On 5 January, replica 1830 steam locomotive ‘Planet’ hauled one of the last trains between the world’s oldest surviving station to the Great Western Warehouse via a headshunt on Stephenson’s viaduct over the River Irwell in Manchester. These buildings are part of the city’s Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) and the station was the terminus for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, which opened in 1830. Although this was only a 700-metre trip, it was on one of the world’s oldest railways.

MOSI can now only offer a 300-metre trip and has also had its connection with the rail network severed as work starts on the Ordsall Chord to connect Manchester’s Victoria and Piccadilly stations. Its construction also involves full or part demolition of grade II listed bridges and, it is claimed, harms the setting of the museum’s historic buildings.

English Heritage (EH) regards the MOSI complex as “the Stonehenge of railway history” and had never come across a project “so exceptionally damaging to the historic environment as Ordsall Chord”. Network Rail believes that the chord is “necessary to achieve substantial public benefits” which, according to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), is the only justification for granting planning permission that results in ‘substantial harm’. So why is Network Rail building such a controversial project?

Manchester United

One part of Manchester’s railway heritage is its separate Victoria and Piccadilly stations. The construction of the Windsor link in 1991 provided Bolton and Wigan with through trains to Piccadilly. In doing so, it diminished the importance of Victoria station.

It also increased traffic on the line through Manchester Oxford Road, which is now at capacity. Another capacity issue is that trains between Manchester Airport and Leeds reverse at Manchester Piccadilly, consuming six minutes of station throat capacity as they do so.

The Manchester region is much in need of economic development for which rail capacity needs to be improved. To do this, two alternative strategies emerged, either increase traffic into Piccadilly or focus development on Victoria.

Having all inter-city services departing from Piccadilly station is an attractive option. Unfortunately, the station has a high platform occupancy rate. The conflict across its throat could be resolved by building an expensive flyover, however that would involve huge train service disruption during construction. This would also conflict with the planned HS2 route to Piccadilly. For these, and other reasons, it was decided to develop Manchester Victoria.

The Ordsall option

Developing Victoria requires a new rail connection between the two stations west of the city. Options considered for this included a long chord and a tunnel. These were both long routes with gradients being a significant constraint as the lines between the two stations are on viaducts. The tunnel was prohibitively expensive and the long chord would have required high and visually intrusive flyovers as it had to span a tram crossing over a railway viaduct at Deansgate. It would also have required extensive alterations to the road network.

A short chord option was also considered from Castlefield junction that would avoid the need to climb over the Deansgate crossing. This had an unacceptable gradient, was visually intrusive and also required substantial alterations to the local road network.
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As GRIP 3 options were developed in 2011, one that was not developed was moving the railway off the Middlewood viaduct to a chord further west. This was discounted as, at the time, it was a potential HS2 route into the city. This subsequently became option 15.

The GRIP 3 study concluded that the only viable option was a flat connection in the vicinity of MOSI. The project’s remit required heritage impact to be minimised and the retention of MOSI’s rail connection, if feasible. Unfortunately, after trying various track geometry options, it became clear that the only configuration compliant with Group Standards was a line half a metre above MOSI’s railway.

Various permanent and temporary crossing arrangements were investigated to maintain this rail connection. However, none proved feasible due to the chord’s height and its 40mm cant. The rail connection has only been used about three times in ten years and so its severance was not a great problem in respect of connectivity. However, from a heritage perspective, it changes the museum’s setting by removing the railway line on its approach.

Substantial harm

Liverpool Road closed to passengers in 1844 when Manchester Victoria opened. It then became a rail freight depot and its approaches were later widened. As a result, there is a dense concentration of listed bridges over the River Irwell and Water Street.

Of these, the only grade I listed structure is George Stephenson’s bridge over the River Irwell. This has two 63 feet spans and was built in 1830. The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) considers it to be one of its sixty most important English masonry bridges. Adjacent to Stephenson’s bridge are the grade II listed Girder Bridge, Zig Zag viaduct and Water Street Bridge.

Crossing the Irwell immediately south of Stephenson’s bridge is another grade II structure, the Castlefield Viaduct, built in 1845, which is to be widened where the Ordsall chord diverges off it.

