Platform for growth

Under the experienced operation of RATP Dev, Manchester’s Metrolink tram network has undergone extensive growth over the past few years and continued focus on delivering an unrivalled service to its millions of passengers remains top priority as it moves forward

As one of the UK’s largest and most important cities, ensuring Manchester’s large population has access to reliable public transport has been critical to the city becoming the industrial and economic hub it is today. At present 2.7 million (and counting) inhabitants are spread across nearly 500 square miles of Greater Manchester, served by a network of ten local councils. Facilitating such substantial transport demands, Transport for Greater Manchester’s (TfGM) Metrolink network has grown since it was first opened in 1992 to become the UK’s largest light rail system.
Metrolink Issue 126 b
Having been managed by experienced international operator RATP Dev since 2011, Metrolink today covers 93 stops across 93 km of network with a total of 109 vehicles. This translates into around 33 million passenger journeys a year, or 90,000 a day. As with many of the figures that define Manchester’s size, these numbers continue to rise and a quick look back over the past five years under RATP Dev’s operation demonstrates just how rapid this rise has been.

In 2010 the company’s employee level sat at 386, a number that has nearly doubled to today’s 723. A £1.5 billion investment into expansion by Greater LtdManchester has seen the network treble in size, thanks in part to a new 14.5km line to Manchester Airport in 2014 – the city’s largest ever expansion project to be completed in one go. Interestingly, the Manchester Airport expansion was completed a year ahead of schedule. This period has also seen more reliable Bombardier M5000 trams replace the existing fleet of T68s and the relocation of the Network Management Centre (NMC) to its new Trafford Depot.

Speaking with Railway Strategies, Managing Director for RATP Dev in Manchester, Chris Coleman keenly points out that the political unity and working synergies between Greater Manchester’s local councils, TfGM and RATP Dev are vital to the network’s continually successful performance. “From an operational perspective there are several key factors that underpin the successful service we operate,” he says. “Firstly, the preventative maintenance and management of the network’s assets carried out by our teams to ensure optimum infrastructure reliability is second to none. Then there is the maintenance of the fleet and tram reliability, which now stands at an impressive rolling average of 23,989 Mean Distance Between Service Failures (MDBSF). So we’re certainly bucking the trend for vehicle reliability. We can’t talk about our success without acknowledging the great people we have working for us in Manchester. Over the past five years they’ve experienced significant and continuous change and their flexibility, pro essionalism and commitment has just been incredible throughout. We simply couldn’t have done any of this without them.”

With demand continuing to rise, providing greater capacity on its existing network courtesy of a new Tram Management System (TMS), which is now installed on 90 per cent of the network, is also a key strength of Metrolink. “This provides us with the flexibility to cope with increased patronage during peak times and major events by providing an optimal service without the traditional block signalling system that only allows one tram in a section at a time,” explains Chris, who goes on to evidence the main interchange for all services at Cornbrook, where capacity has nearly doubled from 26 to 45 trams per hour in each direction since TMS was implemented.

Topping these strengths off is a passionate and experienced team of people focused wholly on delivering an unrivalled customer experience. Indeed, RATP Dev’s defining vision reads: “Delivering an excellent customer experience in transport,” and Chris attributes this to its people. “There is a great spirit of teamwork here and although each department has its own remit, they will come together and work towards what we need to deliver,” he says. What results is a very respectable customer satisfaction score for Metrolink of 85 per cent (up from 83 per cent in the previous year) compared to the National Rail Passenger Survey score of 81 per cent and the Bus Passenger Survey’s 88 per cent. A number of accolades sit atop RATP Dev’s mantelpiece to support this, including Operator of the Year 2013 and Highly Commended recognition in 2014 and 2015 at the Light Rail Awards. It is also presently a finalist in the UK Rail Industry Awards for Operator of the Year.

Ever committed to growing and improving its network, Metrolink is currently in the middle of the major Second City Crossing (2CC) programme, which is designed to increase capacity, flexibility and reliability with the introduction of a second line to intersect the heart of Manchester. With its first stage – the opening of Exchange Square stop – already completed in December 2015, the project is well underway and Chris notes the scheme’s importance in line with political devolution and the creation of a Northern Powerhouse. “The Northern Powerhouse will enable regional leaders to ensure the right decisions on transport priorities are taken to benefit the North of England,” he highlights. “Further connectivity between Metrolink and other modes of transport, along with easier access and ticketing solutions, will enable the region to be even more successful in the future and we want to continue to support our client, TfGM, through the next stages associated with this devolution.”Metrolink Issue 126 c

Other schemes of particular focus at present include looking at a new 5.5km extension to Trafford Park, which will provide a critical link for 1,300 businesses and 33,000 workers, the continued roll out of TMS onto the Bury line and supporting TfGM’s public transport smart ticketing project named ‘get me there.’

