Saturday, 18 July 2015


 Central Park - impressive structure for a little used station on the line from Victoria to Rochdale via Oldham

Staying from 3 to 9 July 2015, I had enough time to explore the large Metrolink system, the most extensive of its kind in the U.K., so it deserves a closer look. I used Manchester also as a base for day trips to Blackpool, Liverpool and Sheffield, which will be dealt with in separate blog posts.

Unfortunately I could not experience the Metrolink system in its normal form, as the network has been split into two parts since 28 June to allow for the reconstruction of the central St. Peter's Square stop and its connection to the second city crossing, now finally under construction. This division will last all summer and after that, service will still be restricted through St. Peter's Square until 2016.

Deansgate-Castlefield - during the temporary closure of the city centre route probably the busiest station on the network, now enhanced with three tracks

To start with, Metrolink is not bad, but in many aspects far from perfect, too. For British standards, it has been expanded so massively and so rapidly that the critical observer might easily get suspicious. So let's have a closer look. And the look of the system has also changed drastically within only a few years: the complete rolling stock has been replaced, all original Ansaldo trams are out of service, although I saw a few still in the yard at Old Trafford, and all stops restyled in yellow. The overall appearance of the system is very good, all pretty clean, no graffiti at all, no litter or signs of vandalism, maybe the old stations on the original lines could do with some facelifting regarding platform surfaces. Electronic next-tram displays worked fine at all times, and delays were within the normal. Ticket machines also worked whenever I needed them and are pretty easy to handle. No problem paying with a German debit card, and they issue proper receipts, good for my tax office. The tickets they issue, however, don't have a magnetic strip which is required to go through the gates at railway stations, so you'll need to show your ticket to an agent there who will open the gates for you. I'm not sure about the older lines, but the newer sections are all fully accessible, mostly via ramps, while some stops have lifts. Boarding the train is completely level, and on the platform surface there is a mark indicating where people in wheelchairs or with prams or strollers should get on to find the area reserved for them. Therefore even single trams always stop at the very front of the platform, in fact the tram's front is beyond the platform end, as the platforms are just long enough to accommodate 2-car sets. The new Bombardier Flexity Swift trams are quite nice, not too clumsy or bulky for street running, and the seats are certainly much better than those in the Cologne sister cars, where they have cheap plastic seats. They run as single or double units, the latter being shown on the next-tram indicators as 'dbl', so people can prepare themselves to use the whole length of the platform.

Let's start with the older legs, which I had visited ten years ago, when I was preparing my book 'Metros in Britain' (no longer available). At that time I was quite shocked by the hopping and shaking (hunting) of the Ansaldo trams on the old railway routes to Bury and Altrincham. Apparently, these lines were taken over from former British Rail without doing much track upgrading and remained so for a long time. I would assume that in the meantime there has been some track replacement, but still, even the new Bombardier Flexity Swift trams start hunting at some higher speed, but at least the up-and-down hopping has disappeared, making for a more comfortable ride. As said before, the stations have all been restyled in the new yellow corporate design, which is quite nice, although I didn't really see the necessity for such a drastic change, the turquoise used before was quite nice too and could have become typical of Manchester. Interestingly the colour change took place at the time when RATP Dev took over operation, and RATP has used a similar turquoise for many decades. Let's hope that the new livery stays, as this often becomes part of a city's identity. Many stations on these original lines preserve some old buildings, unfortunately not always in use, though, like at Trafford Bar, but mothballed. While most of the newer legs are only served every 12 minutes, the Bury and Altrincham lines normally have a tram every six minutes. I was quite surprised to find out that the Altrincham line is not signalled like a railway line despite its alignment and history, just the short single-track section around Navigation Road, where the second track is still used by mainline trains has railway signals, otherwise it's all 'line-of-sight' operation. The Bury line, however, uses proper signalling north of Queen's Road, where the second depot is located. Just tramway signals are also used on later built or converted lines.

