The comparison I’m about to make will not make comfortable reading for politicians and planners in the UK, mainly because the shortcomings of the British approach have not gone away over the years. Here is what happened in two large, proud and thriving cities a thousand miles apart: Manchester and Valencia.
In the 1980s, both cities had a number of local rail services which came close in to the city centre, but didn’t serve the very heart of the city. In both cities, there were proposals to join the lines up using cross-city tunnels. In Valencia it happened; in Manchester, the tunnel didn’t happen, and Metrolink came instead. And here’s the problem. Valencia also brought in trams running at street level, but the tram and metro lines were entirely separate. Manchester’s Metrolink tried to be both metro and tram.
The result, in Manchester, is a solution done on the cheap. Metrolink crosses the city centre on the level, like a tram, but uses the high platforms it inherited from the rail routes that run out to Altrincham and Bury. So the city centre is strewn with elephantine street furniture to accommodate it. Also, the recently opened extension of the system to Eccles has the tracks leaving the public roadway to go into “refuges” at stops, requiring a wait at traffic signals to get back into the traffic. Progress is slow, and this in turn encourages deregulated buses to run in competition.
The lesson – that you either run a smaller version of a proper railway with high floor vehicles, or a street tram with low floor ones, but never mix them – has not been learned in Manchester, where extensions to Metrolink look set to continue the ideas that make the Eccles extension slow, and open to being picked off by the bus bandits.
Nowhere else in the UK has introduction of modern light rail systems copied the Metrolink template. Sheffield, Birmingham, Croydon, Nottingham – all have used partly or wholly low floor trams. The only scheme to use high floor vehicles is the Tyne and Wear Metro, which – surprise, surprise – runs as a smaller version of a proper railway, and underground in Newcastle city centre. Even then, the system has an image problem: the impression is given that it’s not safe to ride, especially at night. Who’s behind this? No prizes there: the bus bandits who’ve set up competing bus services.
Manchester’s Metrolink may start further expansion soon, but so much waits on the government in Westminster. Meanwhile in Valencia, another cross city tunnel is going ahead to accommodate further expansion of the now thriving metro system. The Valencianos have the commitment, Spain’s regional policy means that the decision making process does not wait on what Madrid thinks – and bus deregulation does not apply.
Thus the tale of two cities.