Select Committee on Transport Written Evidence

Memorandum by Peter Thomson Esq (OPT 06)


  My observations concern the "Metrolink" tram system in Greater Manchester. This has lines from Manchester city centre out to Eccles (via the Salford Quays development area), to Bury and to Altrincham, with a spur into the mainline Piccadilly Rail station.

  The system is a great benefit to the areas it serves, providing a fast and generally very reliable service. It is well patronized, especially so at rush hours and on other occasions which bring people out (concerts, sports fixtures, etc).

  The system is owned by the Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive (GMPTE), but is operated by a franchisee (currently SERCO Metrolink).

  I have never ever seen any financial results published for the system in all the 10 years of its existence.

  My comments concern overcrowding on the Altrincham to Manchester city centre section. I do not know what conditions are like on the other two lines.

  The Altrincham—Manchester and the Bury—Manchester lines comprise former British Rail lines, converted during 1991-92 for use by Metrolink trams. Train services on these two lines began in the mid-Victorian period, and were by 1991 long established and busy commuter lines. A new "on-street" link was built through the city centre to link these two lines, and this has been crucial to Metrolink's success. The line to Eccles is a completely new creation, and was opened in 2000.

  For the Altrincham—City Centre—Bury lines, 26 trams were provided; the GMPTE wanted somewhat more (34 ?), but Government financial constraints prevented this.

  Each tram is an articulated two-coach unit, 29 metres long and 2.65 metres wide; each unit has 82 seats, plus four "pull-down"; there is space for two wheelchairs, and standing room for 122 people (four per square metre). None of this information is displayed anywhere on or within the trams. Yet all buses display their seating and standing capacities within their saloons.

  Tram service frequency on Monday-Friday is every 12 minutes from 5.53 am to 7.17 am, then every six minutes right up to 7.17 pm, then every 12 minutes to the final journeys around midnight. Saturday is similar, except that the six-minute frequency runs from 9.29 am to 6.29 pm. Sunday frequencies are 15 minutes in the early and late parts of the day, and 12 minutes from 9.38 am to 5.00 pm. (All times quoted are from Altrincham.)

  Overcrowding on the Altrincham line has been a problem since at least the mid-1990's, and was often raised at meetings of the GMPTE consultative committee for this geographical area. It occurs during the morning and evening peaks Monday to Friday, sometimes later on those evenings, most Saturday late evenings, and most excruciatingly so whenever there is a Manchester United football match at Old Trafford.

  My personal experience as an occasional commuter (I do not work in Manchester) is fortunate in that I board at the Altrincham terminus and so can always get a seat. Less than halfway along the route, all seats are taken, and from then into Manchester, the volume of standing passengers becomes ever greater, until at some inner end stations it is impossible to get on a tram. At the Stretford station on one occasion, there was "tram rage" violence on the platform among those who had failed to get on two or three successive trams. During 2002, several letters appeared in the local press about the discomfort and even fright occasioned by such over crowding, and several writers declared their intention of resuming the use of their motor cars to get to work!

  I myself was virtually imprisoned in my seat one Saturday afternoon by the sheer volume of football supporters in the tram; I was unable to get to the doors for an intermediate stop, and had to remain on the tram until it reached a city centre stop where many people alighted, allowing me to move from my seat.

  How a frail and elderly person would have coped with this situation I just cannot imagine. There is no platform supervision of any kind at any station; the drivers use the public address system to exhort passengers to squeeze further into the tram, to try to free up some space by the doors to try to get everyone on.

  Metrolink has become a victim of its own success.

  The problem of course is that there are not enough trams. Additional vehicles could provide an additional rush-hour only service between a range of inner area stations, but this would also need more "cossovers" installing on the track layout. There are a small number of these, but they would not allow much versatility of "short workings", even if there were some additional trams.

  Rush -hour fares on Metrolink are considered to be quite expensive, although I think they are not too out of line with the fares on an existing train service from Altrincham to Manchester which uses a different route from the trams.

  With more trams, and a different financial regime (whereby it really was run in the public interest like those in Belgium and Holland), Metrolink could carry even more passengers in less rush hour discomfort than at present, and contribute to relieving current local road traffic congestion.

  However this would require a complete policy change, plus the injection of some public money, neither of which appears to be likely under current arrangements.

December 2002

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