With the timetable change on 10 December, passengers were able to travel directly between Manchester’s Victoria and Oxford Road stations over the Ordsall Chord for the first time. Although initially there are only six trains a day each way over the chord, May 2018 will bring big changes with a major timetable recast for the North Western electrification and to make best use of the Ordsall Chord.

This will increase the train services over the chord to three trains an hour each way and provide a direct link between Piccadilly and Victoria station. These trains will be a mix of TransPennine Express and Northern Rail services from Manchester Airport to Leeds and beyond. Liverpool to Scarborough trains will be routed via Victoria instead of Piccadilly.

Benefits of going further

Routing trains from the city’s airport to Leeds and beyond through both Piccadilly and Victoria stations will add four miles to their route. The rationale for this is that it avoids the need for them to reverse at Piccadilly’s terminating platforms and move across the station’s throat. Similarly, routing the hourly Liverpool to Scarborough trains via Manchester Victoria removes these trains from Manchester Piccadilly’s congested through platforms and thus avoids two train movements an hour across the stations throat. Furthermore, the travelling time for these extra four miles will not be much different from the time it takes trains to reverse at Piccadilly.

In this way, the Ordsall Chord provides significant additional capacity at Manchester Piccadilly. It also makes best use of the recently enhanced Victoria station, which will become Manchester’s main station for services to Leeds.

The 2010 Manchester Hub study that developed the Ordsall Chord option concluded that, together with other associated infrastructure enhancements, it would deliver benefits with a net present value of £4.23 billion over a 60-year period, along with 20,000 to 30,000 new jobs. Thus, whilst it is good to see a direct connection between Manchester’s main stations, this is far from the Ordsall Chord’s main benefit.

The rusty bridge

The £85 million Ordsall Chord project was delivered by the Northern Hub Alliance, made up of Network Rail, Skanska, BAM Nuttall, Siemens and Amey Sersa. The most visible aspect of the Ordsall Chord project is its unique network arch bridge over the River Irwell. The bridge’s much-commented rusty appearance is due to the use of weathering steel, which weathers to form a protective oxide-layer coating. The design and construction challenges of this bridge were described by Mungo Stacy in issue 150 (March 2017).

Although it is only 300 metres of railway, the Ordsall Chord presented many other challenges, including extensive track alterations to accommodate its new alignment, other bridges on its elevated route, tie-ins to other viaducts and complex signalling arrangements, as described by Paul Darlington in issue 148 (February 2017).

Furthermore, the chord was built through a sensitive historic part of Manchester, which presented significant challenges and resulted in an objector delaying the project by nine months.

The Castlefield conundrum

In Victorian times, Manchester’s railways were split between its Lancashire & Yorkshire lines north of the city, which went to Victoria station, and those of various other railway companies to the south. These included main lines to the south and east which terminated at Manchester’s London Road (now Piccadilly) and one that connected these lines to the original Liverpool to Manchester Railway at Ordsall Lane in Salford on a 1½ mile viaduct through Castlefield, just south of the city centre.

As a result, passengers with a north-south journey across Manchester faced a one-mile trip between the city’s two main stations. This situation continued until the Windsor link was opened in 1988, which enabled trains from the North West to reach Piccadilly via the Castlefield lines. Traffic over this corridor was further increased with the opening of the line to Manchester Airport in 1993.

In the same year a multimodal rail freight terminal was opened at Trafford Park from where container trains are routed through the Castlefield corridor.

The corridor has three stations, from west to east are Deansgate, Oxford Road and Piccadilly. It is double tracked except at Oxford Road, which has a bay platform and four through platforms.

Following privatisation, traffic has increased significantly. Four train operators (TransPennine Express, Northern Rail, Arriva Trains Wales and East Midlands Trains) run services through the corridor. The introduction of the new timetable in May routes three trains an hour each way over the Ordsall Chord and so requires more trains to be routed through the already busy Castlefield corridor, increasing the number of train paths from 12 to 15 per hour.

Unlike Piccadilly, Oxford Road station has four through platforms.

Unlike Piccadilly, Oxford Road station has four through platforms.

The Piccadilly solution

On a mixed-traffic railway, on which it is difficult to manage dwell times at crowded station platforms, fifteen train paths an hour is a demanding requirement. Thus Manchester Piccadilly’s through platforms (numbers 13 and 14) present a performance risk. Mitigation of this risk requires dwell times to be carefully managed.

To support this, clutter is being removed at Platforms 13 and 14 – despatch controls and customer information screens are also being moved to optimum positions. There is a customer waiting area above these platforms with bookstalls and coffee bars in which passengers are encouraged to wait to avoid overcrowding the platforms below.

