Friday 20 February 2015

Motorways, Metrolink & Manchester

OK, it's the modern equivalent of sitting through someone's holiday snaps, but a recent trip to Manchester had me thinking - much to the irritation of my family!

No, I cannot switch off and to be honest who wants to when it comes to how our infrastructure works (or doesn't). Or it might just be me that finds it all so interesting. We had a long weekend in Manchester to see people and to see some of the city where part of my family once lived. I am not going to give you the full account you'll be pleased to know, just some transport thoughts.

A spookily empty M1, north of the crash.
We took the car and it was an awful morning on the way out. With fatal crashes on both the M1 and M40, we switched to the 'A' roads and ended up going through the city of the roundabouts which is Milton Keynes before rejoining the M1 further north. The M1 crash involved a coach hitting a car stopped on the hard shoulder. As the coach driver was arrested, one does wonder if the driver was confused about whether or not the hard shoulder was in use as a running lane at the time under the "smart motorways" project. I have never been a fan of the concept, especially as in some locations, it is hard shoulder running and in others, all lane running with no hard shoulder - one could see the confusion.

I don't have to drive all that often, but for long journeys with all 5 of us, it is the only economic solution. Trains are crazily expensive and cannot compete with the £60 in fuel for the round trip (yes I know, insurance, tax, depreciation etc). There was the usual congestion around Birmingham, complete with the M6 set up to encourage use of the M6 toll (we didn't). We went round Manchester on the M60 to visit a friend just outside Rochdale and then we headed to our hotel near Manchester Airport and got hopelessly lost in the city.

Avoiding the left hook. Image from Google Streetview.
As we found our bearings, I recognised a little bit of cycling infrastructure at the junction of the Mancunian Way and Fairfield Street. The layout is on the eastbound (Fairfield Street) approach to the junction where people riding bikes can leave the main carriageway and go into a little protected pocket (known as a "jug handle" due to its shape) and then on their own green signal (parallel to a pedestrian crossing) cross a two lane left turn slip road to avoid left hook. Once across, people are deposited into their own little protected "ahead" pocket where they continue east along Fairfield Street.

The reason I (very geekily) recognised the layout is that it appears in a very old "Traffic Advisory Leaflet" - TAL8/89, the earliest available online (I am not sure if it was the first one ever though). From what I briefly saw, the layout is identical today as it was in 1989 (aside from new bollards). The advantage to the layout is clearly that left turning traffic can be avoided. The staging of the signals has the cycle green coming in automatically when left turning traffic is held. The disadvantages are that there is never a clear run through the junction and the turns are a little tight. Of course, the main issue is that this is a single item in a location which is completely hostile to mass cycling anyway and so will probably remain an interesting historic curiosity.

The junction of Sir Alex Ferguson Way and Trafford
Wharf Road. No signals here for people on foot or bike.
Anyway, that was the journey there. The next day, we took in the Trafford Centre and dropped Ranty Junior off for a trip around Old Trafford with his grandad. The rest of us walked from Old Trafford to Salford Quays which was quite pleasant (although I imagine match days get a bit busy). We walked along Sir Alex Ferguson Way and onto Trafford Wharf Road. The area is a business/ industrial park with wide roads to match. There were cycle tracks on both sides of the roads here, but they had breaks at every little access point and mixed with pedestrians at crossing points. 

At 1.6m wide, the footway on the left is a bit narrow as is
the cycle track on the right at 1.9m. With the carriageway
as wide as this, it could have been very good.
The footways and cycle tracks were paved in contrasting materials and were in fair condition, but they were let down by poor dropped kerbs (often not flush) and there were signs of tree root damage. It was a Sunday lunchtime and we didn't see many people, so I can't say what it was like during the week. The layout could be tweaked (through maintenance) to give a stepped cycle track and to improve crossings - it could be really good.

On our third day, we wanted to leave the car at the hotel and get into the city centre by tram. Other than a ride on a tram in a living museum, none of us had actually been on a tram proper and we had the perfect chance. The first problem was getting to the tram stop closest to our hotel which was at Manchester Airport Station - about two miles away. This was not a journey we could make on foot with children (one in a baby sling) and we didn't really want to pay for a cab. Luckily there was a bus and even more lucky we got picked up close to the hotel (although even luckier than that, frequent was not a word to describe the service!).

A tram. Nice.
We bought a combined bus/ tram ticket on the bus using cash (remember that London?) and as we arrived at the airport bus stand, the driver told us which stop we should use for the return journey - yes, Arriva's chap was excellent. 

We then found our way to the Metrolink station (or is that stop) and hopped aboard a modern tram at a brand new station which only opened at the end of last year.

The signal to the left of the green means that a tram
may proceed ahead. 
As we headed towards the city we went through back land areas (some of which were old, long closed railways) and along streets, the tram did its job. On-street, traffic signals were set up to detect oncoming trams to give priority accordingly and progress was as you would expect from good public transport.

Cycle parking at a tram stop.
I did note that bicycles were not permitted on the trams, not even folders, although parking hoops and secure lockers (for a fee I assume) were provided by tram stops. We found the trams crowded in the evening peak (it was a Monday after all) and so full-sized bikes would be a pain for other passengers, but I would have thought that folders could be accommodated and full-sized off peak as with the Docklands Light Railway and some of the Underground in London.

Informal shared crossing of the tram line.
One other thing I noticed on the newer sections we travelled on was the amount of shared-use cycle tracks and Toucan crossings which had been built along the line.

On the sections between residential cores, they probably worked fine because of the lack of pedestrians, but in the busier areas, there wasn't enough space provided. A great deal of money has been spent on building this network and on the airport section, relief roads have also been built and so sadly, cycling has been given its usual bolt on which doesn't suit walking or riding a bike. There are also on-road sections where cyclists are advised to run between parked cars and the trams - certainly not for mass cycling.

As a service, we found the Metrolink system to be wonderful, even to the point where a I tweeted a smashed window on our tram which got an almost instant reply with staff on scene very quickly. We swapped lines a few times and rode up and down which is great entertainment for the kids and gave the adults a rest from walking round the shops. We also went back to Salford Quays on the tram and it was rather reminiscent of the experience in London's Docklands. We eventually went back to the airport and our bus was a 5 minute wait. This was also lucky as the next bus wasn't for another hour!

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