The Bury and Altrincham lines were first linked via a surface route through the city centre, with a branch going to Piccadilly railway station. This was certainly the cheaper option and the tram got integrated into the urban environment, but I still think that Manchester would have deserved some kind of Liverpool-style underground solution. I do recognise that the current solution has some advantages, the crawling speed is compensated by the easy accessibility of the surface stops, but the enormous and ever increasing amounts of trams passing through Piccadilly Gardens is quite horrible, if not dangerous. I guess the second city crossing will only partly alleviate this situation. Piccadilly Gardens could be quite a nice place, but I find it rather unpleasant. While the garden part is separated from the transport part by an ugly concrete wall, buses and trams seem to run over pedestrians any second, and strange that this does not occur more often. And this time I only saw the reduced version as normally the trams come from all sides (trams from Market Street towards Piccadilly Gardens additionally use a by-pass track, making things even less clear for pedestrians!). Further down, next to the Piccadilly 'tunnel' portal there is a huge field marked on the roadway to remain clear for trams to pass, which is hardly possible during rush hour traffic, so it is quite amazing that the trams can make their way through this point without much problem. All in all, priority at traffic lights works well around the system, although it could be faster by a few seconds so that the trams don't almost come to a halt and then have to accelerate again. But I hadn't observed any annoying waits caused by road traffic turning first or so.

Victoria station - new cityside access with complicated track layout

The Metrolink's Victoria station layout has been completely rebuilt recently, but the result is one of the least convincing elements of the whole system. The new track arrangement includes the junction for the future second city crossing plus a three track station with two island platforms, so the middle track can be used in either direction, and all that laid out in a curve, resulting in a weird approach via numerous points and winding tracks. I will be curious to see this area in full operation in 2017.

MediaCityUK - on weekends served by Eccles-bound trams

The next branch to open was the Eccles line, which offers nice views of the Salford Quays, but technically speaking, it is Manchester's weakest line, as it virtually crawls through this former docklands area at minimum speed until you get to Harbour City where a single-track branch diverges to MediaCityUK. I was there at the weekend, when this branch is served by trams running through to Eccles, so they have to reverse here. But this situation seemed rather confusing, not just for me. Noone seemed to know which side platform is for which direction, as the next-tram indicator on the southern platform showed both directions, and that on the northern didn't show anything. I assume they always use the same platform for either direction, so it should clearly be signed. During the week, when the stub is served directly, probably just one platform is enough anyway. For passengers travelling on towards Eccles, the detour via MediaCityUK certainly adds several minutes to their journey. Once the trams reach Broadway, they can continue at reasonable speed, despite the street-running, but as the stops are offset from the roadway, traffic lights hold back road traffic so the trams can proceed without obstacles (may not always be the case during rush hour traffic, though). At Eccles, some buses unload their passengers directly at the Metrolink platform, otherwise the bus station is just a short walk west.

Chorlton - typical station on line to East Didsbury

All the other branches were opened as part of the big-bang expansion during recent years. The South Manchester Line that terminates at East Disbury is probably the best of all. It diverges from the Altrincham line in a grade-separated junction with quite steep ramps and then runs fairly straight along an old railway corridor to its final stop, so it offers a good speed, and despite using a railway corridor, its stations seem to be close enough to the adjacent housing estates. The latest addition to the system diverges from the East Didsbury branch, and boasts everything from light rail-style interurban routes to street-running. Again, the street-running sections seem to work fine by holding back road traffic before the trams enter those sections. The branch, however, has several very tight curves which are negotiated at minimum speed, not really up to state-of-the-art tramways - interestingly, the latest edition of "Tramways & Urban Transit" has an in-depth article about this issue, which seems to be related that too many tramway engineers come from mainline railways and don't quite understand the design differences, so this is not just my non-expert observation. The worst such curve is actually off-street, just south of the Shadowmoss stop before the final run towards the airport. I think that actually what is known as the Airport Line would deserve being called South Manchester Line, and the South Manchester Line could be called the Didsbury Line instead, as although the airport is its final destination, it is certainly not the preferred option to go to the airport, with a ride to the city centre taking some 50 minutes every 12 minutes, while direct trains run every few minutes and just take some 15 minutes to Piccadilly. On the Airport Line there is certainly one stop missing along the long street-running section between Martinscroft and Benchill, but obviously they couldn't find a location where neighbours would give up some parking spaces in front of their houses.

