How two trams having a slow-speed “fender bender” wrecked your day…

…or at least made your morning commute difficult.

If you were trying to travel into work in Manchester this morning, you might have fallen foul of the Metrolink tram system pretty much grinding to a halt for around 30 minutes, right in the middle of the rush hour.

The cause? Two trams having a slow-speed collision at the St Peter’s Square stop.

As can be seen from the photo above, the fairings which protect the coupler (used to attach trams together to make double units) came into contact, and it looks like there might have been some bowing or warping of some of the other fairings.

Unlike when we, as road-users, have a fender-bender in a car, sadly we can’t just shunt off to the side of the road and exchange details, check nothing’s fallen off and proceed on our merry way. There’s a set procedure that has to be followed.

There was a lot of frustration directed at TfGM and Metrolink for how long it took them to respond to the incident.

Before I go on, I should probably explain that I am in a position to offer informed comment on incidents such as this.

Academically I hold a BSc in Transport Management, around 25 years ago I worked for British Rail, and in terms of current railway operations, I am a volunteer “Responsible Officer” – the Duty Operations Manager – for a heritage railway, which is governed by same basic operating rules as the National Rail network and Metrolink.

As a “Responsible Officer” it’s my job to manage problems, issues and incidents, along with subsequent recovery of the service. It’s the same sort of job that the Metrolink Control Room team perform, we use similar principles and work to similar rules, albeit they do it on a somewhat larger and more complex scale.

Back to the incident today, if there is any damage to either tram (however slight), or any significant injuries, this has to be reported immediately to the RAIB (Rail Accident Investigation Branch) by telephone. It’s known as a “Schedule 1” incident. RAIB may want to send their own representatives.

The duties of the operator in a Schedule 1 incident such as this is to not move the involved vehicles at all, until permission is given by the RAIB, and also perform actions themselves to collect and preserve any evidence. The usual response is to assign an Incident Officer to attend the scene and co-ordinate the preservation and collection of evidence. The Incident Officer is a representative of the person in overall charge of the network at the time of the incident.

Even if there was no significant damage, this is known as a “Schedule 3” incident and still requires collection of evidence, and reporting after the fact.

So we know now that we can’t move those two incident trams for some time, and the line through St Peter’s Square toward Piccadilly Gardens and Market St is blocked.

That immediately affects the following tram routes, all booked through the collision platform:

  • Altrincham – Bury
  • Altrincham – Ethiad
  • MediaCity – Piccadilly
  • Eccles – Ashton

Each of the above run on a 12 minute headway. If we assume that is evenly spread, there is a tram coming every 3 minutes from the direction of Deansgate/Castlefield to use that line.

We also need to consider the approaching trams that run via the Second City Crossing (2CC) – the track heading into the city centre splits at a junction just outside Manchester Central and runs up the side of the Midland Hotel as two separate lines toward St Peter’s Sq. These are normally the services from the East Didsbury line to Shaw or Rochdale, these run every 6 minutes.

So adding these in, there is a tram roughly every 2 minutes coming from Deansgate toward St Peter’s Square.

It is very easy to end up in a situation where trams become quickly backlogged around the incident site if action isn’t taken.

As it was, there were three trams – two single and one double tram – behind the incident trams that had become “trapped”, queueing up the side of the Midland Hotel and short of the platform at St Peter’s Square. I can only assume that Metrolink ended up evacuating the passengers from those trams to street level via the emergency ladders – the tram floors are a long way up from the ground!

So, we understand it’s necessary to stop the trams to prevent a gridlock of yellow developing and ending up in a situation where passengers are having to be evacuated down ladders.

The question that must be in most people’s heads is why the entire system remained stalled for as long as it was, and at such a crucial time of the morning commute?

  • Why couldn’t the trams be diverted via 2CC?
  • Why couldn’t the trams be turned around short of the destination?
  • Why couldn’t the trams just run to a different destination?
  • Why was the Bury-Piccadilly service, which doesn’t go anywhere near the incident, stopped?

The fact is, like most rail systems, there are some constraints on the operation that affect the incident response.

Even understanding these constraints, and knowing the challenges the Metrolink Ops staff must have been facing, having dealt with incidents myself, I still felt some disappointment that it took so long to start any form of service recovery.

What I plan on doing is writing a short series of posts discussing these constraints over the next week or so. Some of them are quite peculiar to Metrolink, but maybe it will allow you to make your own mind up about how quickly things can be sorted.

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