Metrolink is an easily accessible system, all stops have either a ramp, lift or escalator access. All stops have Ticket Vending machines, CCTV, Emergency Call Points, and Customer Information Points, and 'get me there' smart readers. Most platforms have tactile edges for visually impaired passengers. All platforms have designated wheelchair/pushchair access point for step free access. Each tram has designated disabled/pushchair areas with its own emergency / information call points.
The network consists of seven lines which radiate from Manchester city centre to termini at Altrincham, Ashton-under-Lyne, Bury, East Didsbury, Eccles, Manchester Airport and Rochdale. Metrolink has 93 stops along 57 miles (92 kilometres) of standard-gauge track making it the largest light rail system in the United Kingdom. It consists of a mixture of on-street track shared with other traffic; reserved track sections, segregated from other traffic, and converted former railway lines. It is operated by a fleet of Bombardier Flexity Swift M5000s. In 2015–16, 34.3 million passenger journeys were made on the system.
Manchester's first tram age had begun in 1877 with the first horse trams of Manchester Suburban Tramways Company and ceased as early as in 1949, when the last line of the municipal Manchester Corporation Tramways was displaced by motor buses. That company had managed most of the electrification of the trams, executed 1901 to 1903. Since 1938, some trams had been displaced by trolleybuses. Electric traction on tyres in the streets of Manchester ended in 1966.
A light rail system for Greater Manchester was born of the failure to obtain central government funding for the Picc-Vic scheme linking the existing railway systems north and south of the city centre via a tunnel. Greater Manchester's railway network suffered from poor north – south connections, exacerbated by the location of Manchester's main railway stations, Piccadilly and Victoria, which were unconnected and located at opposing edges of its city centre. Piccadilly and Victoria were built in the 1840s by rival companies on cheaper land on the fringes of the city centre, resulting in poor integration and access to the central business zone. Connections between the two relied on buses through the city centre by means of the Centrelink bus service. As early as 1839, in anticipation of the stations being built, a connecting underground railway tunnel was proposed but abandoned on economic grounds, as was an overground suspended-monorail in 1966. SELNEC Passenger Transport Executive — the body tasked with improving public transport for Manchester and its surrounding municipalities in the 1960s – made draft proposals for a Picc-Vic tunnel, "a proposed rail route beneath the city centre" forming "the centrepiece of a new electrified railway network for the region". Despite investigatory tunnelling under the Manchester Arndale shopping centre, when the Greater Manchester County Council presented the project to the United Kingdom Government in 1974, it was unable to secure the necessary funding, and was abandoned on economic grounds when the County Council dropped the plans in 1977.
In 1982, the Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive (GMPTE; the successor to SELNEC PTE) concluded that a street-level light rail system to replace or complement the region's under-used heavy railways was the cheapest solution to improving Greater Manchester's rail transport network. A Rail Study Group, composed of officials from British Rail, Greater Manchester County Council and GMPTE formally endorsed the scheme in 1984. Abstract proposals based on light rail systems in North America and continental Europe, and a draft 62 mile (100 km) network consisting of three lines were presented by the Rail Study Group to the UK Government for taxpayer funding. Following route revisions in 1984 and 1987, and a trial on 9 February 1987 using Docklands Light Railway rolling stock on a freight-only line adjacent to Debdale Park, funding was granted by HM Treasury with the strict condition that the system be constructed in phases. Phase 1 involved the conversion of the Bury Line (Bury-to-Victoria) and Manchester, South Junction and Altrincham Railway (Altrincham-to-Piccadilly) heavy rail lines, to light rail, to be linked together by the creation of a street-level tramway through Manchester city centre, including a branch to Piccadilly, to unite the lines as a single 19.2 mile (30.9 km) network, These lines were chosen for Phase 1 because the two heavy rail lines were primarily used for commuting to central Manchester, and would improve north – south links and access to the city centre.
The Second City Crossing (also known as 2CC) is the second Metrolink route across Manchester city centre, which opened in 2017. Its 0.8-mile (1.3 km) route begins at St Peter's Square tram stop, and branches off north-west to run along Princess Street and Albert Square, before turning north-east along Cross Street and Corporation Street to rejoin the original Metrolink line just before Victoria station. There is only one stop on the new route, Exchange Square tram stop. The Second City Crossing was first proposed in 2011 as a means to improve capacity, flexibility and reliability as the rest of the system expanded due to phases 3a and 3b. Funded by the Greater Manchester Transport Fund, construction started in early 2014 on the new Exchange Square tram stop, and the first tracks of the line were laid in late November 2014. Part of the new route became operational on 6 December 2015, when Exchange Square, along with a 500-metre stretch of track between the new stop and Victoria was opened, meaning a Shaw and Crompton-to-Exchange Square service could begin. The first test tram to run the entire route ran on 1 December 2016, with the first passenger service operating on 26 February 2017.