This is an archived website and is no longer updated. Click here to go to the home page
EWM Home Page | Aidan O'Rourke on Twitter and Facebook | Contact

Metrolink is a rare success story in Manchester's public transport scene. Since the system was opened in summer 1992 by the Queen, millions of journeys have been made, saving countless car trips, and leaving innumerable buses standing. The new line to Eccles which opened July 2000 added a new dimension to the system, bringing Salford Quays to within around 12 minutes of the city centre. The Eccles line also marked a new departure in that the line was newly built and for the first time brought trams back onto a main road - the A57 - mingling with other traffic.

It's important to be aware that Metrolink uses two existing railway lines. In a 'pure' tram system, lines run on roads and streets, providing an alternative, not a substitute for trains. That's why the tram is called 'street car' in America and Strassenbahn - 'street railway' - in Germany. Manchester's Metrolink marked a ground-breaking return to a previously rejected mode of transport, but offered only an upgrade of existing railway lines rather than a brand new system.

And Metrolink has not been without its critics: Many complain about high fares, crowding at rush hour and the loss of railway lines. Others question the economic viability of trams altogether, citing the lack of success of Sheffield's supertram system. The high initial cost is a barrier to further development of tram systems.

That's the reason behind the shock announcement in July 2004 by the government that plans to extend the Metrolink system would be scrapped. After spending several years talking about the system and millions of pounds preparing new routes in Eastlands and at the Airport, the scheme has been thrown out because of spiralling costs.

As part of the so-called 'Big Bang' expansion railway lines to Oldham and Rochdale currently used by ageing diesel railcars would have been incorporated into the Metrolink system. There would have been a new line to Ashton, part of the route of which has already been prepared. The former LMS railway line from Old Trafford through Chorlton and Didsbury would have been brought back into use. I would love to have witnessed the revival of this line, which once carried the Manchester Pullman from Central Station (now GMEX) to London St Pancras. Extensions to Stockport, Wythenshawe and the Airport would have provided much needed and exciting new links across the conurbation. Now all that expansion will remain just a dream.

There has been understandable disappointment and outrage in and around Manchester. The Manchester Evening News has launched the 'Get back on track' petition' which I fully support. Are the government playing a game? Say 'no' in order to stimulate public interest and awareness, and maybe more private investment will pop up from somewhere? I'm not sure, but it's certainly not the best way to develop a public transport system.

Just why do we find it so difficult to develop our public transport system? Victorian engineers built a complex and highly efficient railway network in the space of 40 years. The founders of the Manchester Ship Canal cut a huge ditch from the Wirral to Salford in less than 10, bringing ships, raw materials and massive economic success to Manchester. It's true they had an army of navvies and few if any health and safety regulations to worry about, but why is it that in our own era, the engineering glories of the past seem so difficult to repeat?

The Metrolink expansion plan, like many other transport projects including the Channel Tunnel, has seen escalating costs, but why? What is it that makes the figures go spiralling out of control? Are companies, consultants overcharging? Do modern day safety regulations add prohibitively to the costs? Is the project management skilful and efficient? Were the original costs under-estimated so as to gain initial approval?

I'll leave the job of answering these questions to those best placed to do so. But what I do appreciate is the fact that trams are a pleasure to use, they don't pump out noxious fumes like the buses on Oxford Rd and Oldham Rd do, they add character and interest to the streets and an air of civic prestige. I love to hear the 'toot toot' of trams in the city centre, and to hear the whoosh and the clackety clack as they head along the old railway viaduct in Castlefield. Trams were one of the first things our daughter noticed and shouted about.

Being able to travel on rails from the suburbs into the centre saves time and legwork. In 1983 I commuted from Altrincham to my first teaching job in Blackley by train, bus and on foot. It took me an hour and a half each way. A few years later I tried commuting to work on the train from Manchester to Timperley. After my Tuesday night German evening class I usually got home after most people had gone to bed. Ironically, the year after I left my job at South Trafford College, the trams arrived. They should have been there all the time.

From the beginning to about the middle of the 20th century, trams were an integral feature of the streetscape of every major city in Great Britain and Ireland. Look at the photographs of Henry Priestley, and you'll see trams of every description running in all kinds of locality and weather, ferrying people between factories and homes, plying their way through crowded city streets or along empty dual carriageways on stretches of reserved track. Kingsway and Princess Rd had trams running in the central reservation. The tram was the peoples mode of transport par excellence. It provided affordable and reliable way of getting round in the days when few people owned cars.

The disadvantage of trams was, and is, the high cost of building and maintaining tram systems. By the 50s the motor bus was considered to be the most efficient and flexible public transport method. Car ownership was increasing, and there was even a belief that flying cars would be commonplace by 1970. By the end of the 50s trams had disappeared from the towns and cities of Britain, apart from Blackpool, and by 1969 the railway network had lost around 50 per cent of its lines.
The flying car never made it off the pages of my 1950s 'Wonders of the Future' annual.

