Explained: Manchester United’s train problem – and how they want to fix it

As Manchester United and Trafford Council work together on plans to regenerate the Old Trafford area, with a rebuilt or revamped football stadium at its heart, a key issue needs resolving: transport.

If United want to increase the capacity to 90,000 and beyond, something Sir Jim Ratcliffe, their co-owner, said he wants to do, they need to significantly improve transport links to and from the stadium.

In its current state, the roads around Old Trafford are clogged on matchdays, car parking is too limited, and the tram capacity is already stretched, all of which causes disruption on a large scale to residents.

One issue now being discussed is the rail freight terminal a stone’s throw from Old Trafford, just behind the Stretford End, which links to the train line connecting Liverpool to Manchester.

In an ideal world, and as part of the wider Trafford Wharfside proposals, United want to turn this into a train station that can help take thousands of supporters to and from Old Trafford on a matchday.

The club already has a train stop behind the South Stand, known as the Old Trafford Halt, but it has not been in use since December 2017 after United requested it be closed down due to security concerns.

What’s happening with the freight terminal at the moment?

The site to the west of Old Trafford is owned by several entities, shown in the graphic below: Manchester United, Freightliner, DB Cargo International and H Company 2. Alderney Urban Investments, which is owned by United, also has leaseholder interest in the section owned by H Company 2.

On the site are containers, a freight loading area and the rail tracks. According to the terminal’s website, it is a “crucial rail and distribution hub in the North West” and “handles approximately 20 daily Freightliner services to and from the UK’s deep sea ports”.

In 2010, it was reported that United spent around £11million to buy the leasehold on the part of the site for which H Company 2 has the freehold. According to the club’s filings, their lease runs until 2071.

“Properties have been acquired at different times for strategic reasons looking into the future,” George Johnstone, United’s then group property manager, said at the time.

“We have no specific plans for these sites at the moment, but our owners feel it is prudent to prepare for the future when they might be needed for sports-related development.”

Why do Manchester United want to turn it into a train station?

A rebuilt or revamped stadium with an increased capacity would require a new way to get people in via routes other than roads. One of those routes could be via trains from Manchester Piccadilly Station in the city centre.

Trams currently serve the Trafford Bar and Wharfside stops, but they are at capacity on matchdays and the number of fans who can fit on a tram is far fewer than a train.

If the freight terminal was moved elsewhere, the site and line could be redeveloped as a train station for the stadium and broader redevelopment.

What has Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, said?

Burnham, who sits on the task force exploring the options for regenerating the Trafford area, with the building of a new stadium at the heart of those plans, has supported moving the freight terminal.

On May 16, Burnham appeared on BBC Radio Manchester and said moving its location elsewhere would benefit not only the football club but also the Greater Manchester population.

“There’s a freight terminal right behind Old Trafford, which means freight trains (need to) come through Piccadilly and Oxford Road,” Burnham said.

“Here is the opportunity to take it away from Old Trafford and put it into Port Salford or Parkside, a scheme in development in Wigan, and then Manchester United have an easier space to use with regards to the redevelopment.

“This is not about public money being used improperly. It’s a win-win opportunity.”

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Andy Burnham and Keir Starmer, middle row, at Old Trafford on May 12 (Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Who would pay for it?

United are actively exploring whether public money, via taxpayers, can be used towards the rebuilding or redevelopment of Old Trafford. The Athletic has already detailed why public funding being used towards a new stadium is unlikely to get off the ground.

But if it was used to benefit the wider community, as part of the regeneration project that would see new leisure facilities, business hubs and new houses built, then it could be used to pay for the freight terminal to be turned into a train station.

Ahead of United’s match against Arsenal on May 12, Burnham met with Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party, and the pair discussed the club’s plans.

“He was in a good mood,” Burnham said. “This could have benefits for both of those schemes and the Port of Liverpool. Then if you were to regenerate the Old Trafford area and link it to the plans Trafford Council have, it could be a scheme that benefits everybody in the north west.”

Burnham also revealed that Starmer appeared to rule out public money being used towards the stadium if his party were to win the General Election on July 4.

“It would have to be a public-private partnership,” Burnham added. “But it would have to be the club to fund the stadium and associated Manchester United facilities.”

How would United resolve the outstanding security issue?

The Old Trafford Halt station was closed by United because it stopped right at the stadium, which posed a risk when security measures were tightened at sports grounds. It was impossible to check people before they arrived at the stadium, nor was it feasible to check people as they boarded the train.

But if the freight terminal site was to be turned into a new railway station, it is such a large space that there would be room to check people between them disembarking from the trains and entering the stadium.

What happens if a solution can’t be found?

While it wouldn’t stop Old Trafford from being rebuilt or redeveloped, a failure to find a solution would certainly limit what the club could increase its capacity to.

Transport is viewed by those inside the club as key to the success of the wider project. If the freight terminal remains in its existing state, then United would need to think differently about transport and how they manage people coming to Old Trafford.

Bayern Munich, for example, have a car park underneath the Allianz Arena, so there are ways to work around the issue, but the roads in and out of the stadium when United play at home are already full of cars, so increasing the number of them would only add to the traffic problems.



A vision for what a revamped Old Trafford could look like

(Top photo: Michael Regan via Getty Images)

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