HomeRail NewsOrdsall Chord - Vandalism or progress?

Ordsall Chord – Vandalism or progress?

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On 5 January, replica 1830 steam locomotive ‘Planet’ hauled one of the last trains between the world’s oldest surviving station to the Great Western Warehouse via a headshunt on Stephenson’s viaduct over the River Irwell in Manchester. These buildings are part of the city’s Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) and the station was the terminus for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, which opened in 1830. Although this was only a 700-metre trip, it was on one of the world’s oldest railways.

MOSI can now only offer a 300-metre trip and has also had its connection with the rail network severed as work starts on the Ordsall Chord to connect Manchester’s Victoria and Piccadilly stations. Its construction also involves full or part demolition of grade II listed bridges and, it is claimed, harms the setting of the museum’s historic buildings.

English Heritage (EH) regards the MOSI complex as “the Stonehenge of railway history” and had never come across a project “so exceptionally damaging to the historic environment as Ordsall Chord”. Network Rail believes that the chord is “necessary to achieve substantial public benefits” which, according to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), is the only justification for granting planning permission that results in ‘substantial harm’. So why is Network Rail building such a controversial project?

Manchester United

One part of Manchester’s railway heritage is its separate Victoria and Piccadilly stations. The construction of the Windsor link in 1991 provided Bolton and Wigan with through trains to Piccadilly. In doing so, it diminished the importance of Victoria station.

It also increased traffic on the line through Manchester Oxford Road, which is now at capacity. Another capacity issue is that trains between Manchester Airport and Leeds reverse at Manchester Piccadilly, consuming six minutes of station throat capacity as they do so.

The Manchester region is much in need of economic development for which rail capacity needs to be improved. To do this, two alternative strategies emerged, either increase traffic into Piccadilly or focus development on Victoria.

Having all inter-city services departing from Piccadilly station is an attractive option. Unfortunately, the station has a high platform occupancy rate. The conflict across its throat could be resolved by building an expensive flyover, however that would involve huge train service disruption during construction. This would also conflict with the planned HS2 route to Piccadilly. For these, and other reasons, it was decided to develop Manchester Victoria.

The Ordsall option

Developing Victoria requires a new rail connection between the two stations west of the city. Options considered for this included a long chord and a tunnel. These were both long routes with gradients being a significant constraint as the lines between the two stations are on viaducts. The tunnel was prohibitively expensive and the long chord would have required high and visually intrusive flyovers as it had to span a tram crossing over a railway viaduct at Deansgate. It would also have required extensive alterations to the road network.

A short chord option was also considered from Castlefield junction that would avoid the need to climb over the Deansgate crossing. This had an unacceptable gradient, was visually intrusive and also required substantial alterations to the local road network.
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As GRIP 3 options were developed in 2011, one that was not developed was moving the railway off the Middlewood viaduct to a chord further west. This was discounted as, at the time, it was a potential HS2 route into the city. This subsequently became option 15.

The GRIP 3 study concluded that the only viable option was a flat connection in the vicinity of MOSI. The project’s remit required heritage impact to be minimised and the retention of MOSI’s rail connection, if feasible. Unfortunately, after trying various track geometry options, it became clear that the only configuration compliant with Group Standards was a line half a metre above MOSI’s railway.

Various permanent and temporary crossing arrangements were investigated to maintain this rail connection. However, none proved feasible due to the chord’s height and its 40mm cant. The rail connection has only been used about three times in ten years and so its severance was not a great problem in respect of connectivity. However, from a heritage perspective, it changes the museum’s setting by removing the railway line on its approach.

Substantial harm

Liverpool Road closed to passengers in 1844 when Manchester Victoria opened. It then became a rail freight depot and its approaches were later widened. As a result, there is a dense concentration of listed bridges over the River Irwell and Water Street.

Of these, the only grade I listed structure is George Stephenson’s bridge over the River Irwell. This has two 63 feet spans and was built in 1830. The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) considers it to be one of its sixty most important English masonry bridges. Adjacent to Stephenson’s bridge are the grade II listed Girder Bridge, Zig Zag viaduct and Water Street Bridge.

Crossing the Irwell immediately south of Stephenson’s bridge is another grade II structure, the Castlefield Viaduct, built in 1845, which is to be widened where the Ordsall chord diverges off it.

Building the new chord above these listed bridges in a sensitive manner is a significant challenge. After considering various track geometry options, a design was finalised that did not harm Stephenson’s bridge.

