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‘Poorly managed and poorly organised’: Why do Metrolink trams keep derailing?
Plus: Soul music discos, student gallery takeovers and Manchester Baroque
Dear Millers — thanks for your tweets and emails this weekend about Jack’s weekend read, in which he profiled the radio presenter Anna Jameson. It was a joyful and absorbing piece that took you inside BBC Radio Manchester at a pivotal time for local radio, and asked a few questions of the station’s executive editor too.
A warm welcome to the 10 new members who have joined up in the past week. We’re now on 1,634 members and we have 27,240 of you on our free mailing list. To help us grow that list, please use the button below to share this edition on social media, via WhatsApp or forward the email on to friends.
In today’s briefing, we take a look at Metrolink: In the past two months, two trams have derailed in the city centre and an insider tells us maintenance on the network is “poorly managed and poorly organised”. More on that below — plus a lovely Victorian terrace in Withington and a piece that argues Manchester’s regeneration has been “predicated upon the expulsion of the urban poor from the city centre.”
Last week we published a writer’s edition from Harry Shukman, who went to a Didsbury Village residents’ meeting and wrote this funny dispatch about teens causing havoc in the area. On Thursday, readers received a multi-course feast: a tribute to Rochdale FC icon Ian Henderson by the writer Hugh Morris, and Sophie Atkinson on “a scourge of Instagram art” and a new commission by Factory International. If you’re not a member yet, join up now to read those stories and get great writing in your inbox every week.
We got a nice mention from the head of the Public Interest News Foundation, who have been speaking to communities about how to rebuild local journalism. “Everywhere we have gone, local people have told us about their favourite local journalists and publications,” Jonathan Heawood writes. “In Manchester, it was The Mill.”
Out of the bubble: Sometimes we like to recommend interesting journalism about far-flung places that touches on topics or themes that we cover here on The Mill. This weekend our team enjoyed:
This piece in the New York Times about an abandoned railway line in Queens, where local groups are arguing about whether it should be turned into a park or used as a track again to improve the area’s notoriously poor public transport.
This recent Guardian story about population growth in Africa and the development of a vast “megalopolis” on the west coast of the continent, now thought to be the world’s most rapidly urbanising area, spanning Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria.
And finally, personal writing doesn’t come much better than this essay in VICE, in which the journalist Joe Zadeh writes about his upbringing in a Northumberland village. “Maybe there was something occurring there, something beyond my five senses,” he writes at the end, “a deeper connection between the human mind and the world around us than I cared to admit.”
A correction: In Friday’s newsletter, we said a production of the play untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play had been pulled from the Sheffield Crucible and that it would now be showing at the Royal Exchange. That was incorrect. untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play was always planned to be shown at the Royal Exchange. In fact, a different play, called Worth, was pulled from the Crucible in response to the theatre staging Miss Saigon. We apologise for the error. Our sister paper in Sheffield, The Tribune, have covered this story in more depth today.
For your diary: The Press Association is hosting a free three-day “festival of journalism” in Manchester this week, featuring talks from journalistic luminaries such as the Guardian’s Simon Hattenstone, the Independent’s Nadine White and our own Joshi Herrmann. It’s free for journalists at any stage of their careers and starts tomorrow. Register here.
And finally: Our friends at Manchester Baroque are performing Handel’s Messiah at Manchester Cathedral on Sunday 10 December, and they’re offering a 20% discount on tickets for Mill readers. The performance is in partnership with the Greater Manchester Mayor’s Charity, and all profits will go towards A Bed Every Night. You have until Wednesday to book — tickets are £10 with this special link.
☁️ This week’s weather
Our forecast is from local weatherman Martin Miles, who says: “High pressure in late autumn/early winter rarely brings a festival of sunshine. Expect foggy nights followed by mostly cloudy days. Temperatures will slip away as well.”
Tuesday ☁️ Overnight fog will be slow to lift locally. Areas not affected by fog will see cloudy skies and winds will be light. Max 7°c.
Wednesday ☁️ Away from any morning mist/fog, skies will be cloudy. Drizzle will be possible under the thickest cloud. Max 7°c.
