This post is part of a new series exploring how to get around in the UK, using public transport.
With it’s super-wide routes and highways, the US was built for the motor vehicle. Meanwhile, outside Canada’s main cities, you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage without a car and the freedom it can bring. But, the chances are when you first move to the UK you’re not going to have ready access to a car. So, what are the best alternative modes of transport for getting around the country, or even just travelling within towns and cities? This series aims to answer that question, and to give you a ‘dummies’ guide to how to use each form of British transit.
Let’s focus first on the Greater Manchester tram network, Metrolink. I won’t lie, there are so many great day trip opportunities in and near Greater Manchester, that a car opens up a whole world of travel. But, with four different zones, covering almost 60 miles, the Metrolink network serves a wide-ranging area and is still growing. So, you’ll be able to explore a lot, just by sticking to this light rail service.
To get an idea of what tram travel is like in the North West, and whether that’s something you’d feel comfortable with, let’s plan a journey together.
MediaCityUK to Piccadilly
So you took our advice and spent a lovely afternoon exploring MediaCityUK in Salford. Now it’s time to get back to your apartment in central Manchester. After checking Google Maps on your smartphone, you can see that the closest tram stop to your place is Piccadilly (train station).
There’s one direct tram service from MediaCityUK (blue line). Alternatively, there are other routes that you can take that will involve you changing tram. For example, you could travel to Cornbrook or Deansgate-Castlefield or maybe St Peter’s Square, and then take a second tram the rest of the way to Piccadilly. These latter journeys are more effort. But, sometimes, it’s preferable to change trams if the first one is overcrowded. Or, if the first tram will terminate early.
Once you know what route you will take to get to your destination, you can check the live departure time of your tram either on the platform display, or on the Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) website.
The website can also be used to check fare prices.
Overview: paying the tram fare
Your journey has to be paid for in advance. Travel without doing so, and you could be fined by a ticket inspector, in one of their random checks.
There are a number of different ways to pay, such as:
- Using a smart meter at a tram stop to ‘touch in’ or ‘touch out’
- At a ticket machine on a tram platform
- By using the official Get Me There mobile app
Currently, adult prices range from £4.50 for a zone 1-2 day travelcard, to £2.80 for a single journey in the same zones.
Use a credit or debit card to pay directly at one of the smart meters dotted around the tram stop. Just touch in at the start of your journey. And, then touch out at the end of your tram travel.
N.B. If you fail to touch out, you could be charged for a full day’s travel. Even if your journey was extremely short.
You can touch in and out using a season ticket if you have one. Many commuters – including myself – choose to pay for a month or year’s worth of travel in advance. It’s certainly easier to budget when you’ve already taken care of your travel costs in advance.
Platform ticket machines
There are times when you may wish to buy a paper ticket instead of using a smart meter. The meters may be broken, or you may want to claim back business travel expenses.
The ticket machines on the platforms take both cash and payment cards. If you are using touch pay, just hold up your card/device to the touch sensor shown in the video above. Such forms of payment include: Android Pay and Apple Pay. If you have a chip and pin card instead, you can insert it into the machine slot on the right.
Get Me There mobile app
Source: Get Me There Android app
If you purchase a ticket on the Get Me There app, you can decide to use it on another day. Each time you buy a new ticket you have to deliberately activate the ticket in the app. Until then, it’s like an unopened product just sitting on a shelf waiting to be used.
Don’t wait until you are on the tram before buying a ticket, though. When ticket inspectors board, Metrolink staff usually get on in a large group, with a different inspector entering by a different set of doors. Unless the tram is rammed full of people, it’s unlikely that you’ll have enough time to buy a ticket before they reach you! So, make sure you buy your ticket before boarding the tram.
Ticket inspections: getting caught out
What happens when you don’t have a valid ticket on you and the ticket inspectors board the tram? Unfortunately, I can tell you from experience, because this has happened to me! Although I have a valid annual season ticket, I had accidentally forgotten it at home. The ticket inspectors boarded and began asking to see everyone’s tickets. The inspector waited for a minute whilst I searched my bag in vain. Once I realised I didn’t have it on me, the inspector asked me to get off the tram at the next stop. His colleagues also got off with us and waited patiently whilst he spoke with me. My name and contact details were written down.
People travelling without a valid ticket can be asked to pay up to £100! But, when I explained that I had forgotten my season ticket, the inspector did something unexpected. He gave me an email address and told me to write to Metrolink and explain what had happened. Apparently, they don’t penalise season ticket holders the first few times they forget their ticket. I think you get two or three chances each year before you are fined.
