Metrolink in a day

Inspired by my success at travelling the whole of the Merseyrail network in a single day (feature: 7 April 2022), this time my challenge on a trip to Manchester (29 July 2022) was to ride the entire Metrolink tram network in one day, with a four-zone £4.90 off-peak day ticket. 

As described below, it is a challenge I managed to complete in exactly nine hours, although that did involve saving time by taking a bus between two Metrolink termini and also ending up at the place I was spending the night (Ashton-under-Lyne) and not back at Piccadilly where I had begun.

3011 approaches Piccadilly Gardens with a service from Altrincham to Piccadilly

Metrolink is a remarkable success story for Manchester and one which reached a notable milestone in July, when it was exactly 30 years since Phase One of the network was completed, and services began from Bury, north of the city, to Altrincham in the south.

Since opening of that initial route the Metrolink system has been steadily expanded into the current 64-mile network, making it our largest light rail network. There are a total of 99 stops and to the north and east of this city it comprises three branches serving Bury, Rochdale and Ashton-under-Lyne.

To the west and south of the city the original Altrincham line has been joined by routes to East Didsbury, Manchester Airport, Trafford Centre and Eccles, with a spur off this latter route to MediaCityUK, where services are currently terminating while engineering work takes place between there and Eccles. 

3023/3046 at Altrincham with a service to Piccadilly

In addition to this growth, another major expansion of the system’s capacity has been the opening of a second cross-city route, which runs via Exchange Square in Manchester city centre and was completed in February 2017.

3039 departs Trafford Bar for Altrincham as 3069 approaches with a service to Shaw and Compton

Services run on each line off-peak at 12-minute intervals, though more frequently on the city centre sections of line shared by different routes, and are provided by a fleet of 134 two-car Bombardier M5000 vehicles (3001-3147), which often run in pairs.

These M5000 vehicles replaced the system’s original 26 AnsaldoBreda T-68 vehicles (1001-1026) which were commissioned at the network’s opening in 1992, along with a later six T-68A vehicles, which entered service in 1999, with all withdrawn in 2014.

3133 arrives at East Didsbury with a service from Rochdale

Metrolink, like the Tyne & Wear Metro, has its origins in taking over former suburban rail routes, linking them up via a city centre section – street running rather than in tunnel – and transforming their fortunes with the use of passenger-friendly light rail vehicles. 

A driving force behind selection of the first routes, to Bury in the north and Altrincham to the south of the city, was a wish to create a link between Piccadilly and Victoria railway stations, each of which is on the fringe of the city centre. 

3102 stands at Manchester Airport with a service to Victoria

Until opening of the long-awaited Ordsall Chord in December 2017, as part of Network Rail’s Northern Hub project, the only direct link between the two stations was the light rail one, created in July 1992 when Metrolink’s Phase One was completed and opened.

Much of the Metrolink network’s subsequent expansion has been on new alignments, but there have been two further instances where former “heavy rail” routes have been converted for use by the Metrolink trams.

3041 at MediaCityUK with the BBC studios in the background

 First of these is what was known as the Oldham Loop line, a route from Victoria station which ran to the centre of Oldham and then joined the Manchester-Leeds Caldervale route at Rochdale. 

After the opening of a new line to Eccles in 2000 (Metrolink Phase 2), the 14-mile long Oldham/Rochdale line was developed as Phases 3A and 3B, with work beginning when heavy rail passenger services ended in October 2009. 

3125 at The Trafford Centre, the system’s newest destination

Metrolink services first reached Oldham in June 2012 and Rochdale in February 2013, with extensions into the town centres opening in January 2014 (Oldham) and March 2014 (Rochdale). These were part of a £1.5 billion programme, launched by Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) in 2008 and designed to triple the length of the network.

Other elements of that programme saw opening of routes to East Didsbury (May 2013) Ashton-under-Lyne (October 2013), and Manchester Airport (November 2014). Of these, the 4½-mile East Didsbury line is built on a disused railway line, while the other routes are new alignments.

3062 approaches Benchill stop with a service to Manchester Airport

As new routes brought large increases in ridership, it became clear that the system needed another route across the city centre, so work on the 0.8-mile second city crossing began in 2014 and the new route, along with a new tram stop in Exchange Square, opened three years later.

One further extension to Metrolink was opening in March 2020 of a line from the Pomona stop on the Eccles route through Trafford Park to the Trafford Centre, in order to improve access for the 1,300 business and some 30,000 people working in the area, along with those wanting to reach the out-of-town retail complex.

3119 departs Bury with a service for Piccadilly

Beginning my Metrolink day at the stop below Manchester Piccadilly station, I had decided to pick off the western destinations first, as I was spending the night near Ashton-under-Lyne, so would save that route until last.

