Contact Theatre, the Manchester Museum, RNCM, Grosvenor Street and the New Broadcasting House.
Wells and Womersley’s plans would have meant the demolition of several buildings along the way, which may have meant no Johnny Roadhouse nor On The Eighth Day. Prior to recent refurbishments, you could see some traces of the proposed footway system on some campus buildings. Though like something out of Blade Runner, I would have like to have seen Oxford Road if they succeeded. Still, I suppose as a consolation prize that Wells and Womersley gave us Manchester’s Arndale Centre.
3. Passenger conveyors
Today, you take passenger conveyors for granted. They are seen in many major airports, metro systems and railway stations. One of these would have made the skyway (a coal conveyor with windows) at Bolton Interchange a more attractive proposition. In the SELNEC Transportation Study, they proposed the addition of four passenger conveyors from Deansgate, Oxford Road, Piccadilly, and Victoria railway stations.
It was envisaged that the conveyors could have been underground as well as at ground or elevated level. From Deansgate, the proposed route was over Whitworth Street towards Deansgate, finishing at the junction of Peter Street and Quay Street. Oxford Road’s – as you expect – up to St. Peter’s Square. From Victoria station, along Corporation Street up to Market Street (great for the shops). From Piccadilly, that goes without saying: along London Road to Piccadilly Gardens. Again, for the shops and – more or less – a dedicated entrance for Lewis’s.
4. High speed moving pavements
A passenger conveyor on steroids, high speed moving pavements would have wished pedestrians to and from parts of Manchester city centre at faster speeds (10 – 12 mph). During the preparation of the SELNEC Transportation Study, this was in the research stage. There would have been joining points. Due to the high cost, this was rejected. Had high speed moving pavements ever been envisaged, some of the ambulance chasing solicitors would have had a field day. And probably made their sales pitch at each of its joining points.
5. Manchester Victoria heliport
Back when crack express trains did 80 mph at best, the fastest thing in the air could have been a scheduled helicopter service from Manchester Victoria to London. Yes, back in the early 1950s, we were thinking that helicopters could have been the answer to avoiding the traffic. The City of Manchester Heliport could have been one solution, with helicopters landing on the roof above your train to Bury Bolton Street.
Its roof would have covered all platforms from 17 to 1 with flights making their way to Victoria over the westbound line. Thereafter they would have landed over what are today’s Metrolink platforms and platforms 1 and 2. In 1955, eleven heliport sites were considered by Manchester Corporation’s helicopter sub-committee, but Manchester Victoria station wasn’t one of them. Castlefield, Portland Street, Piccadilly Gardens, and Strangeways were among the possible sites.
In the end, St. Andrews Street/Travis Street was considered as a permanent base. Within a year, changes to landing sizes and the scale of approach for helicopters by central government killed off the project. What was Ardwick’s loss was Ringway’s gain, as they turned their energies towards expanding Manchester Airport. Then came the boom in package holidays and the rest, as they say…
6. The Trafford Park busway
Till the late 1970s, the Trafford Park Industrial Estate was a major undertaking for bus operators. With many people starting and finishing at similar times, this spawned a plethora of peak hour journeys on local routes and works services. If you go to Central Library or look in any good bus book, there is no shortage of pictures showing a twenty deep line of buses filing out of Metropolitan Vickers (and other factories).
What was proposed in the SELNEC Transportation Study was a busway from a relocated Warwick Road station to Trafford Park Industrial Estate. The plan entailed a purpose built stretch of busway over Chester Road – roughly on the site of the Hard Rock club and long-closed B&Q store. There would have been a separate terminal hub, where passengers could have transferred from the shuttle bus to other Trafford Park buses.
The closest we ever got to the Trafford Park busway was Arriva North West’s ML1 service. This was a short lived shuttle bus from Stretford Metrolink station to the Trafford Centre with a 20 minute frequency in the daytime. Specially branded Dennis Dart SLF buses (usually Marshall bodied versions) whisked passengers towards the Peel Group’s neo-Italianette edifice.
More at home with amusement parks and airports, the carveyor system is like an automated minibus on rails. For Greater Manchester, their version would have carried 4 to 10 people with stations every quarter of a mile along conveyor belts at speeds of 1 – 5 mph. Needless to say, that was rejected by the SELNEC Transportation Study as being too costly. Especially as in 1974 we found that Seddon Pennine IV midibuses pootling between Piccadilly and Victoria station were more cost effective.
8. Self-Routing Taxis
Also from the same report, self-routing taxis would have been carveyors with space for four to five passengers. They would have used an elevated grid system, enabling passengers to go from Albert Square to Piccadilly station along a direct route. Passengers would have purchased a coded ticket with the time of their journey, and each self routing taxi would have had a top speed of 30 mph.