As Chair of the UKTram Executive, Chris is pleased about the UK’s current light rail development that is ongoing at Metrolink and also on the Nottingham Express Transit and Midland Metro networks. “The light rail industry has and will continue to remain extremely healthy as it brings with it a number of environmental and economic benefits over other modes of transport,” he says. “It has proved itself as an effective and efficient means of transporting high numbers of passengers directly into and around the heart of a city, serving local needs by connecting communities and supporting businesses. In Greater Manchester, for instance, Metrolink has helped to regenerate areas such as Salford Quays, which is now home to the BBC and other media outlets Ltdand recent research has shown that living near to a Metrolink stop will add an average of £12,000 to the value of a property.”

Keen to support this continued growth in the best and most effective way possible, the UKTram Executive is focused on promoting the real benefits of light rail and how it can help to regenerate the regions and communities they serve. It is also a core platform from which to mobilise collective action across the sector by sharing best practice and implementing initiatives to reduce costs and improve the service. In addition to this, in April 2015 RATP Dev, which also operates ten other tramways around the world, set up the ‘Tram Club’. “Made up of representatives from the worldwide light rail and tramway network, the club has the aim of increasing competitiveness, sharing best practice and improving the effectiveness of areas such as operations, engineering and customer experience,” Chris highlights. “Ultimately, the future is looking extremely bright for light rail and we at RATP Dev plan to be at the forefront of it.”

With this in mind, Chris very much sees the future of Metrolink in the hands of its people and ensuring that confidence was maintained when RATP Dev took over the network was a key part of the transition. “Defining our progression are our three core strategic objectives: to be operationally excellent, to be customer focused and to be fit for the future,” he outlines. “As a business we’ve doubled in size organisationally and trebled in size operationally over the last few years. This has required a major reorganisation with the creation of new positions, new people, new skills and new processes in order to future proof the business through such a change so that we are equipped to deal with tomorrow’s challenges. “Last year we launched our Leadership Academy, which saw more than 100 managers in the business go through a bespoke four-day training programme that proved to be extremely successful. The aim was to equip our leaders with the skills and knowledge to support our people through change as well as deliver
the service improvements people expect from us. The loyalty and commitment of our people has ensured we’ve got to where we are today and it’s important that we continue to invest and upskill them for the future.”

As far as the future is concerned for Manchester’s light rail network, RATP Dev is currently in the process of tendering for its continued operation beyond 2017. Alongside this however it is also ploughing ahead with major schemes designed to bring about even more improvements to Metrolink. “It is going to be another busy year for us for several reasons,” Chris explains. “This summer a major blockade to restore the twin-track running and redevelopment of a new stop at St Peter’s Square in the city centre will be carried out. This will involve closing this section and splitting the network over a period of eight weeks whilst the station and track layout is completed. Our top priority for this project of course is ensuring we continue to deliver as good a customer experience as possible throughout the transition. Alongside this more rolling stock will continue to be delivered, so our fleet team will be commissioning the new vehicles and getting them ready for service alongside the additional daily allocation of 92 trams.”

In addition to capacity and reliability improvements, the Metrolink network will also experience major efforts into its customer experience with a number of projects already well underway. “We recently introduced Customer Network Managers into our NMC to provide a ‘customer conscience’, in what is traditionally a heavily operational environment,” Chris continues. “These managers oversee our contact centre and the team who manage our Twitter account, which currently has more than 25,000 followers. We’ve also created Customer Ambassadors whose primary role is to provide customer service to our 90,000 daily customers on the front line. These have already proven themselves to be a key part of our customer service offering and feedback from passengers has been extremely positive. We will be doing more work throughout 2016 to advance both of these initiatives.”

Helping to roll out TfGM’s new smart ticketing project, managing a number of major events and continuing to recruit and upskill new and existing employees will also all be key parts of 2016. “We also want to focus on upgrading our four-star EFQM business excellence rating to five stars,” Chris adds. “Overall, it looks set to be another busy year for us but we relish the challenge and we look forward to continuing to work in partnership with TfGM to deliver the aspirations of the region and for Metrolink.”