27 September 2007

A day in Manchester

The all-you-can-eat full, English breakfast at the Davenport Park Hotel was most welcome if allowing a shade too much self indulgence.

You're never waiting too long at any stop along Buxton Road betwixt Hazel Grove and Stockport for a bus to take you to Manchester city centre, in our case we boarded Stagecoach in Manchester ADL Trident 2/Enviro400 19010 (MX06 XAK) opposite the hotel and made our way through Stockport towards Manchester. On a map Stockport and Manchester centres aren't too far away, yet progress is painfully slow aboard Service 192; we weren't stopping at too many bus stops, it was large numbers of traffic lights - all changing to red seconds before we reached them - that hampered progress the most.

Not long into the journey, the route skirts Stockport bus station at Mersey Square. Unmissable to the left (south) of the route is the Stockport railway viaduct, one of the tallest in Europe, standing at 111 feet (33.85 meters) it bridges the valley in which much of Stockport's CBD is built, adjacent to the River Mersey. The viaduct opened in 1842 initially carrying rail services to Crewe, allowing people from Stockport to travel to London. Its 11 arches were widened between 1887-1889 to increase the number of lines from 2 to four and required no further attention for another century, when it received a face lift in 1989 costing £3 million. 600 men were employed at one stage in its construction, constructing the whole structure out of 11 million common bricks, which if laid end-to-end would cover a distance of 1,500 miles.

Back aboard the top deck of a Stagecoach in Manchester Enviro400, we continued along through Levenshulme, Longsight and Brunswick towards Piccadilly in the city centre. We alighted at 1024 - a 46 minute journey shortly after the end of the morning peak; if you'd said to me that off-peak a journey on a particularly linear route between Stockport-Manchester would take just over three-quarters of an hour, I wouldn't have looked forward to it or considered the Davenport Park Hotel quite so convenient for Manchester. That said, the return trip later on took almost 30 minutes, though was after 1930hrs!

Earlier on in the year, North West Traffic Commissioner Beverley Bell had revoked the O Licence of relative new-comer to local bus operation in Manchester, UK Buses North, following numerous accidents that had, in her opinion, been caused by the firm's disregard for safety and the employment of drivers who spoke virtually no English. These factors came to a head at the same time as congestion in the Piccadilly area received restrictions from the Traffic Commissioner's office, following there being physically not enough stops to accommodate primarily Service 192 buses, as this was one route that UK Buses North competed with Stagecoach. Following the firm's removal from business, everything seemed to be flowing well in the Piccadilly area from my observations and it's probably worth pointing out that at the same time as UK Buses North were removed from the streets of the city, Stagecoach also received an official warning over the way in which they retaliated.

As I'd been lead to believe, the Manchester Metrolink trams bore no signs of their recent Stagecoach ownership and so it was to the Piccadilly Gardens stop that we went, boarding tram 1002 at 1041 towards Bury.

Although classed as a light rail scheme, Manchester's Metrolink trams are like full-size trains, utilising former railway lines for many miles, each unit needing to be large enough to offer virtually no step up to/down from the platforms that have been in situ along most of its lines for over a century, therefore the 'street running' sections in the city centre do have enormous, rather intrusive full-size railway platforms, rather than in all subsequent schemes, smaller, less noticeable boarding points/platforms.

Like many cities, Manchester had its own first generation tram network, so impressive it covered much of south-east Lancashire and north-east Cheshire, the first to operate being on 12 June 1899 by the Oldham, Ashton & Hyde Company. Trolleybuses also made an appearance in the area commencing operation in 1919 at Stockport and final operation being between Ashton-Manchester in 1966; however it was the tram network that was most impressive, seeing at one point the possibility to travel from Liverpool's Pier Head to the Rising Sun pub at Hazel Grove to the south-east of Stockport!

We boarded at Piccadilly Gardens, one stop up from Piccadilly Rail Station; 3 further stops up the route is Victoria Rail Station and it was the proximity of these two rail termini that ultimately fuelled the Metrolink's formation, for back in the early 1970s plans were drawn up to link these two stations using an underground network, though for financial and logistical reasons, this was ultimately shelved; however in 1988, powers were obtained to realise the dream if you like, though using overground operation, and the updated conviction to link more than just two central rail stations saw the ambitious plan to link two abandoned rail lines: Victoria-Bury and Piccadilly-Altrincham using the "Picc-Vic" on-street running.

The first section to open was Victoria-Bury, on 6 April 1992, being the section of route we were now headed on, northbound towards Bury. We'd travelled on this section before, alighting at Woodlands Road to visit the Manchester Transport Museum a few years ago. My hard-drive crash of 2004 saw all my digital photos be deleted forever, included in them was the collection I'd taken at the museum that year. Very little seems to have changed in the past 15 years that this section of route has been opened: some signage is in need of repair and the colour scheme does look a little old fashioned now; the platform used at Victoria Rail Station is now parallel to the mainline rail platforms and not prior to it as it had been.

We arrived at Bury at 1105, a journey time of 24 minutes is almost certainly faster between central Manchester and Bury than any other mode of transport. The fares seem competitive - just, with a day return between the two points being just over £3, though remember that you are effectively travelling on a train in terms of its dimensions, infrastructure and speed, rather than a second-generation tram in the sense that Nottingham or Sheffield can claim.