Building the new chord above these listed bridges in a sensitive manner is a significant challenge. After considering various track geometry options, a design was finalised that did not harm Stephenson’s bridge.

This was option 14 which requires the demolition of the Girder bridge which butts onto it. This does bring a benefit of being able to fully appreciate Stephenson’s elegant segmental-arched bridge. Currently, it is difficult to see the bridge due to the other bridges in close proximity.

Also damaged is the Zig Zag viaduct, which needs to be partly demolished for the Ordsall Chord’s bridge over the Irwell. Its significance is also harmed by the loss of the Girder Bridge. The Ordsall Chord does not physically affect any grade I listed structures. Nevertheless, it will cause substantial harm, as defined by NPPF, to their settings. Whilst this is generally agreed, EH and Network Rail disagree on the extent of this harm.

EH claims the chord would block the view of Stephenson’s bridge from Liverpool Road station whereas Network Rail consider it exceptionally difficult for anyone to pick out this bridge from the station. A photograph from this viewpoint supports Network Rail’s view. Moreover, although Liverpool Road station has a MOSI interpretation panel about Water Street bridge, there is no mention of Stephenson’s bridge.

Option 15

Mark Whitby is a former President of the ICE. He was engaged by Parsons Brinckerhoff, which was developing the GRIP 3 options for Network Rail. He could not accept the need to do so much harm to these historic bridges and was convinced that the chord could be moved further west. Hence he developed his option 15. Such was his conviction that he left Parsons Brinckerhoff and, after the inquiry decided in favour of option 14, funded a legal challenge against it.

Network Rail’s detailed analysis of option 15 concluded that it was “a technically viable but compromised option, with major defects, increased maintenance costs and performance risks to the extent that Network Rail views this option as an unacceptable solution”. It includes a 210-metre radius curve which would be noisy and need jointed track as continuous welded rail requires a minimum 250 metre curve.

Option 15 also moves the railway off Middlewood viaduct and so would require a minimum 20-day blockade during construction. It would cost at least £30 million more than option 14, plus uncosted utility and road diversions. These would include East Ordsall Lane, which bridges the historic Manchester, Bolton and Bury canal at the point where it is crossed by the option 15 chord, requiring both the lane and the historic canal to be lowered at this point.

The option 15 chord would cross the Irwell 70 metres further west than the option 14 chord, and thus avoids the need to demolish the Girder bridge. However, Network Rail’s analysis also concluded that option 15 is likely to conflict with the South West parapet of Stephenson’s bridge. It would still cut MOSI’s rail connection and be visible from it, thus causing substantial harm by affecting the settings of its listed buildings.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, a major issue with option 15 was that it required two elevated railways to cut across the currently derelict Middlewood development site. This is a key part of Salford City Council’s (SSC’s) regeneration plan. SCC was convinced that the land would remain derelict if option 15 was chosen as the bisected site would no longer be of interest to developers.

Network Rail also believes that a decision to choose option 15 would delay the project for many years and possibly cancel it as all stakeholders concerned with Manchester’s development would oppose it.

The Inquiry

In April 2014, an inquiry was held to gain approval for the Network Rail (Ordsall Chord) Order made under the 1992 Transport & Works Act and seek associated Planning Permission and Listed Building Consent.

Despite conflicting views on the choice of option 14, there was a surprising degree of approval in other respects. No-one doubted the substantial benefits provided by the chord or questioned the rejection of the tunnel and both the long and short chord options. In general, the degree of harm it would cause was agreed. However, the battle lines were clearly drawn. It was, in effect, a straight fight between Network Rail’s option 14 and Whitby’s option 15.

Those opposing option 14 included English Heritage, Mark Whitby, the Castlefield Forum, the ICE, affected local residents and businesses. MOSI had withdrawn its previous objection. In compensation for the curtailment of its steam service, it had received a £3 million donation from Network Rail. Its director, Sally MacDonald, advised that this will be used to “bring to life previously untold stories from the early years of the railway station”.

