UK TRAMWAY HANDICAPS
Constructing a road or a railway is a far more straightforward process than installing a tramway in a city
centre. Tramway installation requires the skills of mechanical, electrical (traction, distribution,
electronic), civil, railway, software, highway and traffic engineers, as well as relying heavily on financial,
public relations, legal and political expertise interfacing also with public utilities such as gas, water,
sewerage, telecoms and electricity undertakings.
All of the challenges associated with street tramway construction and maintenance have to be tackled
under close public scrutiny in city centres where errors are amplified for all to see, to suffer from, to
comment on and to complain about. Everything has to be done “up close and personal”, under the noses
of the public and the media, with unforgiving time constraints.
All of this makes competence vital. The capabilities and temperaments of participants are stretched to the utmost.
We need to ask whether there are any national characteristics peculiar to British people which could have a malign
or even a benign influence. One obvious example of malignity is an ingrained British tendency to regard trams as
too “old-fashioned” or too “working class” to be proud of as a specialism.
Xenophobia may also play a part. When electric tramways were first introduced to the UK around 1900, they were not handicapped by any inherited negativity towards them. Today, being involved in tramways begrudgingly towards tramways is not a recipe for success. The train whistles carried by Manchester trams are eloquently expressive of tram stigmatisation.
There’s a danger that outcomes will be compromised by bemusement about trams, compounded by poor
interdisciplinary communications, jealousies, conflicts of interest and a buckaneering tendency to “show
off” by ignoring best practice and “re-inventing the wheel” whenever opportunity arises. In Manchester,
for example, early and ongoing mismanagement of grooved tram rail in the city centre led to dire
consequences which are still being felt decades later.
Tie-bars were omitted after this photograph was taken on 05/06/90, with unfortunate consequences. The
inset illustrates the intention to install grooved tram rails without conventional tie-bars but with a
vertical inclination which was abandoned following unsuccessful attempts to achieve it.
The skills involved in successfully understanding and installing conventional grooved tram rail and
interfacing it with road surfaces need to be consolidated before moving on to the unconventional track
technologies now being promoted.
Interfacing of conventional tram rails with road surfaces on Manchester Metrolink: Left, Mosley Street
c1993 and Right, Eccles New Road, 15th June 2020.
The unrestrained cluttering of Manchester city centre with a forest of ugly tramway poles attracted
widespread criticism and encouraged a persistent obsession with wire-free “solutions”.
Please see the Appendix for a list of the problems which have afflicted Manchester Metrolink because of
failures on the part of contractors and their consultants to respect or value available tramway knowledge.
The visionary promoters of the scheme, Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive (GMPTE),
had extensively studied best tramway practice, and had involved the public at every stage. When it was
time for implementation, the Department of Transport declared that “the private sector knows best”,
forcing the knowledgeable promoters to stand aside and watch contractors fresh from bypasses and
railways loose in the city centre.
In Croydon, street track had to be renewed early because of, in the words of the system’s Chief Engineer
at the time, (Tramways and Urban Transit, August 2007, also see a letter from him in the November 2004
issue) “. . . the extent to which designers of the UK’s second generation tramways have chosen to depart
from methods that are still in widespread use in mainland Europe, and which follow the traditional
practices of the first generation tramways”.
It is curious to note that the primary champion of Croydon Tramlink had in the early days of the project
been instructed by his employer, TfL, to avoid the use of the word “tram”. Must the tram for ever be
regarded as the mode that dare not speak its name?
A bus is a bus, a taxi is a taxi, but according to this sign in Manchester, a tram is a newspaper.
Until an equitably positive and unprejudiced attitude towards tramways is re-established in the UK, and
until a substantial reserve of tramway expertise and competence has been established, it is probable that
mistakes will continue to be made, money wasted and timescales continue to be protracted. Financial
constraints are by no means the only impediments to tramway progress in the UK. Supporters and
advocates of tramway schemes need to be cautious about making promises unless they are prepared to
fight at every stage for full compliance with those promises.
