Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Heavy rail vs light rail vs buses. The Greater Manchester public transport debate.

Since public transport in Greater Manchester has changed quite a bit over the years and is set to change a lot again over the next few years I thought I'd weigh up the pros and cons of each type of public transport and give my views on what changes I'd like to see across Greater Manchester. Heavy rail is getting a lot of investment in Manchester with the Northern Hub, a grand project to improve links between cities in the North by a combination of methods including adding 2 new platforms at Piccadilly station, modernising and improving Victoria and Oxford Road train stations and electrifying lines between Manchester and other cities. The Metrolink tram system has had massive expansion in recent years and is set for a whole lot more expansion in the near future linking up more bits of Greater Manchester with, well, Manchester City Centre. There are planned changes for buses as well including making various busy roads in the City Centre only for buses, bikes and taxis. But which method of transport is the best solution to provide the transport needs for the people of Greater Manchester?

The need for better public transport links in Greater Manchester

While I will accept that Manchester has some of the best public transport link in the entire region, there is still a need and a demand for further improvements. A large metropolitan area such as Greater Manchester has many diverse transport needs. From people commuting to work at 6 am or earlier, to elderly people travelling to the local shops, to people going to any of the wide range of events, concerts, pubs, clubs, theatres and restaurants that Manchester has to offer. When I go out to watch bands live my last bus home is around 11:15 pm, which means that sometimes I have to leave the gig early to catch the bus and makes it difficult to stay out late. For people who work in the early hours of the morning or late at night sometimes there just isn't transport available at those hours and people often rely on taxis. Transport between east and west of south Manchester is terrible, I myself would have to catch 2 buses to get to work when it only takes me 15 minutes to travel by bicycle. It's actually often quicker for me to walk the 40 minutes to work than to wait for a bus. Transport in Manchester is largely focussed on getting people to and from Manchester City Centre and as a result transport between the different parts of Greater Manchester suffers. Improvements to public transport routes would make it possible for more people to travel further afield for work, shopping and leisure. A lack of transport is significant contributor towards poverty and lower standards of living. Manchester has some of the poorest areas in the country, and people often cannot afford to own and run a car and depend on public transport. Job Seekers are really restricted in the jobs they can apply for and the interviews they can attend when they are reliant on public transport. I really believe access to affordable, reliable and frequent public transport is key to a vibrant, thriving and happy city. It is also a key contributor towards reaching emission targets to combat climate change. The economic benefits are massive with more people able to travel for work and leisure with more spare money to spend at the same time. It will also attract more tourists at the same time who can visit the many attractions Greater Manchester has to offer.

Heavy rail transport

Trains have always been one of my favourite methods of transport. I love trains and train journeys. I've always wanted to see improvements to the rail network and extra lines opened as trains really do solve so many transport needs. I do think that trains are the best method of transport for travelling between cities and large towns. Build a new train station in a town that doesn't have one and you really are bringing a lot of people out of transport poverty. They're quick and efficient, and are cheaper than owning and travelling by car. Travelling between cities and large towns also enables trains to get to high speeds. Once the network has all been electrified, trains will be running at speeds up to 90 MPH. This is really great and efficient for travelling between cities but not as great for travelling to different parts of the same city. I do think they still hold an important part of inner city travel though. I used to live in Withington, about a 10 minute walk to Mauldeth Road train station, and from that station it was roughly an 11 minute journey to Piccadilly station, a big improvement on the 30 minutes it takes on the bus. A lot of the train lines to the airport, Stockport and parts of Cheshire stop at various parts of east Manchester such as Gorton, Levenshulme, Burnage and East Didsbury. Having these train stops in these places drastically cuts down travel time between those places and the city centre, as well as the other stops on those lines. It can also be cheaper if all you are doing is travelling only between places on those lines. There are some pretty big downsides to rail transport within the city though. Firstly, the lines are not well connected. If you live in Burnage and want to travel to Levenshulme or any stop on the same line as Levenshulme, which includes stops to Stockport and Crewe as well as stops to Buxton you have to change at Manchester Piccadilly. Connecting the lines via rail transport alone would be very difficult and would not be financially viable while travelling by bus between the lines adds a lot of time and cost onto the journey. The second big disadvantage is that unless your station is on a popular line, or various lines then train times will be fairly infrequent, relatively speaking. For example there are only 2 trains an hour between Burnage and Manchester Piccadilly. This greatly increases waiting times, and there isn't a huge amount that can be viably done to improve this as it is difficult to increase the capacity of big train lines. There also is a limit to the number of stations on these lines meaning that some people living on the line live reasonably far away from their nearest train station.