Airport Line - street-running section near Benchill

The East Manchester Line connects to the former stub at Piccadilly. It is a mix of grade separated light rail with two underpasses, and an old-fashioned tramway with street-running through Droylsden, maybe the most conflictive of this type as far as interference with road traffic goes, as the trams may even have to stop for buses stopping along the same road. In fact, quite weird that a bus line (216) is maintained basically all the way from Piccadilly to Ashton parallel to the tram line. The outer section is on a separate right-of-way, but this doesn't really help to get higher speeds as it crawls through a large roundabout and then to the terminus.

Tram approaching Ashton-under-Lyne terminus in the background

Like the early Bury and Altrincham lines, the Rochdale Line again is mostly a converted and rebuilt railway line, but unlike the older lines, the trackbed was completely renewed. It features Manchester's most outstanding light rail station at Central Park, a quiet business park, with its cable-stayed roof structure. The flyover that crosses the Leeds main line is a massive structure with a think wall in the middle, similar to what you can see on the Bury Line on its way across the M60 motorway.
Just before getting to Oldham, the trams leave the old railway alignment in a sharp curve to serve Oldham town centre, however not what would be the town's main street, but parallel to eat, so when you get off, you get to see the ugly back side of a major shopping centre, while the real High Street is a pedestrianised street on the other side. The street-running Oldham section terminates as the line rejoins the old railway corridor east of Oldham Mumps. The trams actually have to negotiate a steep ramp, as the old railway used to cross that point on a viaduct, now demolished, though. The ride then is pretty fast north to the point where the Leeds main line has to be crossed again, this time the flyover is only single-track as is the adjoining ramp down to Rochdale railway station. It is not really convincing why the tram stop is located across the street from the railway station and not right next to it, I would think that space could have been made available to allow for a 2-track full-length stop there. This way, passengers would not need to cross a busy street to change from tram to train, and many do, as trains from there to Victoria station are frequent and much faster than the tram. 

Change from single-track to double-track near the Rochdale Town Centre terminus

From the railway station, the trams wind down towards Rochdale town centre, the last section being single-track for no obvious reason, maybe to avoid a scissors-crossover in what is a large curve. Anyway, as the traffic lights seem to work fine, this should not be a bottleneck.

Construction for second city-crossing in full swing between Victoria and Exchange Square

The second city crossing is now under construction, at least around St. Peter's Square and between Victoria Station and Exchange Square, which is actually the only stop on this new link. I would have preferred a second stop close to Albert Square. Interestingly, St. Peter's Square was initially one of those stops with only a short high-level platform and the rest as a ramp or low-level, all to reduce the "visual impact" in this urban environment. It was later rebuilt to become a proper full-length high-level, and now it is even expanded and will have two full-length high-level island platforms and four tracks.

Farewise, Manchester is not too bad, maybe the range of available tickets is almost too large. You have to choose between daytickets covering just one type of transport or two or three, i.e. train, tram and/or bus. The area covered is the entire Greater Manchester region, all the way to Wigan, for example, so the prices are not too excessive. But being raised with the concept of integrated transport, I do not really understand why one should choose different types of transport, when one "journey" should normally be able to be done using all different types to get from A to B. So, the differentiation should rather be done by area than by mode. In many cases, people will not have the choice whether to use tram rather than train, or depend on an additional bus, and as the fares for individual day passes and those for combined modes are not too different, I think a simple unitarian cover-all-modes pass would simplify the whole fare structure. Single fares are valid for a single operator, anyway, Metrolink's fares start from 1.20 for a trip in the central area to 4.70. for the longest possible journey. There are frequent inspections on the trams! Those who can't resist can also get electronic tickets, but after my recent negative experience in London with the Oystercard, I cannot recommend any of these for real urban rail explorers!