Thursday ☁️ Broken record territory — another murky day is likely on Thursday. It will feel too as an East North-Easterly breeze develops. Max 6°c.
Friday 🌦 Breezy and cold! The breeze should help to break the cloud up a little, but there will be a risk of a few light showers as well. Max 6°c.
Weekend ☁️ Mostly dry, cloudy and chilly.
You can find the latest forecast at Manchester Weather on Facebook — daily forecasts are published at 6.15am.
The big story: What’s going on with Metrolink?
Context: Metrolink’s services and maintenance are operated by a joint venture of two private firms. KeolisAmey Metrolink was awarded the contract by Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) in 2017, for an initial seven years, with extensions possible. Should it last the full 11 years, the contract would be worth up to £647.5m.
How are they doing? An insider tells us the network’s track maintenance operation is “poorly managed and poorly organised”, leaving some bits of the track “over maintained” and other bits not checked as often as they need to be.
Accountability: We’ve been told the array of subcontractors involved in the network means there is a lack of accountability, and that managers are “scared” of their heavily unionised workforce. “Track teams were scheduling in less work than they could do and also claiming overtime,” the source says. “There’s no good performance management.”
When we approached TfGM about these claims, Daniel Vaughan, the head of Metrolink, told us:
Strict maintenance requirements and performance targets are managed closely as part of this contract to ensure that the very highest standards are upheld. These are serious allegations, and we will be investigating them with the operator.
Background: KeolisAmey Metrolink beat three other bidders to the contract thanks to their commitment to “improving reliability, customer service and creating more customer-facing roles,” said then-mayor Tony Lloyd. The companies involved also operate London’s Docklands Light Rail, a service hailed for its 99% reliability rating.
Good performance: The latest Metrolink performance report, which covers December 2021 to July 2022, was positive. It found only 3% of planned services were cancelled, and 88% were on time. But in recent weeks, social media has been full of anecdotes about late and overly busy trams.
“Metrolink Chaos” is becoming a regular feature in MEN headlines, as faults and other issues cause disruption to commuters. Services from Bury have been limited because of line faults since the middle of the month, and are still being fixed. While waiting for a tram recently, Pat Karney, councillor for Harpurhey, was asked if he could “ring Andy Burnham” by commuters who had been waiting for over an hour due to a “failed tram”.
Bottom line: The questions over Metrolink’s track maintenance come at a difficult time for the service. Despite the ambition to expand into other boroughs, plans to get Metrolink into Wigan, Stockport and Bolton aren’t moving as fast as Andy Burnham had previously hoped. And, as we reported last month, TfGM may have to dip into cash reserves to keep the service running in the New Year if ongoing negotiations with the Treasury don’t pan out.
Know more about this story? Please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Home of the week
A lovely Victorian terrace in Withington with bay windows, French doors leading to a vast garden and colourful interiors. It has five bedrooms over four floors and is on the market for £650,000.
Your Mill briefing
The fate of Night & Day Cafe, the historic music venue and bar in the Northern Quarter, will be decided this week. The cafe faces a court hearing where it will try to overturn a noise abatement order imposed after someone in a neighbouring residential block complained to the council. If it loses, its owners say it will close. The case has sparked controversy amongst Manchester’s cultural leaders, who say the closure of Night & Day would be the “death of culture”. The council stands accused of allowing the building the complaint came from to be turned into flats without proper soundproofing.
Manchester's only city centre synagogue is closing to make way for a development led by Gary Neville. Manchester Reform Synagogue agreed to sell the building, which it has occupied for 70 years, for £15m. Robyn Ashworth-Steen, Principal Rabbi, said: “With our great leaders, and a proud history, the next couple of years, as we leave Jackson’s Row and find a new home, is a time full of potential.” Neville’s development will include two multi-storey towers and cost £200m.
The Guardian reports that TransPennine Express (TPE) uses an “outrageous” legal loophole to under-report cancellations. If services are cancelled by 10pm the night before they are meant to run, they are not counted as cancelled services. During the October half-term, TPE cancelled 30% of all trains and at least 20% in the weeks up to 20 November. But, the loophole will allow them to record cancellations of 5.8-11.8%. “It’s outrageous, there’s no other word for it,” says Andy Burnham.