Some of the improvements to the rail services are great. The Northern Hub, the main rail improvement planned in Greater Manchester, in general will bring massive benefits to Manchester. The project is designed to reduce problems caused by what is known as the 'Manchester bottleneck' by increasing capacity of stations in Manchester and reducing journey times. Once the Northern Hub is completed journey times between Manchester and Preston/Blackpool, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and places in between will be reduced partly due to electrifying lines between cities so that trains can run at faster speeds. How much quicker will train journeys be? Well the 47 minute journey to Liverpool Lime Street will be reduced to 30 minutes, the 54 minute journey between Leeds and Manchester will be reduced to 40 minutes while journey times between Manchester and Chester will fall from 1 hour 3 minutes to 40 minutes. With capacity at both Piccadilly station (which is getting 2 new platforms that are not terminus) and Victoria station being increased, an extra 2 trains per hour between Manchester and Leeds and Liverpool will be running. For those who commute between cities for work this will bring great improvements to their lives, and will even make it possible for more people to be able to commute. A route between Piccadilly and Victoria stations is being build, the Ordsall Chord. This will enable some lines to stop at Victoria, onwards to Piccadilly (via Deansgate and Oxford Road) and potentially finishing at the airport. Piccadilly, Victoria, Oxford Road, Salford Cresent and Manchester Airport stations are all getting improvements. Piccadilly and Manchester Airport are getting new platforms while Victoria (voted the worst train station in the UK in 2009) is getting a massive facelift which includes new shops and a brand new modern roof. The main disadvantage I can see from the Northern Hub is that a lot of services, particularly Liverpool to Leeds/York via Manchester will be switched from Piccadilly station to Victoria station, partly in order to further reduce journey times and to increase overall capacity of both stations. The problem with this at the moment is that Piccadilly station has a lot more transport links than Victoria and so is easier to get to for a lot of people. However, links to Victoria are improving and as Victoria becomes more used it will become more viable for buses and trams to better serve Victoria station.

While we're talking about heavy rail, it's important to mention HS2. HS2 needs to be scrapped. There is a desperate need for investment in our rail network, but there is no desperate need for shorter journeys from Manchester or Birmingham to London. Spending those billions on either opening new rail lines, electrification of more existing lines or increasing the capacity of existing lines in other ways is what's really needed and what will really help people who need to travel by train. Let's not also forget that HS2 may well lead to other nearby areas losing services to London, such as Crewe and Liverpool where HS2 will not be going to.

Light rail/trams/The Metrolink

I recently spent a week in Berlin. Berlin has amazing public transport services - heavy trains, light trains, underground trains and buses. Looking at the routes in the Berlin transport network, it reminded me of both London and Manchester. Manchester is the only place in the UK outside of London which has a big and expanding light rail network, the Manchester Metrolink. There are major differences between the transport network in Berlin and Manchester though as you'd obviously expect. Greater Manchester has one major city with one single city centre surrounded by commuter towns with their town centres, and major transport links mostly focus in linking the smaller towns up with the larger city via the city centre. Berlin, like London, doesn't have just one small area it can call it's 'city centre'. Like London, Berlin is more like a collection of towns each with their own communities and unique town/city centres so transport routes are more diverse. In Greater Manchester this leads to one big issue with the light rail network - all the  lines on the Metrolink are just between one part of Greater Manchester and Manchester City Centre. There is no linking up different parts of Greater Manchester together, unless of course it is on the way to Manchester City Centre. You can of course change at Manchester City Centre and get on another line and go somewhere else in Greater Manchester, but the detour via city centre makes the journey often a lot longer and more expensive. What I would like to see with the Metrolink is greater connections between parts of Greater Manchester, and I see that as it's greatest potential strength. Light rail is somewhere between heavy rail and buses in terms of journey times versus frequency of stops. The more stops a public transport method has, the more accessible it is, but also the slower it is. It is impossible to serve lots of inner city areas via rail and get to 90 MPH speeds that heavy rail can reach and is difficult to build lots of train stations close to one another, but I don't think this means we need to rely on buses for inner city transport. Light rail offers a faster way to travel than buses and a more frequent service than trains stopping at more stops along the way. Tram stops are much easier to build than train stations.