If you are caught travelling without a valid tram ticket, my advice is to be polite and to answer all of their questions. And, if you really did forget to buy a ticket in advance, see if you can quickly buy one on the mobile app whilst you are waiting for the tram to stop! I know at least one person who was let off a fine after doing that.
The tram journey to Piccadilly
You’ve now bought a ticket, planned the route you will take to Piccadilly and you can see your tram in the distance. It’s just seconds away. How do you make the tram stop? Well, unlike buses, you don’t need to flag down a tram. Like trains, trams come to a rest at each stop along their route. All you have to do is push the button to open the doors and step aboard.
Make sure you get on the right tram by looking at the destination on the front and sides of the tram. You should also listen for the announcement telling you the tram’s final destination, and what the next stop is going to be. Does that tally with what you’re expecting, given the Metrolink map you viewed earlier?
There are few rules once you are onboard: no smoking; feel free to sit, or to stand as you wish; make use of the free Wifi, if you like.
Before the Coronavirus, taking a tram from MediaCityUK during rush hour was a bit like taking one of those Tokyo commuter trains in Japan – just without the (Oshiya) passenger pushers:
At the moment, Covid-19 is still a concern, so passengers are expected to wear face masks and to social distance. Try to avoid peak commuting hours, if you can. With workers travelling to and from offices, it will be very difficult to social distance before 9.30am and after 4pm on weekdays.
What to do if you get on the wrong tram
It will happen to you eventually. You’ll be looking down at your phone, or just daydreaming and minutes will go by before you realise that something just doesn’t feel right. You’ll look up to see a completely unfamiliar landscape rushing by. And, that’s when you know you’ve gotten on the wrong tram! You might be miles away from your intended destination. So, what do you do?
Don’t panic. Get off the tram at the next stop and look for a sign telling you where you are. The name of the stop should be written on signs on each platform. Chances are you will need to travel back the way you just came, and when there are just two platforms, that means you’ll need to cross over to the opposite one. Check the map for the best route to get where you need to be. Then check the platform display to see how long it will be until the next few trams arrive. The destination for each tram is usually the final stop on that particular line. So, check the map again, and be sure that the tram you are about to get on will pass through your intended stop.
What to do if you miss your stop
It’s pretty much the same routine as the answer above. Get off at the next stop. Cross to the opposite platform and catch the next tram headed back toward your destination. If there are more than two platforms, just be careful to catch a tram that passes through your destination. You can always ask another passenger for confirmation if you’re not sure. Greater Manchester residents are generally quite helpful.
What To do if you need help
If there’s no one around to ask, then look out for a Passenger help point. They are often located next to a ticket machine on the platform.
There are usually two buttons and a grill to talk into. One button should be pressed when you want to ask a general question about tram travel, or a tram stop etc. I’ve used this button three times, since moving to Greater Manchester. It was only answered once. So… don’t rely on the passenger help point actually being, well, helpful.
There’s also an Emergency Only button. For obvious reasons, I have never pressed that one. So, I don’t know if it goes through to the same team, or perhaps, the British Transport Police(?). Post in the comments below if you do know the answer!
If you need help while you are travelling ON a tram, you’ll find emergency buttons throughout each carriage. Pushing one will allow you to speak directly to the driver. I have seen someone accidentally press this button. Unfortunately, I have also accidentally activated one of these buttons myself, when I bumped into a low-positioned one located in a wheelchair area. Trust me when I say that the driver will respond promptly. Be sure to apologise if, like me, you activate an emergency button by mistake.
Metrolink is a relatively clean, fast and new form of rapid transit in the region, with a noticeably modern fleet of vehicles that come with Wifi – if you can get it to work. Although there are certainly trams elsewhere in the UK, the Greater Manchester light rail network is now the largest in the country. If you can avoid rush hour, then the tram makes for a pleasant form of travel for work and leisure.
When you get a job in Greater Manchester you may be eligible for a discounted corporate tram ticket. I have one of these. Pay for the year and get 10% off the ticket price that everyone else pays. Many companies also offer a zero percent season ticket loan. That means your new company is effectively fronting you the money for the season ticket, so you can buy it now. Your employer will then take out regular installments from your pay packet each month until you have repaid the loan. It’s a very useful employee benefit, as an annual ticket can easily cost more than £1,000 for all four travel zones.
The tram is one of my favourite modes of transport in Greater Manchester, to the point that when considering a house move, I will now always look to see how close it is to the nearest Metrolink stop. Convenience is priceless.