Salford’s low traffic neighbourhood — which aimed to reduce pollution and encourage walking and cycling — has been cancelled. The campaign group Walk Ride Central Salford said on Twitter: “We have had no word from the council as to what evidence base they are using [to] deny a scheme that will reduce pollution for local residents.” They say 68% of residents supported the scheme.
The government has acknowledged that using “joint enterprise” laws may lead to the disproportionate jailing of black defendants. Readers may remember that 11 teenagers were imprisoned for a collective 168 years for a stabbing in Moss Side despite the fact that only one of them delivered the fatal blow.
Our favourite reads
Against the Manchester Model — Tribune Magazine
Longtime Mill reader Isaac Rose, a prominent left-wing activist and a member of Greater Manchester Housing Action, has written a sweeping essay taking aim at the way Manchester has developed in the past 20 years. Rose argues that the city’s regeneration has been “predicated upon the expulsion of the urban poor from the city centre, and the creation of parallel worlds made safe for middle class consumption.” He is deeply pessimistic about Manchester’s property-fuelled growth arguing: “the empowerment of an organised and powerful class of property developers, investors and their allied industries alters the balance of power in a city, making them difficult to stop or control.” What do you think of the piece? Let us know in the comments.
How Peter Kay changed British Comedy — The New Statesman
Peter Kay, the Bolton comedian who just announced his comeback after an 11 year hiatus, crashed the O2 Priority App as two million queued for tickets for his next tour. In this feature, the culture writer Fergal Kinney discusses how his unique brand of working-class comedy became a national phenomenon. “His only major ad campaign was for John Smith’s bitter, and it’s easy to forget that his celebrated ‘garlic bread’ routine was a reflection on Britain’s fast-paced culinary evolution and those left behind.”
Onward, Fluffy Soldiers — Outside Magazine
We enjoyed this excellent 1997 long read about the protests against Manchester Airport’s expansion, which controversially flattened fields and woodland in Bollin Valley to create a second runway. “Some 500 British citizens, from hippies and students to doctors and lawyers, have visited the scene to lend a hand to the hard-core protesters, digging tunnels and building elaborate tree-house platforms… in fact, lots of otherwise well-starched Englishmen have lately become rather fond of the colourful anti-roads guerrillas, with their casual hygiene and alternative hairstyles and daft idealism.”
Our to do list
🎨 Visit Bury Art Museum, a distinctive Edwardian building with a permanent collection of soothing watercolours, oil paintings and ceramics. More here.
🖌 Try this takeover by the arts students at Warrington College at Castlefield Gallery, who have transformed the display space into a lively exhibition exploring themes of connections and boundaries. Visit for free.
🎶 Over in the Northern Quarter, there’s sweet soul music and modern disco in the basement of Peer Hat all evening. Tickets are £8.
🗣 There are a few tickets left for The People’s Powerhouse, an annual convention which is held in Friends’ Meeting House and features talks from Andy Burnham and Bev Craig, who are gathering with political and charity leaders to discuss a fairer future for the North. Book here.
🎭 Split Britches, an avant-garde digital performance piece probing at the demise of ourselves and our planet during the pandemic, was described as “alternately playful, surreal, pointed and poignant” by the New York Times. Now, it’s coming to the stage in Manchester. Head to Contact Theatre for an evening performance.
📚 Reshma Ruia, the award-winning author of the book Still Lives, a story about the diaspora, affairs and power, is hosting an author talk at an Italian deli in West Didsbury. Tickets here.
Want to find something to do this weekend that isn’t traipsing around the Christmas Markets? Sounds like you need our eclectic and well-informed weekend to-do list. We send it out every Thursday to our members— hit the button below to join.
Correction: In the original version of this briefing, we wrote: “Despite the political ambition to expand Metrolink, mayor Andy Burnham has missed his 2019 pledge to get the service to Wigan, Stockport and Bolton by this year.” That was misleading. It would be more accurate to describe Burnham’s 2019 comments about the expansions as an ambition or a hope rather than a pledge. We’ve made a correction to reflect that.