The Metrolink originally just served Bury to city centre and Altrincham to city centre when it opened in 1992. In 1999 the line connecting Eccles to the city centre via the existing Cornbrook stop opened. It stayed this way for a further 12 years until the South Manchester line was opened as far as Chorlton and St Werburgh's Road. This was part of a bigger plan to greatly expand the network over the next few years. Further 4 lines were planned to be opened within the following 5 years. Rochdale via Oldham line was opened in 2012. However, the Rochdale via Oldham line wasn't so much as an expansion of the rail network as a conversion from heavy rail to light rail. This was advantages and disadvantages. There are now lots more stops between Rochdale, Oldham and Manchester City Centre serving many people who lived far away from the original train stations, however journey times between Oldham and Manchester have significantly increased. Furthermore the people of Oldham were without a rail service for 3 years while the line was converted to light rail. In 2013 the South Manchester line was extended to East Didsbury and the line from Piccadilly to Ashton was opened. A line from Manchester Airport to the city centre via Wythenshawe and the existing St Werburgh's Road stop is due to open in 2015 but could open later in 2014. There are various proposed expansions of the Metrolink, most likely are the Trafford line, which will go from the Pomona stop (currently on the Eccles line) to the Trafford Centre via Trafford Park and extending the East Didsbury line to Stockport. There is also proposals for tram-trains to be introduced, where tram-trains can be used both on tram tracks and train tracks, and the possibilities that come with that idea are huge.

There are some disadvantages to light rail. Light rail, like heavy rail requires rail tracks to be built. While with light rail you can have tracks built on roads, that really restricts how effective the service is. If trams run on roads it restricts how frequent the trams are and slows down all other transport on the roads while the trams are running through. This means that light rail works best off-road and luckily Manchester still has a lot of it's old rail network that was closed after the Beeching report in the 1970s that can be used for the Metrolink. However even with various other off-road routes that Greater Manchester potentially has that still is not enough to full-fill all the transport needs. I could see potentially the councils and governments eventually making compulsory purchase orders on many disused or underused non-residential sites and also brownfield sites to expend the Metrolink system. Until then I don't see how lots of areas will be served by public transport without buses.

Something worth considering about heavy rail versus light rail is that light rail increases journey times between places because of lower speeds and increasing number of stops. Yes you can reach more people because of extra stops, but it greatly increases journey times between really populated areas. Take the East Didsbury line, Chorlton is by far the most popular stop on the line. I usually notice perhaps 30 or 40 people getting on at Chorlton whereas other stops might have about 10 people getting on. Journey times between Chorlton station and Market Street Metrolink stop are 16 minutes on the Metrolink whereas journey times between Levenshulme train station and Piccadilly station are only 5 minutes via train and is a similar distance. Would the East Didsbury line be better served as a heavy rail line with fewer stops and much less travel times? I'm not sure. If you just had 3 or 4 stops between East Didsbury and Deansgate rather than the current 10 stops you might be able to shorten that 16 minutes to 5 minutes perhaps, and perhaps that would be better. It would make it less accessible for hundreds if not thousands of people. Same goes for the Bury line. Before the Victoria Metrolink stop temporarily closed for refurbishment took about 23 minutes to get from Bury to Victoria train station on the Metrolink stopping at 9 stops in between. If it was a heavy rail line with perhaps no more than 3 or 4 stops between Bury and Victoria journey times might be reduced to perhaps only 12 or 15 minutes rather than 23 minutes. I'm undecided about what is overall more liberating to more people, shorter journey times in more populated areas and less services in less populated areas, or more services in less populated areas but longer journey times for people in well populated areas. Overall, considering that the alternative is buses the Metrolink is a nice balance between the two.

One thing that is interesting about the Manchester Metrolink is that it is nationalised. Sort of. It is operated by the RATP Group (RĂ©gie Autonome des Transports Parisiens) which is a French nationalised company owned by the French government. This makes me both happy and sad. I'm happy that some of the profit from the Metrolink is going to a public sector, I'm just saddened that we cannot make this a British public-owned and run company/industry so that the profits can be put back into public services in our own country. But public ownership of industries or certain industries is a whole other topic I may cover at another date on this blog. All I will say now is that there is a lot of profit and potential profit with public transport in the UK and I would much rather that profit was going to the public-sector so that government and councils have more money to spend on services that are useful to people rather than going to business owners, directors and shareholders. Or it could be invested into improving our public transport system, perhaps decreasing ticket fares.