As the system has grown so much in recent years, I think it was about time to introduce some line numbering system. Unlike the Docklands Light Railway, for example, Metrolink lines are at least shown in different colours on the network maps, but these colours are not used to actually name the lines, so they wouldn't say the "Blue Line", instead it is always something like the "Bury-Altrincham service"! I have never understood the British reluctance to using line numbers, as this is nothing that hurts, it just helps! Funnily, on the Croydon Tramlink, the trams display a route number, but this is not reflected on their maps! I bet the old first-generation tram systems must have used line numbers, or didn't they either?


Metrolink at TfGM

Metrolink at UrbanRail.Net

LIVERPOOL Merseyrail

 Liverpool South Parkway station, opened in 2006

While staying in Manchester, I took a day trip to Liverpool on Tuesday, 7 July 2015, to refresh my impressions of the Merseyrail system and see how the city has developed since my last visit 10 years ago, and I was actually positively surprised. Merseyrail hasn't changed much, so there was not really anything new to see except the interchange at South Parkway, where I got off the train from Manchester. A very spacious, though not too busy station which provides bus shuttles to John Lennon Airport. As the weather was not so bright in the morning and I wanted to take some pictures of the refreshed livery of the trains, I first travelled into the city and went for a walk down the redeveloped waterfront.

James Street inbound platform - typical look of all refurbished stations

Getting off at Liverpool Central, I was already surprised how this station had been refurbished and looked a bit nicer than before, although the horrible cladding on the walls is still there. Later I went over to the Wirral side and the sun came out, so I got the shots I wanted to be featured in my forthcoming "Tram Atlas Britain & Ireland". While the surface stations still looked pretty much the same as I remembered them, almost all underground stations have recently been refurbished. The 1970s brown cladding was replaced with friendly white panels, while maintaining the overall look of the tube stations. Currently the Moorfields tube station on the Wirral loop is out of service for refurbishment, which leaves just the Moorfields platforms on the Northern Line for upgrading, which is planned to be done soon. 

Moorfields - Northern Line inbound platform - still in its original appearance

Rather by chance, I happened to see the Water Street exit from James Street station, which is only open during peak hours. It is quite a long and inclined foot tunnel leading to an exit at Water Street/Drury Lane used by many office workers in that area. The tunnel is illuminated with the colour of the light changing continuously:


 Unfortunately, step-free access into the trains will have to wait until a new generation of trains arrives, mostly it is quite a big step up for boarding. The current trains have partly been refurbished once again in the inside, while on the outside all have received a new "livery", although this is just a film with different themes that is covering the sides of the train, like you would do with adverts, I guess. So, everything looks refreshed.

On the outside, the trains now carry several different liveries

In some aspects, the system reminds me a lot of the Berlin S-Bahn, not least the sound of the electric trains, which is similar to our old 477s or the still-in-use 485s. And then there's the third-rail power supply, of course. On the other hand, operation is more like the New York Subway, with a train guard on every train travelling in the rear cabin. I find it funny anyway to hear a manual bell ring through the train and the driver who rings back, confirming he has understood the "ready to go" message, feels like an old tramway. While during the day, a 15-minute service is maintained despite the trains not really getting that busy, the same headway is operated during peak hours, and then platforms get very full, I saw quite some congestion at Moorfields, especially with trains going to three different destinations there are many people waiting for one of the following trains. The long Southport - Hunts Cross route is then operated with double trainsets, i.e. 6-car trains. So, all in all, I like Merseyrail and it's a pity other British cities of a similar size don't have a similar S-Bahn-type service, as most regional services are part of larger franchises. It is also a pity, Liverpool could not get its way with the tram project, which would have made this city an even more attractive destination for urban rail enthusiasts.