Had that idea come to fruition, they would have disfigured Manchester’s streets, and have been a pain to maintain. The emergence of self-driving cars could make self-routing taxis possible – albeit without elevated tracks and by means of GPS and mobile apps. With 1970s technology, gremlins could have led to a similar scene witnessed by the guests at George’s house on Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em.
The bastard offspring of the carveyor and self-routing taxis is our ninth entry of this countdown. In the UK, a minirail style system is in operation at London Gatwick and Birmingham airports. A similar system was tested at Expo 67 in Montreal.
More akin to today’s tracked people movers, a Minirail car would have held 4 to 12 passengers. Greater Manchester’s scheme would have been a circular route, linking Piccadilly with Oxford Road and Victoria stations. From Piccadilly to Oxford Road, via Whitworth Street. To Manchester Victoria, Portland Street (near Chepstow Street and The Peveril of the Peak), Nicholas Street, Spring Gardens, and Withy Grove. With trains running close to the site of the Arndale Centre and URBIS.
From Victoria, via Shudehill, Church Street, and Dale Street before returning to Piccadilly. The warehouses on Dale Street could have given that part of the Northern Quarter a New York style vibe. With orange and white mini trains. These trains would have been driverless. What could have been Manchester’s answer to the Docklands Light Railway (or the DLR’s answer to Minirail) didn’t get off the ground.
I could have inserted a reference from The Simpsons about the future of mass transportation for our final point. Yes, Greater Manchester could have been connected from Langley to Wythenshawe Civic Centre by monorail. Thanks to another great literary classic, the first volume of the Manchester Rapid Transit Study, a few other rapid transit options were considered for this route. These included an urban electric railway, dedicated busways, and the Safege Monorail system.
The Safege Monorail system would have meant Wuppertal style monorail trains along Princess Road and Rochdale Road. In other words, trains suspended on overhead monorails. The Alweg system has trains running on raised tracks with the carriage on top of the rail. Westinghouse’s system is also an elevated system: albeit with rubber tyres instead of bogies on rolling stock. Pittsburgh had a short lived system which ceased operation in 1980.
On economic grounds, the study group recommended the Duorail system. In 1967, the vehicle cost was £143 per passenger compared with £324 for the Safege system. Furthermore, Duorail would have been fitted to the standard 4′ 8″ gauge.
Langley to Wythenshawe would have been the start of a rapid transit system. There was scope for its extension towards Sale, Bury, Walkden, Monton, Cheadle Heath, Godley, Romiley, and Oldham. This included new stations with park and ride facilities close to motorway junctions.
There would have been three ways of crossing the city centre: Victoria – University for Wythenshawe; Victoria – Albert Square – Oxford Road – Deansgate for Sale (plus another line via Hulme); and Victoria – University for Sale via Moss Side and Chorlton Road. By the early 1970s, Duorail was superseded by the Picc-Vic project.
A lot of the study group’s plans predate most of Metrolink’s present-day network. The Marple and Glossop lines have been considered for tram-train conversion. On the other hand, no-one’s lobbied for a tram-train line to Monton Green. There are probably one or two Middletonians that fancy a slice of 21st century light rail action.
A great realised Mancunian transport plan…
In the seminal SELNEC Transportation Study, there was only one realistic plan that was fully realised. The notion of frequent minibuses with a flat fare pootling around Manchester city centre. 45 years on, they co-exist with today’s Metrolink system.
Shortly before SELNEC became Greater Manchester Transport, Seddon Pennine IV midibuses started linking passengers from Piccadilly to Victoria stations. Known as Centreline, they were Greater Manchester’s original Heineken buses – reaching the parts that other buses couldn’t reach. In 1974, passengers boarded with a flat fare of just 2p. Which in 2019 prices is about 25p today.
Soon, the Centreline service would spawn a shoppers’ only variant. After bus deregulation and privatisation, it had been operated by GMS Buses, Bluebird, First, and Go North West. From 2001 to 2018, the Centreline services became Metroshuttle routes 1, 2, and 3 – and free buses for the first time. Today, under the name of Free Bus, Go North West is today’s operator.
The central area conveyor plan had been tried unsuccessfully by Manchester Corporation as City Circle routes A, B, and C. Before Centreline was adopted in Manchester, it was piloted in another part of Greater Manchester with a Deansgate: Bolton. At present, it is only place outside Manchester with a Free Bus service, the 500.
Previous Metroshuttles, launched from 2009 to 2012 in Oldham, Rochdale and Stockport (300) have been withdrawn due to spending cuts. Oldham’s Metroshuttle (400) was a temporary measure for ferrying people from the bus station to the temporary Oldham Mumps Metrolink station.
Any more unrealised Greater Mancunian transport plans?
Feel free to add to our countdown, or add a few more to the list. Would you have been happy to see monorails in Middleton? Comment away.
S.V., 08 August 2019.