There have been no studies carried out by Transport for Greater Manchester or its partners into the economic impact that tripling the size of the tram network is having on the city region since work began in 2008 despite new lines and stations being built with money awarded by government on the basis of business plans pledging new jobs and improved business output.
Prior to 2010 the network had 37 stops and covered 24 miles, incorporating the Bury to Altrincham line and extension to Eccles. The network currently covers nearly 58 miles and has 93 stops across seven lines – hosting 33 million passenger journeys every year.
Passengers numbers have undoubtedly soared as the Metrolink catchment area has grown. October 2015 recorded the highest ever monthly figures of 3.1 million journeys, beating the previous record of 2.9 million in November 2014.
However, TfGM admits it has not examined who those extra passengers are and whether they fulfil the objectives of the £1.5bn business plan.
After nearly a decade of extensions funded almost entirely by the public purse there is no way of knowing if the greater tram use is the result of displacement of car journeys by people who already had jobs and shoppers who would have driven into the city to park instead, rather than new net gain economic activity.
Last year saw widespread disruption on the line due to the construction work that has closed the St Peter’s Square stop and dug up much of the city centre for the second city crossing, rerouting pedestrians, harming retail and restaurant trade and delaying road traffic trips around the city centre.
A TfGM spokesman said: “There is a clear commitment from TfGM to evaluate the Metrolink expansion project as it matures and reaches full impact.
“An outline monitoring and evaluation plan has been agreed with the Department for Transport in respect of Phase 3 [extension which began in 2008], which will see two reports published between spring 2016 and mid-2020.”
New tram stop and line openings in recent years:
- MediaCityUK: opened September 2010
- St Werburgh’s Road: July 2011
- Oldham Mumps: June 2012
- Rochdale & Droylsden: February 2013
- East Didsbury: May 2013
- Ashton-under-Lyne: October 2013
- Oldham town centre: January 2014
- Rochdale town centre: March 2014
- Manchester Airport line: November 2014
The next line, to Trafford Park, received £350m backing from government in November 2014, promising to improve access to employment, business, retail and leisure opportunities and improve public transport. Construction is expected to start in 2016 and the line be operational by 2020.
Throught the rapid expansion period, TfGM, the official transport authority for the city region, has successfully bid to government for funding based on forecast regeneration and growth, connectivity with employment sites, attracting investment and providing an alternative to road travel. The tram is often cited by business leaders and investors in Manchester as one of the city’s main attractions.
Geographic convenience, simply linking places, was replaced as the test for tram investment by government more than 20 years ago by economic need: linking people to jobs. How many people in deprived areas of Oldham, Wythenshawe, Ashton have been helped into employment is unknown and the economic case untested.
The TfGM spokesman continued that the “evaluation approach builds over time, with an initial focus on our achievements in the short term, and early outputs – namely, lessons learnt from the construction process, effectiveness of delivery, costs, capacity, patronage and journey time changes, and more ‘immediate’ benefits such as improved access to healthcare, employment and education.
“As agreed with DfT, this part of the evaluation is due to be published in spring next year.
“It is expected to show that, in terms of access to healthcare, employment (16 to 70-year-olds), further education (16 to 19-year-olds), and more deprived areas, the results are broadly in line with expectations – increases of around 10%, with areas showing the greatest changes in accessibility being geographically close to the Metrolink extensions.
“The second part of the evaluation will look at the productivity of current businesses (expanding their access to customers and skilled employees), new business investment and local employment, environmental benefits – all of which are realised over time. As agreed with the DfT, this part of the evaluation – capturing those long-term economic outcomes – is due to be published in mid-2020.”
While Metrolink has its fans, it also faces frequent criticism for overcrowding, delays and the perceived high cost of tickets.
The economic impact might also backfire if the hike in house prices near to stations squeezes out local first-time buyers. A study by mortgage lender Nationwide in 2014 found a 5% premium for homes within 500 metres of a Metrolink tram stop.
One senior architect based in the city called Metrolink “a middle class perk [of working in Manchester]”. The managing director of a local planning consultancy said it echoed wider concerns about the Conservatives’ eagerness to push the Northern Powerhouse agenda without proving the business case. He asked “how do we know that better links between cities in the North would create growth, based on what analysis?”
Phase 3A: Oldham and Rochdale Loop line, as far as Rochdale train station; Droylsden line; Chorlton line; MediaCityUK line; the new Trafford Depot
Budget: £600m. Made up of £244m Department for Transport; £338m via mixture of Integrated Transport Block Local Transport Plan and borrowings repaid by Metrolink revenues; the MediaCityUK spur cost £18m and was funded entirely by a development consortium of Peel, Salford City Council and the now-defunct North West Development Agency, without TfGM or DfT funding
Phase 3B: Manchester Airport line; Droylsden to Ashton line; Chorlton to East Didsbury line; Oldham town centre line; Rochdale town centre line; Second City Crossing
Budget: £823m: £121m DfT; £604m prudential borrowings repaid by council tax levy and Metrolink revenues; £90m Integrated Transport Block Local Transport Plan; £8m other
The total budget rises to £1.5bn when the raft of improvements to the existing network – stops improvements, new ticket machines – is added.