We got back on the same tram (1002) and left at 1112 back towards Piccadilly; the next tram was bound for Altrincham, i.e. a through journey, omitting the Piccadilly Gardens stop but still travelling through the city centre, calling at other central stops. We got off 1002 at Woodlands Road at 1127 as the sun was in a good spot for photography and at 1132 tram 1006 arrived, bound for Altrincham. Back to Victoria and through the streets of Manchester city centre we passed - this section of 'street running' opening shortly after the Victoria-Bury section, on 27 April 1992 when the route was extended between Victoria and the G-Mex centre (former Central Rail Station). Beyond the G-Mex, the route was opened to Altrincham on 15 June 1992, whilst the final section - the spur down to Piccadilly Gardens and Piccadilly Rail Station opened on 1 July 1992.

Throughout the entire Bury-Manchester-Altrincham route a total of 19 rail stations have been inherited from the then British Rail, all of which needed very little doing to them, with Timperley, Navigation Road and Altrincham seeing parallel operation between Metrolink and Chester-bound Class 142s (Pacers). We arrived at Altrincham at 1207.

Following a quick wander around, we boarded tram 1025 at 1228 bound for Altrincham, though alighted at G-Mex at 1247 as Peter had a shot in mind which saw a passing tram in the foreground and the G-Mex centre in the background. Being more of a railway person than myself, Peter went on to explain how the G-Mex centre was once the Central Railway Station, and some of the track Metrolink uses was a direct descendant from that once used by trains leaving Central Station.

After growling at a couple of OAPs for walking in the way at precisely the time a tram passed, we managed to 'bag' the shot needed and boarded an Altrincham-bound tram in the form of 1015 at 1259, alighting at the next stop, Cornhill, one minute later. On this one-minute journey, if you know where to look you can see the roofs of houses along the Granada TV set of Coronation Street.

Cornhill is the only Metrolink station with no street access, it exists purely for connections between Alrincham and Eccles trams. At 1307 we boarded tram 2002 towards the latter. This section of route was built some years after the opening of the Altrincham-Piccadilly-Victoria-Bury section, and unlike these, it didn't follow former rail lines, instead operating along the streets of Salford and Eccles. Initially opening in December 1999, the Eccles branch started life as a one-stop spur off at Cornbrook to the new development at Salford Quays (formerly Manchester Docks), though in July 2000 this was extended and opened to Eccles.

After passing through unusually-named places such as Ponoma and Anchorage we arrived at Eccles at 1330. Following a quick drink at the Wetherspoons pub opposite, we boarded tram 2006 at 1407 and travelled back on ourselves to Salford Quays (arr 1421) as a nice shot of it passing the quay looked as if it could be possible. Indeed it was, however I found the only way to capture the best angle was to step out behind an Eccles-bound tram immediately after it had passed.

The trams, incidentally, are 86-seaters, built by Firema of Italy; they have two sections the majority (1001-1026) were built between 1991/2 for the initial opening; a further six (2001-2006) were built by the same firm in 1999. These similarly seat 86 and can withstand 122 standees each, though have numerous technical modifications. Of the initial batch, trams 1005, 1010 & 1015 have been modified, allowing them to additionally be able to run along the Eccles branch.

We boarded tram 1005 (one of the modified ones) at Salford Quays at 1433 and alighted at St. Peter's Square in the city centre. We walked back towards the G-Mex to get a shot of a tram descending the gradient from the approaching line and viaduct, in the hope to capture a good shot as it passed the front of the G-Mex. Turning 180 degrees also saw a cracking shot of trams passing the very grand Midland Hotel, where later we impersonated hotel guests and managed to partake of a particularly expensive drink in their bar.

Back to St. Peter's Square for 1604 when we boarded a very busy Piccadilly-bound tram in the form of 1023, alighting at the terminus at 1611. A visit to the Ian Allan bookshop by the entrance to Piccadilly Station is a must for anyone interested in transport and I ended up buying two mugs. The light was starting to fade now so we walked back to Piccadilly Gardens and boarded tram 1018 at 1816 to Victoria Station, arriving at 1821, and partook of an alcoholic beverage in the pub on the station.

Following this we wandered the streets of Manchester back to Piccadilly in order to catch a bus back to Stockport, and in so doing walked past the newest tram stop on the Metrolink network: Shudehill, opened in March 2003, standing next to equally new Shudehill bus station, the predominant operator in which is First.

Our bus back to Stockport left at 1944 in the form of ADL Trident 2/Enviro400, 19015 (MX06 XAP), and it was displaying "part route" to Stockport, Mersey Square only, where we alighted at 2016. A short walk up hill to Pizza Hut was in order, where I introduced Peter to the delights of a 'Spicy Hot One' and unlimited fizzy drink refills (he opted fro a Stella)!

We concluded the day at 2130 on trent barton's Airline 199 service, Buxton-bound, boarding at the Grand Central Leisure Centre stop (opposite Pizza Hut). A slight query was raised regarding Stagecoach Staff Passes being valid on trent barton services, though it was overcome when the driver gave way rather than offend someone who works in the same industry as him encountering similar problems, issues and day-to-day problems. We got off at the stop outside the hotel at 2137. The vehicle was Optare L1180/Optare Excel 264 (Y264 DRC).