Tuesday, 11 November 2014

New Metrolink line to the Airport

Manchester's Metrolink system continues to expand and just over a week ago, on 3rd November, the new line to Manchester Airport opened. That's over a year ahead of schedule. The route leaves the existing East Didsbury line (which uses the alignment of the former Midland Railway main line from Manchester Central) at St Werburg's Road station and routes through Chorlton, over the Mersey by Sale Water Park, then through Wythenshawe to the Airport.

As usual, please click on any image to enlarge it.

The route of Manchester Metrolink's new Airport line

Some time ago a few of us had a day out catching up with the new Metrolink lines we hadn't explored; those to East Didsbury, Rochdale and Ashton Under Lyne. Today I decided to 'complete the set' by having a ride on the new Airport line.

Map of the entire Manchester Metro system

The 'Connect 88' bus took me from near home in south Wilmslow to Altrincham where I caught a Metrolink tram to Cornbrook just south of Manchester City Centre. The Airport service currently originates and terminates there as there is at present insufficient capacity through the city centre to accommodate those extra trams. Metrolink are working on this and are constructing a second cross-city link to provide the required capacity.

Metrolink second city crossing route

The 'Connect 88' bus connects Knutsford to Altrincham via Wilmslow and took me to Altrincham this morning, and back from Altrincham at the end of my trip. It has recently been re-launched as a half-hourly service instead of hourly, using these new 'luxury' buses. 

These new buses feature leather seats and even a table! Great for stretching your legs out as long as no-one is sitting opposite (they weren't on my journeys today).

Cornbrook Metrolink station with a tram leaving for Media City

Unlike many existing Metrolink lines, the Airport line is an entirely new route, in that it does not use any former heavy rail alignments once it leaves the East Didsbury line. Part of the route uses street running, part runs alongside roads, but linking these are sections which have seen neither the iron or the tarmac road to date.

From Cornbrook the tram follows the route to Altrincham as far as Trafford Bar station, where it turns left onto the East Didsbury line past the depot (where a few of the now obsolete first generation Metrolink trams are still parked) until St Werburg's Road station, where the new route begins. After running along Mauldeth Road and Hardy Lane, the line crosses the River Mersey.

The following three photographs are by Greg Mape, from the excellent Charlie Hulme website:  North Wales Coast Rail.

Metrolink tram crosses the River Mersey on the Airport Line

After passing close to Sale Water Park and Wythenshawe Park, the line crosses the M60 Manchester orbital motorway and (above) the Stockport to Altrincham railway at Baguley. Years ago there used to be a railway station at Baguley close to this point, and there is a campaign to build a new station on the railway here so passengers can interchange between tram and train. Note the solid concrete-base track used extensively on the Airport line.

The line crosses the M56 motorway before passing though central Wythenshawe and Shadow Moss to arrive at the Airport station (above), one of the few stretches where ballasted track is used. The Metrolink platforms are adjacent to the heavy rail platforms at the Airport.  The station is becoming an ever more important terminus in the Manchester railway system, and will close for three weeks early next year while finishing work is completed on an additional fourth platform.

The Transport Interchange at Manchester Airport incorporates a Railway Station, Metrolink Tram Station, and Bus Station. It is linked to the Airport terminals by covered moving walkways.

I returned to Cornbrook on another tram. The only part of the Metrolink system apart from the Airport line I hadn't yet travelled on was the Media City branch off the Eccles line, so I took the opportunity to board a Media City tram at Cornbrook. Media City has been built on the redeveloped Salford Docks, and looks today very different to my memories of the area back when Manchester and Salford Docks were teeming with activity, the wharves full of ocean-going ships that had sailed up the Manchester Ship Canal from the sea at Liverpool.

Media City, Salford; a bit different to when this was Salford Docks

Today the Docks and the ships are long gone and the area is the home of TV and Radio; it brightened my day to see BBC North West Tonight presenter Kate Simms sitting opposite me on the tram. I must admit I didn't know who she was at the time though I did recognise her face as someone 'on the telly'.

BBC Northwest Tonight presenter Kate Simms

That tram took me back to Manchester's Piccadilly main line station, from where I decided to make fuller use of my GMPTE Wayfarer ticket (covers local rail, bus, and Metrolink) and take an East Midlands fast train on the CLC (Cheshire Lines Comittee) route to Liverpool as far as Warrington Central. This passes through the parts of Stretford and Trafford Park where I spent my early childhood and it's always interesting to see it from the railway. Back in the 1950s, of course, it was the passing steam trains on this line, and the little steam locos on the Ship Canal and Trafford Park railway systems, that interested us. My first ever footplate ride was on such a small steam shunting engine on the industrial railway alongside the Kelloggs Corn Flake factory which is visible today from the train.

The line also passes Trafford Park Container Terminal, which generates a great deal of rail freight traffic inbound and outbound along our local railway line through Wilmslow and Alderley Edge.

Trafford Park Container Terminal, with the dome of the Trafford Centre shopping complex in the background

A few minutes after I arrived at Warrington Central, I boarded an opposite direction stopping Northern Rail service which returned me to Deansgate station, Manchester, where I crossed the bridge to the adjacent Metrolink station for a tram to Altrincham, and then via the 'Connect 88' bus to home.

Finally, a note on signalling. Metrolink used to use colour light 'block interval' siganlling on all but the on-street sections of tramway. This only allows one tram at a time in a section, but does limit capacity on the line. In view of this and because the trams can stop quickly compared to a railway train, the block section signals are no longer used. On the Altrincham line they are out of use with plastic bags over the signal heads, and the new Airport line has no signals at all. Instead, drivers rely on 'line of sight', remaining a safe distance behind the tram in front.

At certain locations, for instance the bi-directional single track section between Timperley and Navigation Road, signals have, of necessity, been retained to control the flow of traffic. And the electronic 'stop / go' indicators at road crossings are retained, as are the 'line straight ahead or diverge' indicators at junctions.

So not bad; a whole day out for £5, the cost of my (senior) Wayfarer ticket. A word of warning though - they've gone up to £6 now!


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