As for tickets, I actually planned to get a day pass, covering all of Merseyrail plus all buses in Merseyside, but in the end just got a day pass for Merseyrail proper, which at 4.90 GBP was quite cheap and enough for that day. Eventually I returned to Manchester Victoria on the world's first passenger railway, which finally, after more than 150 years, was electrified. Luckily, cheap day return tickets betweens these two cities can be used on any of the routes linking them.


Merseyrail (Official Site)

Merseyrail at UrbanRail.Net


Like Liverpool and Blackpool, I visited Sheffield on a day trip from Manchester during my stay there in early July 2015. On Monday, 6th, I met up with a good friend there and together we wanted to explore the system, altough for me there was actually nothing new to see since my visit in 2005, except for the new livery introduced shortly after that visit.

Supertram at Cathedral - with their red front, the trams still look colourful on rainy days!

Unfortunately, the weather was not too good, so I only managed to get a few good shots for my "Tram Atlas Britain & Ireland", now due for publication in October 2015. But anyway, we rode the sections we could, because this year, in different phases, many sections are closed for track renewal, so we had to do the section between the railway station and Gleadless Towend on a replacement bus, and unfortunately we got one with a more direct route and only found out later that there was another one which runs mostly along the tram route. Anyway, it was still interesting to ride on the Supertram again, and I eventually came to the conclusion that technically-speaking, it is probably the best system in Britain. The good old Duewag cars do a really good job, provide a smooth ride and take all curves and bends at good speed without making strange noises, so I would rate it "best tram track in the UK"! Also, the comfortable seats are worth mentioning, similar to what you find on Germany's most luxurious light rail system in Stuttgart.

Comfortable seating like in Stuttgart

Operated by Stagecoach, they offer a cheap day pass for just 3.90 GBP also valid on buses, but as we had to find out later, only valid on Stagecoach buses, not on First buses, which also run on urban routes, so that was a bit weird, as if there was a two-class transport service, one first-class offering trams and buses, and another second-class with just First buses. There are also more global day passes covering all trams, trains and buses in South Yorkshire. Tickets are sold and checked by conductors on the trams. With trams every 10 minutes on all lines, the service is particularly good on the western leg towards Hillsborough where there is thus a tram every 5 minutes.
Sheffield is the only city in the UK to use proper colour-coding for its lines, whereas in Manchester colours are just used on maps for each routing but you would nowhere find the words "Yellow Line" or "Yellow Route" as you would in Sheffield.

At Gleadless Townend, we had to change from tram to bus

The curious thing about the Sheffield Supertram is the fact that it was built and opened within a short period of time, but since its "completion" in 1995, it has not seen a single extension added to it! Being quite successful and popular, one might expect that more routes would have been built in the meantime.

Supertram approaching the terminus at Malin Bridge, only a short branch off the main Hillsborough route

Sheffield is currently building the UK's first tram-train route, with a branch from Meadowhall South to Rotherham. I'm not quite sure whether this was the most obvious route for such a pilot project. I guess the tram-trains will not be able to compete with the travel time offered by normal regional trains, the only advantage is that passengers will be taken directly into the city centre in Sheffield, although the main railway station is not that far from it anyway, and connected by trams. Otherwise, the new route doesn't really serve any important areas, and the Parkgate station at the namesake shopping mall in Rotherham could just be built as a normal train station, too.


Supertram (Official Stagecoach site)

Supertram at UrbanRail.Net

Sunday, 5 July 2015


 Flexity near Manchester Square south of the Tower

Revisiting several urban rail systems in England's North West in preparation for my forthcoming 'Tram Atlas Britain & Ireland' I returned to Blackpool on Saturday, 4 July 2015, approximately 10 years after my first visit. This popular seaside resort hasn't changed much, but its tram line has completely.
For many decades, this coastal line had been operating exclusively with heritage tram cars, though offering a service not only designed for visitors, but also for the locals. A few years ago, they decided to upgrade the line and create a modern tram line as part of an urban transport system, and make the heritage service a separate business.