Meanwhile in Europe, a different approach was taken. Trams not only continued to run, but they were expanded, modernised and streamlined, as part of an integrated public transport system. In Amsterdam, Munich, Vienna, Salzburg, East Berlin, Zürich, Prague, Leipzig, Krakow and numerous smaller cities on either side of the Iron Curtain, trams flourished, though not everywhere: In Hamburg, West Berlin and other cities they were withdrawn.

Most of these cities have enjoyed and continue to enjoy a remarkably efficient, cost-effective, extensive and integrated network of surface and underground trains, buses, trams and in some cities trolleybuses. Whenever I'm in Berlin I use the day ticket, allowing you to hop off buses, trams, trains, even some boats, for just 5.60 euros (£3.70), valid from any time in the day to 3am the next morning.

And in Manchester? 30 years ago I had to pay the bus conductor with a pocketful of 2 shilling (10p) pieces. Now I still have to fiddle with change as I wait in a long queue to get on the bus. A single journey from my house to the nearest Metrolink stop, St Peters Square, costs £1.30, and a single ticket from there to Bury or Altrincham costs £3. An off peak day saver, valid only after 9.30am on bus train and tram costs £6.50.

Why is the day ticket so expensive? Because in the United Kingdom, there is less subsidy for public transport, and in most British cities it is not fully integrated. Bus services were privatised in 1986 by the Conservative government, a well-intentioned but very misguided decision in my opinion. I signed a petition against it in the first half of that year. On the plus side, the Conservatives presided over the planning and opening of the Metrolink system in 1992, which is to their credit.

Now there are over 50 private bus companies operating in Greater Manchester, plus private train operators, plus the Metrolink, each with separate fare structures, liveries and operating standards, some of them very low indeed. I once waited over an hour for a number 53 which never came. The MEN letters page is full of complaints about public transport in the Manchester area. And yet when you're out and about, people seem to just accept things as they are.

Is this really the best possible scenario for Manchester?

I think it is time to take a step back and to rethink our whole approach to public transport from the ground up. In particular, we need to bring back a municipal identity and focus to public transport, as there still is in London. We need a new corporate identity to communicate this drive to the travelling public. The wiggly M from the 1970s, still used by GMPTE, and the lopsided Metrolink M -
an early exercise in computer-aided design to my eyes - are outdated symbols. Add to that the myriad logos and liveries of the scores of private operators, and the message is clear: Transport in Greater Manchester is uncoordinated, underfunded, overpriced, outdated, and there primarily for the benefit of the shareholders of the respective private companies. Whether this perception is accurate or not is beside the point. What is needed is a strong, new overriding identity and ethos to signal a new departure in public transport.

Is it really out of the question to return to a broadly municipal-led public transport system? In Edinburgh, the fact that the buses are locally-owned is a selling point emblazoned on the side of every vehicle. Dublin's state-owned service - heavily subsidised but efficient, unified and well-used, puts Manchester's fragmented service to shame.

With all the glib and fashionable statements about 'Manchester European city' we need to take a reality check and understand how glaringly un-European Manchester is in matters of public transport. We need to go and learn how they do things in other parts of the world. Even a small and far-flung city somewhere in central Europe will be found to have a more extensive tram network, a cheaper fare structure and a more punctual bus service than ours. We need to ask ourselves why does the Berlin full day ticket cost nearly half of the off-peak one in Manchester. Why do trams trains and buses in Holland arrive exactly according to the timetable, while Manchester's number 50 often arrives in bunches of two or three?

And we need to ask ourselves, why in Britain, fourth largest economy in the world, are we unable to find the resources to maintain and enhance our public transport system? If the funding arrangements, economic priorities and accounting methods were changed, maybe we could have not three extra tram lines but a whole network of them, new railway lines too, fanning out across the city. Only the best should be good enough for Manchester, and only the best is what we should accept.

Make sure to complete the MEN Get Back On Track Petition and send it to the Newsdesk, Manchester Evening News 164 Deansgate Manchester M3 3RN, and let's hope we won't have to wait another half a century before we can take the tram from the city centre to Wythenshawe, Rochdale and Didsbury.

The photographs of Henry Priestley are held by the National Tramway Museum in Crich, Derbyshire. Visit the Manchester Central Library Local Studies Unit to see fascinating photos of Manchester's trams in past times.


All photos and articles © Aidan O'Rourke

EWM home page

Join Aidan on his Manchester Photo Walk.
Eyewitness in Manchester Home Page | Aidan O'Rourke on Twitter and Facebook | Contact