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Manchester's £350m Trafford tram takes on ‘big bang’ lessons

Manchester’s Metrolink has recently completed a £1.5bn expansion – but the UK’s largest light rail network is set to grow even further with the £350m Trafford Park line.

The Trafford Centre is one of the biggest of its kind in the UK, with an annual footfall of 31m customers, while each year more than 3,000 coachloads of people pull up to the site just off the M60.

Despite these numbers, getting to one of the area’s largest retail and leisure destinations on public transport isn’t easy, with estimates suggesting that more than 90 per cent of visitors arrive by car.

Changing that statistic is one of the motives behind Transport for Greater Manchester’s (TfGM) Trafford Park Metrolink line: a £350m extension of the city’s tram system that will arrive outside the shopping centre’s front door by 2020.

MPT – a consortium of Laing O’Rourke, VolkerRail and Thales – is carrying out the work to link the Trafford Park area to Manchester city centre by tram for the first time.

The contractor and client gave Construction News an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the new line and the steps being taken to make this Metrolink’s most successful project to date.

Learning from experience

MPT is already very familiar with the city’s Metrolink system – after all, the joint venture is responsible for building what TfGM calls “the big bang”: its eight-year, £1.5bn investment programme. This extended the tram network’s coverage across four new routes: the Airport line; the Ashton line; the East Didsbury line; and the Rochdale / Oldham line, as well as a spur to MediaCity.

“We’re talking about building a major piece of infrastructure outside the front doors of big, multinational organisations”

Peter Jones, MPT

The £1.5bn programme included a vast array of different projects, ranging from off-street segregated lines to street-running tramways, as well as the restoration of derelict railways and completely new-build rail lines.

The extension featured more than 60 km of new track, stretching the network from Manchester Airport in the south to Rochdale in the north.

By comparison, the Trafford Park line’s mere 5.5 km length might not seem like a large undertaking. But as MPT’s project director Peter Jones points out, the challenges posed by the new line should not be underestimated.

“There are six new stops along the line, [with] highway alterations and no railway corridors to build on,” he says. “We’re dealing with brownfield sites and the area’s industrial heritage, which is a different challenge in many ways.”

The new line runs from the existing Pomona stop near Salford Quays through Trafford Park, via Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium and the Imperial War Museum North, before eventually terminating at the Trafford Centre.

Keeping crowds happy

As well as the museum and the football ground, it passes through one of the North-west’s largest industrial hubs, not to mention ITV’s studios where programmes such as Coronation Street are filmed. This presents a different set of challenges for MPT compared with building on disused railways lines, as with the Didsbury line, or along town streetscapes, which was the case for the Ashton project.

Laing ORourke Manchester St Rdabt 3

Laing ORourke Manchester St Rdabt 3

MPT’s previous expansion of the Metrolink included some large-scale civils work

“We’re talking about building a major piece of infrastructure outside the front doors of big, multinational organisations, as well as ITV and the Imperial War Museum,” Mr Jones says. “They will have a different approach [to construction] and we have to be flexible because of that.”

Mr Jones runs CN through a map of the route. As it leaves Pomona, the map lists everyone and everything that has a third-party interest along the route, from access and egress to road modifications and building modifications.

For example, the Wharfside stop – only a stone’s throw from the Old Trafford football stadium – includes full crowd control measures so that it can act as a hub for matchday traffic, along with the Old Trafford stop on the Altrincham line. “Manchester United has certain conditions that have to be complied with, such as matchdays, as you can imagine,” Mr Jones says.

TfGM has even invested extra money into the scheme to make sure matchday access to the area can go as smoothly as possible. 

“The tram driver needs to be able to get away from the stadium without being caught in the traffic, so a lot of the scheme will involve widening the corridor to make room not just for the tramway but for the highway as well,” Mr Jones explains. “TfGM has decided it’s worth spending a bit more to make sure we get the throughput of trams when there’s 70,000 people trying to get out of the stadium.”

Laing ORourke Droylsden Road 3

Laing ORourke Droylsden Road 3

Previous lines covered a mixture of environments ranging from disused railways to streetscapes

As well as the football club, Mr Jones says the team is undertaking research to see how the construction works and the operation of the tram line will affect ITV’s studios in terms of noise and vibration. And at the nearby IWM North, dust will have to be kept to an absolute minimum to prevent any damage to an ex-Iraqi Army T-55 tank that sits outside the main entrance.

