Much to learn from 25 years of Manchester’s Metrolink

As Transport for the North (TfN) develops its plans for improving connectivity in the north of England, there is much to be learned from Manchester Metrolink’s success, says Michael Odling.

This month marks 25 years since the opening of Manchester’s Metrolink tram network. A quarter of a century later, Greater Manchester has transformed into one of Europe’s most economically dynamic city-regions with its economy growing by 42% in the decade to 2012 alone. Metrolink, now the UK’s largest light rail network, has undoubtedly contributed to this success. 

Since the Queen cut the ribbon on the first line between Bury and Altrincham in 1992, Metrolink has expanded to seven of Greater Manchester’s ten boroughs, with plans for more. Its extension was particularly important in the aftermath of the 2008/09 recession. At a time of faltering business confidence, the then-new MediaCityUK line helped attract major new employers, and the East Didsbury route improved commuting times from some of Greater Manchester’s most popular residential areas. 

Benefits of local authority collaboration

There is much to learn from Metrolink’s success, particularly as Transport for the North (TfN) develops its strategic plan for improving connectivity in the north of England. One major lesson is the benefit of local authority collaboration. Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) has successfully corralled the city region’s ten boroughs in pursuit of one strategic goal - to improve connectivity for all of its 2.6 million residents. That means a Metrolink that reflects Greater Manchester’s economic priorities, bringing commuters into key commercial and industrial districts such as the city centre, Salford Quays and Kingsway Business Park. 

Whilst some boroughs, such as Stockport, don’t currently see any direct benefits from the major investment in Metrolink over recent decades, local authority leaders nevertheless acknowledge that a prosperous city-region is greater than the sum of its parts. It is rare to see any publicly expressed dissent on infrastructure issues. On transport - as with most issues - Greater Manchester speaks with one voice, and the faith in TfGM’s strategic vision as set out in the Greater Manchester 2040 Transport Strategy is clear to see. 

Another fundamental element of Metrolink’s enduring success is the partnership between the public and private sector. At Mace we’ve been privileged to lead delivery of the new Altrincham interchange and public realm improvements at St Peter’s Square as part of the revamped Metrolink station and refurbished Central Library project. 

This relationship between the ambitious vision of TfGM and Greater Manchester’s political leadership, and private sector organisations like ours which underpin this strategy with specific skills and knowledge to deliver the complex programmes and projects, has been key to the renaissance of the city region over the last 25 years.

As the UK begins negotiations to leave the European Union, and the government sets out its plans for a new modern industrial strategy, it is important to learn from our nation’s infrastructure successes, as well as identify areas for improvement. 

Long-term vision driving infrastructure

Metrolink shows what can be achieved when infrastructure is prioritised as part of a long-term economic vision. Over the past three decades, Greater Manchester has identified its sector strengths, selected key sites to support strategically important industries, and provided TfGM with the resources to connect these sites to make them attractive to employers and investors. The huge investment in logistics capacity at Airport City, for example, has been delivered alongside an extension of the Metrolink network, giving confidence to occupiers that they’ll benefit from a city-region wide pool of skilled employees. 

With its strategic plan for the north, TfN is seeking to replicate this approach by identifying strategic development corridors to integrate economic activity and infrastructure development. Improvements to road and rail links across the Pennines, addressing historic infrastructure underinvestment in cities which have the potential for growth like Bradford and Leeds and enhancing connectivity between the north’s ports and airports, are particularly important. 

This represents a welcome shift in the UK’s approach to infrastructure. Global connectivity, as well as improved rail and road links within the UK, will be increasingly important when we leave the EU and forge new trading relationships with the rest of the world. 

Ensuring new transport connections ally with economic priorities over the coming years will be particularly important for northern England given the historic underinvestment in our region’s infrastructure. 

TfN is already supporting a number of potentially transformational projects such as; Northern Powerhouse Rail, a plan to link northern cities with increased services and significantly reduced journey times, and additional Highways infrastructure such as improved trans-Pennine road connections to reduce reliance on the M62. In addition, TfN’s International Connectivity Commission Report has recommended a number of smaller surface access interventions to improve journey times to and from our region’s ports and airports to boost productivity. 

Metrolink shows that with strong leadership, real ambition and commitment to collaboration, it can be done. Let’s hope in another 25 years we can look back on similarly impressive improvements to transport connectivity across the whole of Northern England.

Michael Odling is head of rail in the north for Mace.