Two Flexitys at the southern terminus Starr Gate

The result of the line that reopened in 2012 is quite nice, and on this mostly sunny summer Saturday it was quite busy. When it gets quite busy, I wonder whether the onboard conductors are the most efficient way to sell tickets. It is certainly nice, especially for visitors, to buy a ticket from a person rather than a machine, but when the trams get very crowded, it is difficult for the conductors to keep control. The whole procedure reminded me of those female conductors I saw on Russian trams. There are mostly two conductors, so each one has one half of the vehicle to check, and in fact on each of my numerous boardings, except one, they came up and checked my day pass, which I bought from the first conductor I met: a paper ticket for 4.50 GBP which would also allow me to use the city buses. This shabby paper ticket shows a huge logo, when for the frequent ticket checks it would be more helpful to have the day of validity printed in large letters instead! Anyway, quite a good deal for people like us. For single rides they have fares according to distance, and since the line has been upgraded the stops are clearly visible and named, although the company still doesn't have a real map on their website, just a list of names (and for many years with an error: Bispham Sandhurst Avenue are two different stops!). So, while this fare integration with the bus service is very welcomed, I cannot understand why bus #1 serves exactly the same route as the tram? Is it for those locals who do not want to mix with the tourists? Is it because they don't trust the reliability of the trams (I have read that there have been problems...). Is the bus faster?

Flexity at the northern terminus Fleetwood Ferry

During upgrading all the stops were equipped with proper platforms and shelters, there is also an information board including timetables etc. Unfortunately those old shelters have disappeared. But what is surely missing for a state-of-the-art tramway are the electronic next-tram indicators. Especially along the section between North Pier and South Pier, many people hop on the tram for a relatively short ride, and in this case, a real-time indicator would be useful, because often people will rather walk instead of waiting too long, particularly when there is a delay. Normally, the trams run every 10 minutes.

Tram leaving the loop at the northern terminus Fleetwood Ferry

Fenced-off section between Little Bispham and Anchorsholme Lane

The ride as such is rather slow, mostly due to the fact that the trams run along the Promenade and people cross the tracks anywhere, but even on the northern, partly even fenced-off section, the trams are not too fast. On the paved Promenade section with grooved rails, the wheels can be rather loud. Luckily, the line doesn't have any significant curves, just the one south of the Anchorsholme Lane stop seemed a bit tight and noisy. The only street-running section at the northern end in Fleetwood is passed at reasonable speed.

Flexity - spacious interior, 2.65 m wide

I congratulate Blackpool for their decision to go for 2.65 m wide Flexity trams, they are much more comfortable than the typical 2.40 m wide trams mostly found on new tram systems, too. The seats are quite pleasant for my back. Inside the have visual and accoustic next-stop and destination announcements, a line panel is also mounted above the doors. The trams have no air-conditioning, but that is not really necessary as even on a very sunny day you get quite a breeze from the sea to keep you cool.

Open "boat car"

While I appreciate the modern tram service, those coming to Blackpool for the heritage trams will be very disappointed. Last Saturday, only two old trams were running! One 'boat' and one ex-Bolton double-decker, so not much to take pictures of. In 2005 I got to see more than 10 different ones. Now they operate them only in excursion mode doing round-trips between North Pier and Pleasure Beach. [Edit: So if you want to see more, be sure you check the annual schedule to know which days have more vehicles in service!]
    My proposal would be to add more of the old trams between Bispham or Little Bispham and Pleasure Beach to reinforce the modern trams on busy days, and to offer a normal day pass and a day pass+ which includes heritage trams too, or charge an extra pound for each boarding, so that people will use them again as a normal means of transport not like the many horse carriages you can also see along the Promenade, while at the same time visitors will enjoy simply looking at the variety of different cars Blackpool has to offer and which makes the town unique not only in Britain. It could be Europe's San Francisco once again!

ex-Bolton car #66 (1901)