Figures recently released by the Department for Transport (DfT) indicate that England’s tram networks have reported their highest passenger numbers and vehicle miles since records began. 267.7 million passenger journeys were recorded in 2016/17, which is an increase of 6.2 per cent on the previous year and, according to the DfT, the highest figure recorded.

In addition, since 2006/07, passenger journeys have increased by 49.9 per cent. Things are definitely looking up for tram systems across the country, with new extensions being built and planned on many of the networks that now exist.

One of the tram systems included in the DfT analysis was Manchester Metrolink. Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) has spent over £1.5 billion to expand and develop the network since 2008 when MPT, a joint venture of VolkerRail and Laing O’Rourke (MPact) in consortium with Thales, was awarded a design, construct and maintenance contract to deliver lines to Media City, South Manchester, East Manchester, Oldham and Rochdale, as well as a new depot facility at Trafford Bar.

The MPT consortium

The scope of the works is shared between the Laing O’Rourke/VolkerRail (MPact) JV, which is responsible for the design, construction and maintenance of the civil engineering and track, and Thales which takes care of all the electrical works. In addition, Thales has a contract direct with TfGM for the Tram Management System.

Whilst delivering this initial phase, MPT worked closely with TfGM, as owner of the Metrolink network and overseer of the expansion works, to define a scope for future lines. As a result, a second phase of extensions was awarded early in 2010, extending the South Manchester line to East Didsbury and the East Manchester line to Ashton, together with increasing the capacity of the Trafford Bar Depot.

Further extensions were awarded later in 2010, comprising a new line to Manchester Airport and town centre routes for Oldham and Rochdale.


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Ashton crossing.

Ashton crossing.

Second City Crossing

Following this, in 2014, the contract for the Second City Crossing was awarded to the MPT consortium. This represented a critical phase of the development of Metrolink following the successful completion and delivery of the 14.5km extension to the Manchester Airport line. In total, over 60km of new track and 57 new tram stops were completed across this rapidly expanding network.

The completion of this work would realise TfGM’s aspiration, which started back in 1982 when the metro link concept was first mooted, to create a “world class transport system” for the people of Greater Manchester.

A huge challenge

However, this phase of the programme was not going to be easy since it included removing a significant bottleneck in the centre of the city. It also involved working around listed buildings, cherished by Mancunians and English Heritage alike, and minimizing any disruption to the many high-profile businesses along the proposed corridor for the tram extension.

The length of the second city crossing is 1.3km, extending from Victoria railway station, down to Exchange Square and through St Peter’s Square, before joining the existing network at the Deansgate-Castlefield stop. Each location presented huge challenges for the engineers, particularly the section through St Peter’s Square.

Running down one side of St Peter’s Square are the Manchester Central Library and the Town Hall, both treasured listed buildings. In the middle of the square there was a Cenotaph and a stone cross, alongside an existing one-platform stop for the tram. The Square also acts as a thoroughfare for thousands of people every day.

The approach adopted by MPT was to agree a nine-week closure of the square in 2015, followed by a period of single line working using a simple wooden token system for tram operations, and then another nine week closure the following summer to complete the re-modelling.

One-team approach

Fortunately, the MPT consortium and TfGM had cultivated and developed a one-team approach which was proving to be very effective, thus enabling such a potentially disruptive arrangement to work efficiently and without conflict.

During the closures, new S&C layouts were installed at both ends of St Peter’s Square. The existing platform was demolished and two new platforms were constructed. Precast concrete units, each weighing 10 tonnes, were cast off-site and installed overnight using a tower crane that was working on an adjacent site. In addition, the elegantly designed platform canopies, fully equipped with cameras, public address systems, information screens and lighting, were constructed off-site. This ensured that work on site was kept to a minimum, leaving it uncluttered for the thousands of people who walk through the square each day.

Although the Cenotaph, built in 1924 and 12.8 metres high, was not a specific part of this project, it had to be moved to a new permanent position behind the Town Hall. It had been designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, as had, amongst other fine buildings, the London Cenotaph and the Midland Railway War Memorial in Derby. His original drawings were used to dismantle the structure and reconstruct it – an approach preferred to jacking up the structure and moving it to the new site.

The stone cross was repositioned and a time capsule was also buried under the new flagged pedestrian area alongside the tracks.

Between St Peter’s Square and Exchange Square, on Cross Street, is a fairly modern building called the Cross Street Chapel. The new tram route runs down the centre of the road and, many years ago, there was a different chapel which had a graveyard that extended into the road and below the path of the tramway. Records suggested that there were probably about 123 people buried in the graveyard, so they all had to be carefully/respectfully moved as part of the project.

Archeologists were called in to oversee this sensitive operation and, when they started to carry out the excavation, they came across bodies that were stacked on top of each other, probably family members of all ages. The final count was 270 bodies, which were carefully exhumed and reburied elsewhere.

An aerial shot of the depot.

An aerial shot of the depot at Trafford Bar.

Ahead of schedule

The first phase of the Second City Crossing was finished in December 2015. The newly upgraded tram stop in St Peter’s Square was ready by August 2016, with the whole work becoming fully operational by early 2017, well ahead of schedule.

New additional depot facilities at Trafford Bar were completed, with increased stabling for the new M5000 tram fleet that had replaced the older T68 trams. The depot was constructed on a former industrial site, where buildings had to be demolished and the ground thoroughly investigated and treated. A new stabling area has been constructed alongside a maintenance building with a tram wash and sand plant plus six kilometres of ballasted track.

The integrated team has won a cluster of awards for its achievements, including the Light Rail Project of the Year Awards (over £50 million) for 2015 and 2016, as well as the 2015 National Rail Award for Civil Engineering Achievement of the Year and the Major Civil Engineering Project of the Year over £50 million at the 2015 British Construction Industry awards.

There are many more, but what of the future? What are the plans for this ever-expanding tram system?

In terms of the new Trafford Park line extension, valued at £350 million, preliminary work has already started and the plan is to complete it by 2020. Detailed BIM designs are well underway and underground utilities are being renewed, relocated or modified to improve access.

Careful planning, coordinated by the MPT utilities team, is arranging to share use of the traffic management and service trenches. It is definitely a complex programme of work.

Vegetation is being cleared and embankments extended. Land purchase is a key element in this phase, as TfGM is determined to ensure that this new extension will not deplete existing transport routes. This is particularly relevant given that the line will have a stop adjacent to Manchester United’s 75,000 capacity stadium.

The new line will follow a sharp curve alongside the ITV studios. Understandably, ITV, which is continually filming on its sets (including Coronation Street), has stipulated that vibration and noise are kept to a minimum, so there are some interesting challenges to address here. Close to the studios is the Imperial War museum, while the route ends at the rapidly developing Trafford Centre – all of which need to maintain their access.

There is little doubt that this extension will be much appreciated by the thousands of commuters who work in this fast-growing business area. It will also strengthen and underpin TfGM’s vision and aspiration to provide a public transport service that encourages people to leave their cars at home.

It is an aspiration that bodes well for the future of Manchester. A future in which Manchester Metrolink will feature prominently, thanks to the expertise and skills that the MPT consortium and its supply chain has developed over the last nine years, working together in this busy, bustling and growing environment.


This article was written by Collin Carr.


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