Here are 30 Metrolink problems which are attributable wholly or in part to a failure on the part of Phase 1
DBOM contractors and their consultants, and their successors, to respect or value available tramway
2 months contract time lost trying to install grooved tram rail inclined to the vertical, and to
bend it in two planes around small-radius curves
failure to use pre-sorting, or post-merging, techniques, with contiguous interlacing to overcome
space contraints, for points, especially at the Piccadilly Gardens end of Mosley Street and
elsewhere in the Delta junction area
failure to use tie-bars to assist in track assembly and to prevent rail rotation under lateral
loadings, contributing to at least one city-centre derailment (St Peter’s Square 29/06/08)
use of small-radius curves where longer curves with sinuous track geometry would have worked
much more efficiently and elegantly; failure to ensure that all curves were properly
transitioned, and as a consequence installing troublesome kinks; forcing experienced platelayers
to follow geometry dictated by “our young (civil) engineers”
David Holt Page 4 of 4 23rd June 2020
mismanagement of tramway rail wear because of misunderstanding grooved rail functionality,
contributing to at least one derailment in the city centre (St Peter’s Square 29/06/08)
failure to keep Sika polymer dry, as per manufacturer’s instructions, while curing (consequent on the
above loss of 2 months contract time)
noisy full-depth flangeways at rail intersections in the city centre; flange running at rail
intersections at least demonstrates care in execution, whether or not it delivers a perfect
over-engineering of earth leakage prevention measures
installation outside a hotel on London Road of a noisy “scissors” crossover, removed a few years later
installation of a noisy complicated “spaghetti” junction close to a new hotel outside Victoria Station
failure to use an aesthetic and environmentally-friendly turfed finish for track in various locations,
ongoing in Trafford Park
failure to re-use nearly-new first-generation British Steel rail on Eccles New Road
contorted alignments through Salford Quays and elsewhere
inability to manage successfully the interfacing between tarmac and tram rails under aggressive attack
by road vehicles, ongoing along Eccles New Road (2020)
OVERHEAD LINE EQUIPMENT
failure to design overhead line equipment (OLE) sensitively in the city centre, helping to create
chronic aversion to OLE in the UK; installing typhoon-proof OLE in a typhoon-free city
double contact wire instead of single, too tightly-tensioned, resulting in greater cost and heaviness –
single contact wire is “good enough” on 2CC
whistles (chosen during a drinking session) used instead of proven fit-for-purpose loud
expressively-flexible gongs as the on-street audible warning of approach; consequent switching
of trams into off-street mode on-street in order to sound the intrusively piercing railway horn to
supplement the ineffective “bottle-organ” whistles; persisting
only 26 trams provided against a projected requirement for 37
no grab poles or hanging straps in the aisles on the original fleet of trams
inappropriate management of brake of last resort (magnets) on the original fleet of trams
original fleet of trams caused cyclic sidecutting of rails on Altrincham and Bury lines, resulting in
violently rough riding by their replacements, until rails were renewed in consequence
persistent rough running on Altrincham and Bury lines caused by expecting trams to run sweetly on a
mixture of inclined and vertical rails
side destination indicators omitted from the original fleet of trams, inconveniencing passengers
concealment of, and lack of signposting to, suburban tram stops and interchanges
omission of an additional 2CC tram stop (possibly split) on Cross Street
signposting at Didsbury Village which sends inbound passengers the long way round via the outbound
platform and over a potentially-dangerous foot crossing
ongoing failure to install additional suburban tram stops, for example at Gorse Hill and South
Brooklands on the Altrincham line, and at Hollyhedge Road on the Airport line
installation of two platforms at Media City instead of a single island platform which would have been
more customer-friendly and efficient
customer-unfriendly destination displays – eg “St Werburgh’s Road” instead of ” St Werburgh’s Road
abolition of Mosley Street (outbound) tram stop
inadequate throughput capacity at Cornbrook interchange stop, continuing through to St Peters Square