Metrolink Extensions: Where Next?

East of the M60 looks at where future Metrolink lines could be added

Nearly thirty years ago, Piccadilly Gardens was in a state of flux. A temporary state of flux as a revolutionary transport project was under construction. One that became a poster child for a new wave of tramway systems across the UK.

On opening in July 1992, the city’s life-changing Metrolink system was an instant success. Part of its success was the use of two popular commuter lines from Manchester Victoria to Bury, and Manchester Piccadilly to Altrincham. The former line solved an electrification-based headache for British Rail, which had a non-standard third rail system instead of the usual 25kV a.c system (seen on the latter).

Further to its initial phase was the line to Salford Quays and Eccles. Then further extensions to East Didsbury, Manchester Airport, Rochdale, Oldham, and Ashton-under-Lyne. The third Big Bang phase didn’t nearly happen, as the then Transport Secretary Alistair Darling pulled the plug on its funding. Shortly after its postponement, Manchester councillors protested on the platform of St. Peter’s Square tram station. This led to a 50,000 name petition and sustained campaigning – thanks in no small part to the Manchester Evening News.

In the end, most of the Phase 3 projects went ahead in a more modified form with some delay. This meant the delayed construction of Oldham’s town centre stations and the lack of a section from Manchester Airport to Roundthorn (via Wythenshawe Hospital). Had there been no public pressure, the all-important third phase would have gone the way of The Picc-Vic Project and the Wythenshawe monorail.

Darling’s 2004 decision was a seminal turning point in local politics and transport policy. It proved urban public transport schemes couldn’t be taken for granted, and that better buses, trains and trams could make or break political careers. Ahead of the 2015 and 2019 General Elections, public transport sat alongside Brexit as the electorate’s main concerns.

It is fair to say that pledges to Get Brexit Done® and a Metrolink extension may have solidified the Tory vote in Bolton and Stockport. To a point, that could have led to Heywood and Middleton turning blue.

Continued expansion of the Metrolink network is proposed in Transport for Greater Manchester’s 2040 vision. The Oldham West and Royton MP Jim McMahon has proposed linking up the spokes with an orbital network. Adding tram-train to the mix, this is a similar view shared by Denton and Reddish MP Andrew Gwynne. We also pondered the subject in a similar post from the 24 June 2015.

Which schemes have the greatest chance of going ahead? East of the M60 goes all Newsboy and delivers its verdict by turning to Brian Moore’s Almanack.

From the pages of Brian Moore’s Almanack

“If it’s happening, IT’S IN THERE… Get your copy of Brian Moore’s Almanack by sending a Cheque or Postal Order for 35p and a coupon from this week’s TV Times.”

Ashton-under-Lyne to Stalybridge

If you ever wondered why Ashton-under-Lyne tram station has an island platform, this allows for the continuation of its Metrolink line towards Stalybridge. Should the trams be extended to the town, it is proposed that its intermediate stations would include St. Michael’s Square and Stamford Park. This would be an on-street extension, likely to use Stamford Street or Beaufort Road up to the junction by The Warrington Inn.

Some commentators have floated a change of route via Tameside Hospital. This could continue east of Ashton Interchange via Wellington Road, Penny Meadow, Mossley Road and Darnton Road. Thereafter it could reach Stalybridge via Mellor Road or Astley Road. If this was considered, the stop would favour Ashton Sixth Form College instead of Tameside College students. Whiteacre Road could be more favourable than Mossley Road, so long as an intermediate stop is added on Curzon Road. This could compensate for lost bus links in the locality.

Then again, so could having a Metrolink line from Ashton to Stalybridge via Dukinfield! With 19,000 people, it is one of the largest population centres in the GMCA city region without a full-time bus, train or tram link to Manchester city centre. Only Ramsbottom fares much worse than Duki. This could be achieved by adding an intermediate stop near The Albion Hotel on Jeffreys Drive with a further stop at Stanley Square before approaching Stalybridge via Albert Square or the site of IMI Range (as part of the Stalybridge West development).

Odds

  • Ashton-under-Lyne to Stalybridge (via St. Michael’s Square): 4 – 1;
  • Ashton-under-Lyne to Stalybridge (via Tameside Hospital): 66 – 1;
  • Ashton-under-Lyne to Stalybridge (via Dukinfield): 221 – 1.

East Didsbury to Stockport

Alongside the possibility of a Bolton extension, a speculated Stopfordian extension was floated prior to last year’s General Election. It is anticipated that the Stockport extension would follow most of the former East Didsbury – Tiviot Dale line. Standing in the way are industrial units off Station Road in Heaton Mersey and (to some extent) the M60 motorway. This could be alleviated with some on-street operation on Craig Road and Didsbury Road.

The Stockport extension has been mooted as far back as 2004. GMPTE’s initial plans were thwarted by (you’ve guessed it) Alistair Darling on the 20 July 2004. Even so, Stockport’s forthcoming new bus station allows for the addition of a Metrolink line. Other speculative ideas favour a tram-train solution via Adswood and Cheadle Heath.