This was option 14 which requires the demolition of the Girder bridge which butts onto it. This does bring a benefit of being able to fully appreciate Stephenson’s elegant segmental-arched bridge. Currently, it is difficult to see the bridge due to the other bridges in close proximity.

Also damaged is the Zig Zag viaduct, which needs to be partly demolished for the Ordsall Chord’s bridge over the Irwell. Its significance is also harmed by the loss of the Girder Bridge. The Ordsall Chord does not physically affect any grade I listed structures. Nevertheless, it will cause substantial harm, as defined by NPPF, to their settings. Whilst this is generally agreed, EH and Network Rail disagree on the extent of this harm.

EH claims the chord would block the view of Stephenson’s bridge from Liverpool Road station whereas Network Rail consider it exceptionally difficult for anyone to pick out this bridge from the station. A photograph from this viewpoint supports Network Rail’s view. Moreover, although Liverpool Road station has a MOSI interpretation panel about Water Street bridge, there is no mention of Stephenson’s bridge.

Option 15

Mark Whitby is a former President of the ICE. He was engaged by Parsons Brinckerhoff, which was developing the GRIP 3 options for Network Rail. He could not accept the need to do so much harm to these historic bridges and was convinced that the chord could be moved further west. Hence he developed his option 15. Such was his conviction that he left Parsons Brinckerhoff and, after the inquiry decided in favour of option 14, funded a legal challenge against it.

Network Rail’s detailed analysis of option 15 concluded that it was “a technically viable but compromised option, with major defects, increased maintenance costs and performance risks to the extent that Network Rail views this option as an unacceptable solution”. It includes a 210-metre radius curve which would be noisy and need jointed track as continuous welded rail requires a minimum 250 metre curve.

Option 15 also moves the railway off Middlewood viaduct and so would require a minimum 20-day blockade during construction. It would cost at least £30 million more than option 14, plus uncosted utility and road diversions. These would include East Ordsall Lane, which bridges the historic Manchester, Bolton and Bury canal at the point where it is crossed by the option 15 chord, requiring both the lane and the historic canal to be lowered at this point.

The option 15 chord would cross the Irwell 70 metres further west than the option 14 chord, and thus avoids the need to demolish the Girder bridge. However, Network Rail’s analysis also concluded that option 15 is likely to conflict with the South West parapet of Stephenson’s bridge. It would still cut MOSI’s rail connection and be visible from it, thus causing substantial harm by affecting the settings of its listed buildings.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, a major issue with option 15 was that it required two elevated railways to cut across the currently derelict Middlewood development site. This is a key part of Salford City Council’s (SSC’s) regeneration plan. SCC was convinced that the land would remain derelict if option 15 was chosen as the bisected site would no longer be of interest to developers.

Network Rail also believes that a decision to choose option 15 would delay the project for many years and possibly cancel it as all stakeholders concerned with Manchester’s development would oppose it.

The Inquiry

In April 2014, an inquiry was held to gain approval for the Network Rail (Ordsall Chord) Order made under the 1992 Transport & Works Act and seek associated Planning Permission and Listed Building Consent.

Despite conflicting views on the choice of option 14, there was a surprising degree of approval in other respects. No-one doubted the substantial benefits provided by the chord or questioned the rejection of the tunnel and both the long and short chord options. In general, the degree of harm it would cause was agreed. However, the battle lines were clearly drawn. It was, in effect, a straight fight between Network Rail’s option 14 and Whitby’s option 15.

Those opposing option 14 included English Heritage, Mark Whitby, the Castlefield Forum, the ICE, affected local residents and businesses. MOSI had withdrawn its previous objection. In compensation for the curtailment of its steam service, it had received a £3 million donation from Network Rail. Its director, Sally MacDonald, advised that this will be used to “bring to life previously untold stories from the early years of the railway station”.

Supporting option 14 were Network Rail, Manchester and Salford Councils, the two local MPs, the Rail Freight group, Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce and the Victorian Society who felt it “successfully marries the project’s substantial public benefit with the difficult task of preserving the extraordinary heritage of the sensitive site”. They also noted the heritage benefits of revealing and restoring Stephenson’s Bridge.

It took thirteen days for supporters and objectors to make their case to the Inspector whose report was published in January 2015. This concluded that the Ordsall Chord would cause substantial harm to heritage assets but commented on “an element of hyperbole which has crept into the objectors’ cases. This is not a world heritage site and comparisons with Stonehenge and the Pyramids are not helpful.”