Dwell times will also be reduced as new rolling stock is introduced, offering longer trains and more doors per coach. There is also an initiative to ensure more efficient train despatch, with better arrangements for platform staff from different train operating companies to work together to support each other.

Although these arrangements provide the required number of train paths through the Castlefield corridor for the Ordsall Chord to deliver its objective of eliminating conflicts at Piccadilly, in the not-too-distant future there will be a demand for more services including additional freight paths. This can only be met by a significant infrastructure intervention.

In September, Secretary of State Chris Grayling appeared to suggest that the digital railway would resolve this capacity issue when he advised business leaders in Manchester: “We are about to see a digital revolution in our railways, and we want the north to lead the way.” As a result, the Department for Transport (DfT) has remitted Network Rail to undertake a detailed study of how digital technology can contribute to enhancements on the Castlefield corridor. This study is at an early stage.

Whilst the digital railway may, in the medium term, offer the north some capacity benefits, it is not clear how this will benefit the Castlefield corridor in the foreseeable future. Unlike Thameslink, the Castlefield corridor does not have dedicated trains. Instead, the four operators concerned have services to destinations such as Norwich, Llandudno, Scarborough and Glasgow. Fitting the required signalling equipment to all these trains over this two-mile corridor is unlikely to be feasible for a long time as this would require widespread use of in-cab signalling throughout the network.

The solution proposed in the 2010 Northern Hub report was additional through platforms (15 and 16) at Piccadilly, which it considered would increase the capacity of the Castlefield corridor by 25 per cent by easing the ruling constraint of dwell times at platforms 13 and 14. This proposal also required longer platforms and signalling alterations at Oxford Road.

This proposal was developed to the outline design stage and was the subject of an extensive consultation exercise after which, in 2015, Network Rail submitted an application for an Order under the Transport and Works Act for its Manchester Piccadilly and Oxford Road capacity scheme. Network Rail advises that, over two years later, this application is still under consideration by the DfT.

Whilst Piccadilly’s extra platforms may not be required in the short term, Transport for Greater Manchester is “very concerned about the ongoing uncertainty associated with this scheme” and considers that Piccadilly station has to be “sufficiently future-proofed”.

Restoration of Stephenson's viaduct.

Restoration of Stephenson’s viaduct.

Stephenson’s viaduct revealed

At the Transport and Works Act inquiry into the Ordsall Chord scheme, English Heritage advised that they considered the area to be “the Stonehenge of railway history” and that it had never come across a project “so exceptionally damaging to the historic environment as Ordsall Chord”. With no buildings damaged by the scheme and only one structure affected, the concern about this substantial harm related to damage to the setting of this historic area.

Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry is housed in a complex of old railway warehouses together with the world’s oldest surviving station building, Liverpool Road. This was the Manchester terminus of the world’s first inter-city railway, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway that opened in 1830. Liverpool Road closed to passengers in 1844 when Manchester Victoria opened, became partly a freight depot.

Liverpool Road station was at the end of Stephenson’s viaduct across the River Irwell. This elegant segmental-arched bridge has two 63ft spans and is Grade 1 listed. Such is its importance that the Institution of Civil Engineers considers it to be one of its sixty most important English masonry bridges. However, for the past 150 years, it has not been possible to appreciate this bridge.

During the construction of the Castlefield corridor in 1845, a viaduct was built immediately to the south. To widen the approach to the freight depot in 1869, a girder bridge adjoining the viaduct was built on the other side that both hid it from view and removed some of the viaduct’s stonework. Judged by today’s standards, this girder bridge would not have been built in view of the substantial harm caused to the viaduct.

The Ordsall Chord project has undone this harm as the girder bridge had to be demolished to construct the network arch bridge. However, there were still objections to its removal even though this reveals Stephenson’s viaduct, which the project has painstakingly restored and repaired by replacing the stones removed when the girder bridge was built.

The restored viaduct will be floodlit and will be the subject of an interpretation area as part of 7,000 square metres of new public piazzas that will be provided on either side of the River Irwell. These will open in spring 2018 to replace a previously run down and overgrown area. It is difficult to understand how this work could have been considered to cause substantial harm.

Few, if any, of Network Rail’s projects have had such a difficult birth as Ordsall Chord. Soon, it will be carrying hundreds of passengers a day, its worksites gone and new landscaped public spaces created. Then, the controversy that saw the start of this project should be forgotten as this short new line brings economic benefits to the north, just as the Liverpool to Manchester Railway did almost 200 years ago.

This article was written by David Shirres.


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