Odds

  • East Didsbury to Stockport (via Heaton Mersey): 12 – 1;
  • East Didsbury to Stockport (via Cheadle Heath and Adswood): 66 – 1.

Marple to Stockport

The addition of Marple to the Metrolink network would solve a plethora of public transport peeves in the town. On public transport, the only way of getting from there to Stockport is by bus. Either on the hourly 358 route from Hayfield or on the 383 and 384 circular routes. In the peaks the circular routes can be slower than driving on molasses. Many a resident would apportion the blame for chronic congestion on the closure of the Tiviot Dale line.

Since Beeching closed the Tiviot Dale line to passenger traffic, Marple, Romiley and Compstall have risen in popularity as commuter towns. The most obvious approach entails tram-train conversion of the Rose Hill Marple and Marple lines via Reddish. This would be enhanced by fast rail links from Marple, Romiley and Bredbury to Stockport.

Standing in its way is Carriage Road, a cul-de-sac on part of the track bed that linked Romiley with the Tiviot Dale – Godley Junction line. This is a recent addition, built so shortly after George Osborne trumpeted the joys of the Northern Powerhouse. This could be alleviated by tram-train operation from Rose Hill and Marple stations up to Woodley with tram-trains reversing onto the Cheshire Lines Committee stretch up to centre of Stockport.

But (and this is a huge ‘but’), reopening the CLC line up to Stockport would be a mammoth task. The line, open up to Bredbury is still used by Tarmac and Viridor for goods trains. Any further construction is stymied by the Morrisons store and the M60 motorway.

Odds

  • Marple to Stockport (via Bredbury): 1,000,000,000 – 1 (16 – 1 if part of Greater London!).

Ashton-under-Lyne to Oldham, Middleton and Bowker Vale

As far as Tameside’s public transport links with North Manchester are concerned, ‘pathetic’ is a polite way of putting that point across. Travelling from Ashton to Newton Heath or Middleton requires a few changes at best (via Manchester or Oldham). North of Waterloo and Limehurst Farm estate, the borough’s present custodians in the 396 and 419 bus routes cease operation after 6pm.

In 2016, Jim McMahon MP used his maiden speech in the House of Commons to support a new tram link from Ashton to Oldham. The route, as far as we know, is unknown. My money is on its possible route being along the OA&GB Railway (so long as a replica of the long demolished viaduct over Park Bridge is built).

Possible intermediate stations could include Smallshaw (off Cranbourne Road), Broadoak (off Wood Lane), Hartshead and Limehurst (between Bristol Avenue and Belfairs Close), Park Bridge, Fitton Hill (off Hill Farm Close with a path from Furness Avenue, Alt), Alexandra Park, and Glodwick. For the Middleton section this could mean stations at Chadderton and Mills Hill (with interchange options between buses and trains). Then further on-street running via Manchester Old Road up to Bowker Vale.

According to a 2016 article in the Manchester Evening News, one MP said the Middleton spur wouldn’t be viable. I would say the Ashton-under-Lyne to Oldham would have greater potential, not only in completing part of an orbital route. A short trip to Ashton from Limehurst or Fitton Hill wouldn’t be arduous due to traffic conditions or a change of bus.

Odds

  • Ashton-under-Lyne – Oldham (via Park Bridge): 100 – 1;
  • Ashton-under-Lyne – Oldham (via Park Bridge) – Middleton: 300 – 1;
  • Ashton-under-Lyne – Oldham (via Park Bridge) – Middleton – Bowker Vale: 500 – 1.

Bolton to Radcliffe

Ever since The Picc-Vic Project began life as a rough sketch in Peter House, there has been numerous plans to link Bolton with Manchester Victoria via the Bury line. Initially, this entailed heavy rail trains turning left at Radcliffe with a non-stop section to Bolton Trinity Street station.

The Picc-Vic line would have followed the line to Burnden Junction via Little Lever. If fully realised by 1984 (which we knew wasn’t the case), the journey time would have been little different to the stopping service via Clifton Junction. Supposing the Bolton – Radcliffe spur does get off the ground, intermediate stations should be considered along the way.

Once again our old friend of Building Houses On Railway Land stymies a smooth reopening programme. The original alignment off Ainsworth Road is breached by a cul-de-sac (Station Close), then at Leander Close and Codrington Way (accessed from Salisbury Road). Then along Boundary Drive in Bradley Fold.

Whereas following the Bolton – Radcliffe route as closely as the original line may be expensive, on-street running is another alternative with stops at Little Lever, Bradley Fold and Darcy Lever. One drawback is that a circuitous route wouldn’t provide a real alternative to packed (yet faster) heavy rail services from Manchester to Bolton. This might undermine the viability of the 524 bus route from Bolton to Bury via Little Lever and Radcliffe.

Odds

  • Bolton – Radcliffe (via most of the extant trackbed): 500 – 1;
  • Bolton – Radcliffe (via circuitous on-street route): 250 – 1.

