NEXT MONTH is due to see a call for expressions of interest in building three light rail lines in Manchester, following the agreement of a £650m funding package which will allow work to start on part of the long-planned ’Big Bang’ Metrolink expansion scheme, now priced at £1·2bn.

The Association of Greater Manchester Authorities and Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Authority received approval from the Department for Transport on July 6 to start work on Phase 3a, which is expected to cost £540m in addition to the £202m already spent on land acquisition for the full scheme. The £520m made available by DfT will be supplemented by loans which will be repaid from fares revenue over 30 years.

Phase 3a will see conversion of the 22 km railway via Oldham to Rochdale station and construction of two new lines as far as Droylsden on the planned Piccadilly - Ashton-under-Lyne route and to Chorlton on the route to East Didsbury and Manchester Airport. A second depot will be built near the Chorlton line junction at Trafford Bar. Construction is expected to start in June 2008 for opening in 2011-12. GMPTA plans to order 30 LRVs to work these lines, in addition to eight cars already authorised to relieve overcrowding on the three existing routes.

An application will be made next year to the government’s new Transport Innovation Fund for the £450m Phase 3b, which would divert the Rochdale line through the centre of Oldham and extend it into Rochdale town centre as well as completing the Ashton, Didsbury and Airport routes. It is hoped that a successful bid would allow both phases to be built simultaneously. Phases 3a and 3b would take Metrolink to 95 km in length, handling 45 million passenger-journeys a year and removing an estimated 10 million car journeys a year from the city’s streets.

H In the same 10-year package of transport investment for northwest England, DfT also approved a £10·7m contribution towards a £11·8m programme of emergency track repairs on the tram route between Blackpool and Fleetwood. Blackpool is seeking further funding for modernisation of the line and new rolling stock to replace some of its 70-year old cars. n