As required by the NPPF, such substantial harm could only be justified if it was “necessary to achieve substantial public benefits”. The report concluded that option 15 was not reasonable as it would prevent the development of the Middlewood site that would provide jobs and homes in Salford and that the Ordsall Chord is the only viable option. The Inspector noted that the scale of the benefits it would release across the North of England is such that its harm is outweighed by the public benefits. Hence there is “a clear and convincing justification for the Order”.

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Following the Inspector’s recommendation, the Secretary of State for Transport granted the Ordsall Chord Order in March. Mark Whitby then made an application to the High Court to challenge its validity. In October his challenge was dismissed in the Royal Courts of Justice where the judge paid tribute to the Inspector’s ‘detailed and careful report’ and concluded that he had correctly applied planning policies and made no error of law. Whitby was refused permission to appeal.

After this seven-month delay to the project, the Northern Alliance, with contractors Skanska and BAM Nuttall, started work on the project in January. Despite this, Whitby has appealed against the High Court’s refusal of his right to appeal and on the 11 January was granted Leave to Appeal by the Court of Appeal. Thus the project faces further potential delays and costs.

The past or the future?

It is right to respect and celebrate Britain’s engineering heritage by providing a tangible historic record that shows how engineering benefits society and can inspire future engineers. Manchester’s MOSI is an impressive museum that does this well. Its promotion of engineering heritage will, no doubt, be further enhanced by the donation it has received from Network Rail.

Ordsall Chord shows the difficulties of resolving the sometimes-unavoidable conflict between projects and the preservation of historic assets. For new railways, this is more likely to be a problem as curvature and gradient constraints severely limit route options. Such conflicts are not a new problem for the affected bridges. In 1860, the Girder bridge substantially harmed Stephenson’s bridge by hiding it from view. In 1904, Stephenson’s original Water Street bridge, supported on Doric columns, was replaced for the construction of a tramway.

With such a controversial project, the actual heritage impact can be exaggerated. News reports refer to “damage to (MOSI’s) historic buildings” and “large portions of the site being destroyed”. Yet the buildings are all untouched. Concerns have been expressed about the effect on its setting. The reality is an unremarkable view from Liverpool Road station which is to be crossed by a railway, 50 metres away, 0.5 metres above ground level. The only real impact on MOSI is the particularly regrettable curtailment of its steam trains.

Perhaps something could be learnt from these exaggerated reports. For example, English Heritage was not involved during the option selection stage and so felt that no real attention had been given to heritage concerns. Their participation at this earlier stage would have shown EH how Network Rail considers heritage and given them a better understanding of the constraints it faces.

The Planning Inspectorate’s 160- page report provides an accurate and detailed description of the impact of the chord. It carefully considers all the issues and concludes that the Ordsall Chord is a regrettable necessity.

The new chord is an essential part of the Northern Hub package of rail enhancements which will allow an extra 700 trains to be run each day, providing space for 44 million passengers each year. It is expected to bring £4 billion of benefits to Manchester along with 20,000 to 30,000 new jobs.

The legal challenge to the Ordsall Chord has already delayed the project, and may yet add further delays. This is costing the people of Manchester dearly. It must be a source of frustration to Manchester and Salford City Councils, as well as Network Rail whose route delivery director, Nick Spall notes: “This is the location of the world’s first inter-city railway, opened in 1830 by George Stephenson. Stephenson was an innovator who brought progress. If he was alive today, we firmly believe he would build the Ordsall Chord. The old railway is giving birth to the new.”

David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEM
David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEMhttp://therailengineer.com

Rolling stock, depots, Scottish and Russian railways

David Shirres joined British Rail in 1968 as a scholarship student and graduated in Mechanical Engineering from Sussex University. He has also been awarded a Diploma in Engineering Management by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

His roles in British Rail included Maintenance Assistant at Slade Green, Depot Engineer at Haymarket, Scottish DM&EE Training Engineer and ScotRail Safety Systems Manager.

In 1975, he took a three-year break as a volunteer to manage an irrigation project in Bangladesh.

He retired from Network Rail in 2009 after a 37-year railway career. At that time, he was working on the Airdrie to Bathgate project in a role that included the management of utilities and consents. Prior to that, his roles in the privatised railway included various quality, safety and environmental management posts.

David was appointed Editor of Rail Engineer in January 2017 and, since 2010, has written many articles for the magazine on a wide variety of topics including events in Scotland, rail innovation and Russian Railways. In 2013, the latter gave him an award for being its international journalist of the year.

