Manchester’s Metrolink tram network keeps growing and the latest extension is the 9.25 mile long branch that twists and turns across the city’s southern suburb of Wythenshawe before reaching the Airport. For the time being the route is served by a shuttle service between Cornbrook and the Airport and it cannot challenge the frequent heavy rail service between Piccadilly station and the Airport. Heavy rail trains take around 20 minutes for 9.5 mile journey from Piccadilly station while the tram is advertised to take 40 minutes from Cornbrook and many times actually needs at least 5 more minutes. Add to this the travel time from Piccadilly to Cornbrook then the time waiting for the next Airport service so a tram journey from Piccadilly to the Airport can take not much less than an hour. Eventually, once the second city crossing has been completed and increased capacity has been created at Victoria the route will be extended to Shaw via Victoria and Oldham. The real purpose of the new service is to bring tram travel to Wythenshawe and significant traffic is developing already at some of the new tram stations. Traffic to the Airport is still only a small part of the traffic being carried.
Although the shuttle service starts at Cornbrook the newly opened line branches off from the East Didsbury route at St Werburgh’s Road – the fourth stop beyond Cornbrook. There are fifteen stops along the new route and most are simple side platforms facing each other across the double track right of way. In the following description the design of each stop is described only where there is a different arrangement. Leaving St Werburgh’s Road the tracks curve sharply to the right, enter the central reservation of a dual carriageway with suburban houses on one side. After the Barlow Moor Road stop the tracks take up a central position in the highway and run through wooded countryside crossing the River Mersey by a fine bridge – the first of three large bridges on the route. This leads to the island platform of the Sale Water Park stop which is in a wooded area in which there is space for a three hundred place car park – the only Park-and-Ride site on the new route. At the end of November 2014 around 100 cars were using the car park regularly and this number is growing steadily. Back on a central reservation the route crosses over the M60 by means of the second significant bridge and twists and turns as it enters modern suburbia served by the busy Northern Moor stop. Much of the route follows roadside reservations or operates in the street turning left or right at road junctions just like the street tramways of old. There are numerous level crossing some of which are protected by traffic lights. There are a few stretches of ballasted light railway where the route is not beside a road.
Beyond Northern Moor the tracks now run in the parkland surrounding Wythenshawe Hall with stops at Wythenshawe Park and Moor Road. The next stop is at Baguley which is in an older industrial area. An interchange with the Stockport – Altrincham railway line will be opened in the next year or so. The route now serves older suburbs mostly on reserved track to Roundthorn, then the island platform at Martinscroft where there are some blocks of flats and a particularly broken down looking church close to the stop. Next the line uses the third of the large bridges to sweep over the M56 motorway. The next stops serve dense housing and runs north to south somewhat west of the Styal heavy rail line a little north of Heald Green station. The Benthall and Crossacres stops serve this area.
The route now runs along the side of the major Wythenshawe Town Centre which includes a major shopping centre leading away to the east from the Town Centre stop. This looks like becoming the busiest stop on the line as shoppers and office workers fill the platforms. The next stop at Robinswood Road is the only one with staggered side platforms situated on either side of a level crossing. Most of the remainder of the route includes some open wooded spaces mixed with areas of recent housing close to the Peel Hall stop while near the Shadowmoss stop is a very large car park – provided for airport travellers only and not for tram customers.
As the routes approaches the Airport terminus it drops down to pass below the ring road before coming alongside the railway tracks and entering the Airport station. There are four rail and two tram platforms including one island platform with rail platform 4 on one side and tram platform 5 on the other but neither was in use during my visits. The one platform used by the 12 minute frequency tram service is platform six of the joint station. There are a couple of ticket machines for the tram service and on a higher level a large rail ticket office with several windows but staff with ticket issuing machines stand in groups around the entrance to the rail platforms and around the outside of the ticket office selling travel tickets to passengers arriving from planes in an operation that is impressively quick and efficient. The ticket windows are used by passengers seeking a ticket to an unusual destination. Few passengers simply heading for the “City Centre” will even notice the way to the tram service.
My first trip on the new route had 30 passengers joining at Cornbrook and groups joining at Trafford Bar and Chorlton before we started on the new route along which significant new traffic joined only at Northern Moor and Moor Road. Significant numbers left the tram at only Roundthorn and Wythenshawe Town Centre. Most stops were used by just one or two people and several stops produced no traffic. Five passengers used the Airport stop with a grand total of 71 passengers using this service. It will be interesting to follow how the traffic develops during the next few months.