Venturing first just one stop to Piccadilly Gardens I then boarded a tram that was taking the original route to Altrincham, most of which is on the former rail route and where once clear of the city centre there is plenty of chance to travel at the maximum Metrolink line speed of 50 mph.

Trams under the control of Network Rail’s Deansgate Junction Signal Box close to Altrincham

What was interesting about the Altrincham route was the sudden change from line of sight signalling to signalled control as we left the station at Timperley, where the single track section through the penultimate stop, Navigation Road, is controlled by Network Rail’s Deansgate Junction Signal Box, along with the final section of line to Altrincham, despite there being no physical connection between Metrolink and the adjacent Mid-Cheshire Line.

Another interesting feature of this route is the large number of redundant two-aspect colour light signals, most of which are covered in bin bags, but suggesting that signal control of this line could still happen, though it is hard to see why that would ever be required.

3064/3070 descend Drake Street towards journey’s end at Rochdale Town Centre

Travelling back from Altrincham as far as Trafford Bar stop, close to the system’s main depot and the Old Trafford cricket ground, my next destination was the other former rail route to East Didsbury, which like Altrincham is served by two routes and so has a basic daytime frequency of trams every six minutes.

After a short break here to get some photos of arriving and departing trams, I returned to the St Werburgh’s Road stop and took a tram to one of the newest destination on the network at Manchester Airport, a route that gave me my first taste of street running outside the city centre.

3030 approaches St. Peter’s Square with a service for Shaw and Compton

Metrolink has two platforms in the airport station it shares with the heavy rail operators Northern, TPE and TfW, but curiously only one ever seems to have been used, with a gate preventing access to the second unused Metrolink platform.

After a break on my return towards Manchester to photograph some street running near a stop called Benchill, I returned to an important junction called Cornbrook, to next travel the two routes that serve the huge and fast-expanding Trafford Park area.

3006 in Mosley Street as it approaches St. Peter’s Square bound for Altrincham

Like the Isle of Dogs in London, what was once an industrial wasteland has been completely transformed and just as there is no better way of appreciating the new Isle of Dogs than from a DLR train, so by far the best way of appreciating Trafford Park is from a Metrolink tram.

Speed limits on Metrolink vary from 5mph to 50mph, but there are certainly none of those higher speeds on the Trafford Park routes, with numerous right angle bends that have to be negotiated at 10mph or less and many open road and foot crossings of the lines to Eccles/MediaCityUK and the Trafford Centre.

3086/3137 depart Ashton-under-Lyne with a service for MediaCityUK

One of the great delights of Metrolink is to be able to sit at the front, a bit like you used to be able to do on first generation diesel multiple units, and watch the route ahead from immediately behind where the driver is sitting.

Having picked off all of the southern and western arms of the system, except the short stretch from MediaCityUK to Eccles which is currently closed for maintenance, it was time to travel the other section of original 1992 Metrolink and head to Bury on what is exclusively former rail alignment.

3088 in Princess Street on the new cross-city line with a service to East Didsbury

So returning to Cornbrook after a trip on the newest section of route to the Trafford Centre, I boarded a Bury-bound tram and travelled there in about 45 minutes, crossing the city centre on the original Market Street route and then once beyond another busy interchange at Victoria, following the former heavy rail route, with long sections of running at the maximum line speed of 50mph.

In order to save a bit of time I then took one of the regular 467/8 buses from Bury Interchange, adjacent to the tram stop, and travelled to the interchange at Rochdale in about 45 minutes (£4.70 single). Here there is a good view of some street running as trams descend onto a short section of single track towards their terminus platform alongside the bus interchange.

3108 heads along Cross Street on the new cross-city link with a service for East Didsbury

The Rochdale line is an interesting mixture of street running up to the railway station and then through the centre of Oldham, with the rest of the route making use of the former heavy rail Oldham loop line as far as Newton Heath, where the route passes a freight terminal and the Northern Rail depot, before diverging onto a new alignment towards Victoria station.

Travelling through the city centre on the new Exchange Square route, I completed my day tour of Metrolink by changing at St Peter’s Square onto a tram bound for my final destination, Ashton-under-Lyne, a journey which takes you past the huge Etihad Stadium complex and features a considerable amount of street running.

3114 approaches Exchange Square with a service to East Didsbury

Trying to cover the whole of Metrolink in a single day is a bit of an endurance test, but is a wonderful way of getting to know the city and areas like Trafford Park. The system works well and trams are well patronised throughout the day, but in all the 15 journeys I took I never once had my ticket checked, which seemed rather odd, or maybe was a reflection on the honesty of Mancunians!

A view of the complex track layout on the approach to Victoria tram stop

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