Diverting utilities

The management of stakeholders and the reaction to different business needs represent a culmination of learnings from the ‘big bang’ part of the Metrolink project, which completed with the opening of the Second City Crossing through Exchange Square this year.

One vital lesson that proved relevant for a built-up industrial area of offices, logistics and manufacturing facilities was how MPT managed utilities, as TfGM’s Trafford Park programme manager Tom Kelly explains. “We built up a much better relationship with the utilities providers and much more trust than they had given us previously through our work on the other lines,” he says.

Laing ORourke utilities Manchester Metrolink

Laing ORourke utilities Manchester Metrolink

The team has worked closely with providers to segregate utilities before work begins

“For example, on the Airport line, we were allowed to put in more protection slabs and leave the utility providers’ assets in place, rather than diverting, which would add time to the programme.”

The client and contractor now meet regularly with utilities providers, with MPT starting work to isolate each utility that the new line will cross, making them easier to segregate and reducing the need for utility diversions in the process.

The Trafford Park line’s design process has also applied lessons from other areas of the Metrolink’s expansion, particularly in terms of integration between the tram’s construction and its operating system.

One of MPT and TfGM’s key areas of focus for the Metrolink expansion is making the transport system fully accessible for everyone.

At the initial phases of the expansion, MPT formed a Disability Design Reference Group (DDRG), a consultation group made up of disabled people who would use the transport system when complete.

“The DDRG was designed to help us shape the design of things like platforms and stations to suit the experiences they have had as individuals when trying to get around Manchester’s public transport system,” Mr Jones says.

That has also applied to both the design and the construction of the Metrolink, he explains. “We’ve taken that a step further by actually bringing them onto site during the build to give their input, and it means our teams can understand any issues that they might have navigating their way through sites under construction.”

Mr Kelly says TfGM has taken the Metrolink’s DDRG model and applied it to other projects, such as the Leigh Guided Busway. “What we’ve done on Metrolink has really set the standard for future transport projects in terms of disabled access,” he says.

More on disability: Look out for our special issue on disability and accessibility in the industry later this month

For the Airport line, the team created detailed models that were updated on a twice-weekly basis to help create an accurate representation of what the line would look like, which not only allowed the client to get a clear picture of the line’s progress but also informed how the system’s operator would run the line once it was complete.

“The operator actually changed how they recruited new drivers as a result of what they could learn from the integrated system,” says TfGM’s head of Metrolink Danny Vaughan. “Because we had developed a driver simulator [using the model], they were able to train a whole bunch of people within seven weeks rather than the traditional 13-14 week programme.”

Designing for the future

For the Trafford Park line, MPT has taken that a step further, building a full BIM model for the project, which Mr Jones says has “every last engineering detail built into it”.

“That’s beneficial not just to us as a team but also the stakeholders, to explain to them how it’ll look and whether work will or won’t impact access, for example.”

Mr Kelly adds that, from a client perspective, the new BIM-led approach has given him “much more visibility” on the project’s design. “In a standard design process you get design drops as you go along and review the drawings,” he says. “But here, we were seeing the model every week, and what was coming out of the design process was put on screen almost straight away.”

CN is treated to a hands-on demonstration of the model, with a driver simulator already up and running, providing a first-hand look of how the line will look once complete. Travelling through the simulation shows just how important the new connection will be – linking the city centre to an area of major development that will create thousands of new jobs.

“A lot of the other lines are generally points of origin, but this line is for a destination”

Tom Kelly, TfGM

“A lot of the other lines are generally points of origin, but this line is for a destination, a place people want to come to shop or work,” Mr Kelly points out. “It’s a change in thinking for the way we’ve done things [previously].”

And TfGM doesn’t want to stop there, with potential plans afoot to expand the line beyond its current terminus at the Trafford Centre. Although Mr Vaughan says these plans are some way off, he adds it would be a “no-brainer” to extend the line across the nearby Manchester Ship Canal to Salford City Stadium and Port Salford near Irlam.

With a hatful of experience already in the bag and a series of important lessons learned, MPT looks to be in a strong position to tackle the challenges that lie ahead for Manchester’s expanding transport network.

Metrolink: The story so far

The Metrolink’s £1.5bn expansion programme has highlighted some impressive numbers for MPT and TfGM, including:

  • 62 km of new track laid
  • 58 new tram stops
  • Over 164,500 cu m of concrete laid
  • More than 170,000 drawings produced in 19 different disciplines
  • Over 14,200 welds and 2,800 overhead line poles installed

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