He is also an active member of the IMechE’s Railway Division, having been Chair and Secretary of its Scottish Centre.


  1. Bullshit. It is vandalism and it does concern a site of world heritage! There’s no affordable housing being built around it as planning rules are being by-passed and Chinese conglomerates are buying the land around it and building ugly cheaply built unaffordable housing e.g. on Middlewood Locks. Therefore it is not serving the local community at all. Speak to them and ask their opinion for a change. And well done Mark Whitby for all your deliberations and trying to make a difference. It meant a lot to those it directly affects.

    • English Heritage should stick to fouling up stuff it knows about like England as a heritage site visitor attraction. It knows nothing about making cities where real people live have usable transport facilities. What English Heritage is good at is The Stately Homes of England in midst of fields with cows and sheep. What it is bad at is real cities where the rest of us live.

    • What has the housing being built by Chinese (and as for “ugly”) got to do with whether this rail link will be built for not?!

      • It’s less the case of if it is built, but more about where it is built. All the experts say it should employ a greater arc, but the more it arcs, the more it takes up of the proposed Chinese building site. Ideally the chord should run right through the middle of the site, but to entice the Chinese in, they are trying to take up as little of the site as possible.

    • Hmmm. 700 extra trains a day for Manchester and several billion pounds worth of development per annum for the city (which would have been what the forward-thinking Victorian entrepreneurs who built the railways in Britain to serve the population, boost the economy and make a tidy profit would themselves have chosen in a heartbeat) or continuation of some occasional heritage steam railway trips from a museum which, despite the frantic shroud-waving from the reactionaries, we learn isn’t actually being touched itself?

      Tough call, I know.

      • Where did you hear that rubbish from? 700 extra trains a day??? No chance on earth. Are these 700 trains just going to zip back and forth on the new chord, as the rest of the infrastructure is almost at capacity, and the chord will not help with that at all.

        • it is said “….the Northern Hub package of rail enhancements which will allow an extra 700 trains to be run each day” .
          So the whole Hub , with speed improvements, signalling and this chord will deliver these 700 trains.

    • Your right it is world heritage, the worlds railways bloomed from Manchester. Those bridges are beautiful marvels of engineering, I’ve viewed them many times as a Railway enthusiast. However those bridges were built out of progress, they stand as testament to British resourcefulness and our ability to overcome challenges. Let me ask you, do we stop progressing now? Do we allow the very essence of those bridges to stagnate? Do we allow Manchester to fall behind when it should be a leader? Manchester is the birthplace of the railways, it’s the birthplace of the modern technological world. Every mechanised industry on this planet owes it’s beginnings to Manchester. Do we dishonour and ignore that heritage by giving it up now. Yes the Chinese may be involved but, it was Manchester who made our world a global community. While some of that “old heritage” may be lost “new heritage” is been created right before our eyes. The spirit of Manchester lives on and will live on for hundreds of years more. Perhaps in 200 years time there will be a Mark Whitby fitting in the courts to save the Ordsall Chord as its demolished to create more progress.

      In 1830 Manchester gave birth to the modern railway. In 2017 it will do so again and it will continue to do so for hundreds maybe thousands of years. Manchester continues to do what it’s always done, innovated and evolved. Manchester continues to honour it’s heritage and the spirit of Stephenson and his railways by continuing what Manchester and Stephenson did. Manchester is continuing to do what Mark Whitby and English Heritage celebrate.

      • Sorry, it bloomed from Liverpool, Manchester did not want the railway, and it did not pay towards the railway. There were protests at the opening day event and the Prime Minister refused to get off the train for refreshments. Manchester was a town of Luddites still smarting over the loss of weaving jobs to the big mills. Manchester became Cottonopolis because of the Railway, but they never had the foresight to support its construction.

        • Liverpool is a port city of historical importance Manchester is an industrial city of historical importance. Please visit MOSI in Manchester and the Maritime/Liverpool Museums. They’re great for a better understanding.

          • I already have a comprehensive understanding, hence how I know Manchester had nothing to do with the creation of this railway.