Supporting option 14 were Network Rail, Manchester and Salford Councils, the two local MPs, the Rail Freight group, Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce and the Victorian Society who felt it “successfully marries the project’s substantial public benefit with the difficult task of preserving the extraordinary heritage of the sensitive site”. They also noted the heritage benefits of revealing and restoring Stephenson’s Bridge.

It took thirteen days for supporters and objectors to make their case to the Inspector whose report was published in January 2015. This concluded that the Ordsall Chord would cause substantial harm to heritage assets but commented on “an element of hyperbole which has crept into the objectors’ cases. This is not a world heritage site and comparisons with Stonehenge and the Pyramids are not helpful.”

As required by the NPPF, such substantial harm could only be justified if it was “necessary to achieve substantial public benefits”. The report concluded that option 15 was not reasonable as it would prevent the development of the Middlewood site that would provide jobs and homes in Salford and that the Ordsall Chord is the only viable option. The Inspector noted that the scale of the benefits it would release across the North of England is such that its harm is outweighed by the public benefits. Hence there is “a clear and convincing justification for the Order”.

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Following the Inspector’s recommendation, the Secretary of State for Transport granted the Ordsall Chord Order in March. Mark Whitby then made an application to the High Court to challenge its validity. In October his challenge was dismissed in the Royal Courts of Justice where the judge paid tribute to the Inspector’s ‘detailed and careful report’ and concluded that he had correctly applied planning policies and made no error of law. Whitby was refused permission to appeal.

After this seven-month delay to the project, the Northern Alliance, with contractors Skanska and BAM Nuttall, started work on the project in January. Despite this, Whitby has appealed against the High Court’s refusal of his right to appeal and on the 11 January was granted Leave to Appeal by the Court of Appeal. Thus the project faces further potential delays and costs.

The past or the future?

It is right to respect and celebrate Britain’s engineering heritage by providing a tangible historic record that shows how engineering benefits society and can inspire future engineers. Manchester’s MOSI is an impressive museum that does this well. Its promotion of engineering heritage will, no doubt, be further enhanced by the donation it has received from Network Rail.

Ordsall Chord shows the difficulties of resolving the sometimes-unavoidable conflict between projects and the preservation of historic assets. For new railways, this is more likely to be a problem as curvature and gradient constraints severely limit route options. Such conflicts are not a new problem for the affected bridges. In 1860, the Girder bridge substantially harmed Stephenson’s bridge by hiding it from view. In 1904, Stephenson’s original Water Street bridge, supported on Doric columns, was replaced for the construction of a tramway.

With such a controversial project, the actual heritage impact can be exaggerated. News reports refer to “damage to (MOSI’s) historic buildings” and “large portions of the site being destroyed”. Yet the buildings are all untouched. Concerns have been expressed about the effect on its setting. The reality is an unremarkable view from Liverpool Road station which is to be crossed by a railway, 50 metres away, 0.5 metres above ground level. The only real impact on MOSI is the particularly regrettable curtailment of its steam trains.

Perhaps something could be learnt from these exaggerated reports. For example, English Heritage was not involved during the option selection stage and so felt that no real attention had been given to heritage concerns. Their participation at this earlier stage would have shown EH how Network Rail considers heritage and given them a better understanding of the constraints it faces.

The Planning Inspectorate’s 160- page report provides an accurate and detailed description of the impact of the chord. It carefully considers all the issues and concludes that the Ordsall Chord is a regrettable necessity.

The new chord is an essential part of the Northern Hub package of rail enhancements which will allow an extra 700 trains to be run each day, providing space for 44 million passengers each year. It is expected to bring £4 billion of benefits to Manchester along with 20,000 to 30,000 new jobs.

The legal challenge to the Ordsall Chord has already delayed the project, and may yet add further delays. This is costing the people of Manchester dearly. It must be a source of frustration to Manchester and Salford City Councils, as well as Network Rail whose route delivery director, Nick Spall notes: “This is the location of the world’s first inter-city railway, opened in 1830 by George Stephenson. Stephenson was an innovator who brought progress. If he was alive today, we firmly believe he would build the Ordsall Chord. The old railway is giving birth to the new.”