Our tip: Ashton to Stalybridge link most likely

Of the possible extensions, we think the Ashton to Stalybridge extension is the most likely one to get off the ground. The Stockport to East Didsbury extension is a good second. For the Stalybridge line, its effectiveness would be improved with an extra stop between the Memorial Gardens and Stamford Park at Tameside College.

Though it may upset a few cyclists and pedestrians, reopening the Park Bridge line for Metrolink trams has great potential for creating a modal shift from car to public transport. Instead of driving to Ashton Moss for a tram, a tram stop within walking distance from Limehurst Farm and Bristol Avenue estates could take a few cars off the road. Fitton Hill could get a much-needed direct route with Manchester as well as a quick one to Oldham and Ashton.

Whereas the Ashton – Stalybridge extension may be most likely to go ahead, an Ashton – Oldham line would have greater social value. It could give the 409 bus a run for its money. As the tram may cater for a different market, the two modes could co-exist. A future franchised bus network could see 426s calling at Fitton Hill tram stop. Likewise with the 231s outside one at Broadoak.

Despite electioneering last year, we think the Bolton to Radcliffe link will be a pipe dream. Too much of the trackbed has been built on, since the line from Burnden Junction to Radcliffe and Bury closed in 1970. Most of the development on its trackbed is residential, which gives you the impression that rail-based transport from Radcliffe to Bolton is dead in the water.

Before I go…

Do you agree with any of our tips or predictions? Should the Stockport – East Didsbury extension be a greater priority than the Bolton extension? Feel free to comment: other suggestions further to our examples are welcome.

S.V., 05 February 2020.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. mfitchew says:

    I think Alastair Darling has to be a contender for ranking as the worst Transport Minister ever! And I say that as a lifelong Labour supporter!

    All his brief consisted of from Blair was to get the Railways out of the headlines, and his own aim was clearly to become the next Chancellor, so he excelled in spending next to no money! Hence very little positive happened on his watch!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. mfitchew says:

    Hasn’t Andy Burnham come out in favour of the East Didsbury-Stockport extension? Think that stands the highest chance of being next on the list.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Damian says:

    The development at Carriage Road in Bredbury on the former Bredbury Curve was built with a protected/ reserved alignment for any future tram/train extension. This can be seen on the second page of the plans that were submitted as part of the planning application here http://democracy.stockport.gov.uk/documents/s90853/DC060009%20-%20Plans.pdf

    Liked by 2 people

  4. scuzzmonster says:

    Great article. I personally think an Ashton – Oldham connection is more likely if only because of the existing infrastructure at both terminals, plus the route serving a larger population area. The Stalybridge extension *will* come at some point, I’m sure.

    As for Stockport routes, the number of trains and buses they have running to Manchester every hour has me wonder if there’s *really* a need for Metrolink or is it just a civic pride/ ego thing?

    Like

  5. Stuart Thompson says:

    I live near the centre of Cheadle which now has minimal bus links after 6 pm apart from 11 & 11a that join Stockport to Altrincham. The nearest Metrolink is the East Didsbury Park & Ride. For most of the day and early evening, there are no free parking spaces and even a couple of years back before it became so
    popular, the drive from Cheadle was at pedestrian speed. Why not walk this 1.3 miles? This invites muggings or lethal attacks.

    During the last 5 years, locals met from time to time to consider the benefits of installing a tram-train line along the Altrincham to Stockport section of the Chester to Manchester via Stockport rail route. Pessimists considered that mixing heavy and light rail would be extremely dangerous. However there is an extensive tram-train network in SW Germany that solved potential safety problems by intelligent use of modern signalling technology that could be adopted here. A South Manchester equivalent requires several new stations, including Central Cheadle. As well as providing platforms, some sections of track need to be 4-abreast so that trains from Chester to Manchester can overtake trams.

    Once trams have reached Stockport, their route into Manchester needs to be considered. The route into Piccadilly is already congested. However there are precedents for routing trains into Victoria via East Manchester. I recall a period of several weeks during the past 20 years when trains from Stockport to Piccadilly were discontinued while extensive modifications to track and signalling were made. During this period, trains from Stockport to Victoria were provided. They proved popular with persons working or shopping near Victoria as the total journey time from Stockport to that district compared very favourably with the duration of a journey via Piccadilly. Providing an alternative route to Victoria would take some of the congestion away from Piccadilly to Victoria via Oxford Road while essential improvements to track and signalling are made. An alternative destination for trains or trams from Cheadle would link them via Guide Bridge to Stalybridge to connect with trains for West Yorkshire. This would further reduce congestion of the Ordsall curve and could become popular once again. As a native of Yorkshire, I remember how useful the Stockport-Stalybridge link could be some 50-60 years ago.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Andy says:

    I worked in the Planning department of Stock port Council in the Summer of 2001. There was a large, detailed plan on the Metrolink extension, via Didsbury, even back then. The one thing I recall is that it arrived into Stockport Bus Station at thr Swaine Street/Chestergate junction, where Stand W used to be.

    Liked by 1 person

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