  2. Those who object to this kind of development fail entirely to understand the purpose of railway infrastructure, which is to carry people and freight as efficiently as possible. To do so requires new investment and modification. Did the objectors reject the idea of steel rail to replace cast-iron? Of new and better signals to replace time-interval running? Of 8-wheel closed carriages to replace 4 wheel trucks? Of quadrupling heavily used 2 track routes? Of enlarging existing bridges to accommodate OLE? The UK is full of examples of infrastructure development, as are other countries. If this particular Stephenson bridge is so uniquely important, raise some money and move it somewhere out of the way.

  3. “The rail connection has only been used about three times in ten years and so its severance was not a great problem in respect of connectivity.”

    I totally agree that a connexion used thrice a decade should not trump the great benefit to thousands of passengers, every day, from the Ordsall Chord.

    • You make a good point, but I think Network Rail have cooked the books as to how much use the chord will actually be. I for one would love to see the proposed timetable Network rail think is possible…

  4. A pity that there is a height difference, albeit not an immense one (0.5m – is this nominal mean or maximum?) as I note that this problem was solved for a railway museum in Sacramento delivering access between trains on the main line, as a temporary arrangement. It might make an interesting student (or Rail Engineer) wish list project to review this as a problem that could have a ‘special access’ solution that might even have applications elsewhere in delivering a railway that can be adapted to carry out work under the tracks (such as constructing, reconstructing or maintaining supporting structures or even pointwork) whilst trains continue running over the site, albeit at a reduced speed.

    Projects such as the reconstruction of Oxford Circus ticket hall have delivered this for work on roads, so what does prevent using the same solution for rail?

    Could it not be beyond the capabilities of engineering minds to deliver a system with 10-20 metre modules and a unit that runs on the line of existing rails in to Liverpool Road station and makes an end-on connection to a retained spur on the ‘live railway’ side?

    Here’s the jury rig solution installed and removed between trains http://bangshift.com/bangshiftxl/when-moving-a-locomotive-the-shortest-distance-between-two-points-is-the-easiest-route-but-what-if-there-is-no-track-just-make-one/ Perhaps Rail Engineer could get this reported in a future issue and I MechE Railway Division can put this in as a talk for a future winter programme?

    In a modified form perhaps the solution would be to have the bridging rails carried in a cradle between a pair of heavy lift units, and a roadway with level crossing panels to take it over the main line, with a protocol for the required line blockage measures.

    One to kick around during the tea break?

    • I think the issue would be that the Liverpool & Manchester line would go across the new chord at around 90 degrees, and so it could cause derailments or maybe just an annoying “clunk” as chord trains pass over it.

  5. The damage to the remaining infrastructure of the historic 1830 railway is very regrettable, although if necessary I suspect it would be technically possible in future to reconnect the rails into Liverpool Road station – at a price. What is frustrating is that the Ordsall Chord scheme is a typically British low-cost and inferior solution which has taken years to actually happen. By sending trains on a slow & circuitous trundle from Victoria to Piccadilly it creates a lot of new problems due to the creation of slow-speed flat junctions at both ends and by adding to the existing line capacity constraints between Oxford Road and Piccadilly.
    It is deeply ironic that the studies for Northern Powerhouse Rail are now starting to seriously look at tunnelling under the city centre to allow long distance trains coming from the airport to call at Piccadilly (low level station) then head east to Leeds. The Ordsall curve may soon find itself essentially bypassed and made surplus by one of these new tunnel options. A tunnel should have been the preferred option in the first place.

  6. I often visit MOSI and have many times walked under the tangle of the various bridges in the Irwell Basin. As a commuter though, I can only say that progress needs to rank higher than the bridges of lesser historical note (they are not Grade 1 listed!!). If this kind of attitude had evident during Manchester’s boom times, we’d still have a significant canal infrastructure in the city! Fine for tourists but not well adjusted to modern life. The whole road/canal layout changed significantly a number of times during Manchesters development (not the tinkering seen here). Maybe a trip to MOSI or other access to broader historical resources could make the protesters aware of the amount of changed that happened during the era the threaten structures were developed. (http://personalpages.manchester.ac.uk/staff/m.dodge/mappingmanchester//e-catalogue.pdf see page 28, a trip to MOSI would be better than the PDF, oh the irony of it all !!)

  7. Two problems since this opened:
    1. No more direct connections from Leeds/York to Liverpool South Parkway. Now you have to change at Oxford Road.
    2. Time from Leeds/York to Manchester Airport is actually longer than it was, as the train has to visit 3 other Manchester stations en route.

  8. Half a metre difference in height above MOSI’s line ? That’s not even 20″ – why couldn’t they ramp up and down the MOSI line either side and let them cross?


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