Buses are the main form of transport in Greater Manchester that link up all the different areas in Greater Manchester. Most other forms of transport simply take you to Manchester City Centre. Buses are the easiest form of transport to expand as bus stops are easy and cheap to put up in almost any road. However buses are also the slowest of the main forms of public transport because they have to follow the normal traffic on the roads, traffic lights and there's usually a bus stop every few hundred metres, and sometimes they take long and winding routes. The fact that there are so many bus stops does make buses the most accessible in terms of how close you are to the service. The vast majority of people in Greater Manchester are within walking distance of their closest bus stop. However, buses are also know for being one of the most unreliable forms of public transport out there. Because they run on ordinary roads and only have their own bus lanes in highly populated areas close to town centres and city centres, and also because the driver has to stop at each stop and sell tickets to most of the passengers boarding means that it's much more difficult for buses to run on time. In large parts of Manchester, especially around Oxford Road/Wilmslow Road this isn't so much of an issue because at peak times there are several buses a minute. But for areas in Greater Manchester where there is only a couple of buses an hour, being 10 or 15 minutes late is a regular frustration and can even make people late for work.

There are plans to help reduce congestion and journey times around the city centre by making some of the roads for the use of buses, bicycles and taxis only. The plans include turning large sections of Oxford Road, particularly at the universities into bus, bicycle and taxi only roads, as well changing some roads in the city centre to allow better bus links between Piccadilly Gardens and Shudehill bus stations. Transport for Greater Manchester have produced 2 brilliant videos on the proposals. This video for the the proposed changes to Oxford Road:

The following video is on the proposed changes to the city centre:



It seems to me that a wide range of public transport methods are needed across Greater Manchester. Ultimately we need a well connected transport network with trains linking major populated areas such as cities and big towns, trams linking up as many significant parts of Greater Manchester as realistically possible and buses filling the gaps that cannot be filled by rail including connecting the different tram and train lines. An important change, if possible, to how the Metrolink works is allowing bicycles onto trams to help cyclists shorten their journey times. An area all forms of public transport needs is to provide more services, later services and earlier services. There is a clear demand for better public transport services late at night and early in the morning. So I want to see more heavy and light rail journeys being made so that people can save time and perhaps even money travelling to wherever it is that they need to go. While bus journeys do have their advantages, using buses for longer journeys takes a lot of time that could be cut by introducing more tram and even train lines. Currently around 80% of public transport journeys in Greater Manchester are on buses. It takes me half an hour to travel from Whalley Range where I live to city centre, that's an hour return trip, and Whalley Range isn't that far from the city centre. If I lived next to my closest tram stop, that would be cut by over a third to a 38 minute round trip giving me over 20 minutes more free time to enjoy life. I'm certain the same could be said for many tens or hundreds of thousands of people in Greater Manchester who would benefit massively from a better public transport system. Cyclists, pedestrians and even motorists would benefit from a better public transport system as well. Better public transport leads to less people using cars, which makes the roads safer for cyclists and pedestrians alike while reducing traffic jams and journey times for remaining motorists.

A huge factor in defeating transport poverty is to integrate the ticketing system into one smart card, similar to London's Oyster Card and simplify the pricing so that using multiple services does not become unaffordable. Currently it is cheaper to get a bus pass for one bus provider and to just use that bus service, whereas a connected transport network works best if people use a wide range of transport methods. If you can get a bus to your nearest tram or train station and use rail to get where you need to, that will ultimately save time. If we can have a smart card that has an upper limit on daily, weekly and monthly spending it will make this financially viable. Currently there are 2 different systems that run like this, the System One Travelcard, which is mostly for buses but can also be used on trains and trams, and the soon to be launched 'get me there'. The problem with System One Travelcards at the moment is that they are for passes only and I think they are only in paper ticket format. get me there launches this year for Metrolink users. Next year get me there will be available to use on buses, and at some point after that you will be able to use get me there cards for train journeys within Greater Manchester. I'm not sure how get me there will work out pricewise but I sure do hope it will drastically reduce travel costs. When it's fully finished it will be pretty much just like the Oyster card, but for Greater Manchester and System One Travelcards will stop being used in Greater Manchester. While I would like to see public transport be free for everyone, that is a massive challenge that first requires nationalisation of our public transport which I believe we are ready for. In the mean time to improve public transport it helps if there are economic benefits.


  1. I would welcome the change of rule to allow cycles on the trams so that we can take advantage of riding into the countryside at the ends of the lines. On the continent there is a dedicated carriage that allows for cycles as well as foot passengers.

  2. Completely wrong on HS2. The current WCML is full. We need a new line to a) allow supermarkets to shift more road-freight to rail b) allow more passenger paths between intermediate stations. Also, connecting the rest of the UK to the European HS network makes journeys such as Manchester-Paris viable reducing intra-European air travel (journey times of 4 hours are competitive with air). Therefore the new line needs to be high speed.

    Rich L