What future expansion and upgrade opportunities are there? How has MerseyRail integrated former rival lines to form a cohesive network?
Transport Act 1968
Five years after Beeching, it became apparent that the projected financial savings were not materialising. An alternative approach came in the form of the Transport Act 1968 introduced by Labour Transport minister Barbara Castle. One major provision of the Act was to allow for subsidising loss-making rail services if they were ‘socially necessary’ and allowed for local authorities in major conurbations to have a much greater say in the running of their local transport networks through the formation of Passenger Transport Authorities (PTAs) formed of groups of local councillors.
Passenger Transport Executives (PTEs) were designated by PTAs to operate services directly. Merseyside PTA and PTE, Merseytravel, were founded on 1 December 1969 with the PTA comprising representatives from 18 different Merseyside local councils and immediately got to work on the surviving Merseyside rail network.
The beginnings of MerseyRail
Liverpool City Council reasoned that an electrified mass transit system would benefit Merseyside in a number of ways. Not only would it make travel across all of the Merseyside area easier, but it would also make access to the Liverpool main line station chosen for retention, Lime Street, easier.
By separating suburban rail services onto their own network it would free up platform space at Lime Street, leaving the above ground station free to concentrate on medium to long distance services. These are the same arguments used for building HS2 and this separation of infrastructure is why MerseyRail services can operate to a 15 minute frequency on most lines creating an intensive service through Liverpool city centre.
To achieve this, several major infrastructure projects were contemplated. A ‘loop line’ in new tunnels under Liverpool city centre would be needed to extend the former Wirral Railway/Mersey Railway lines and this became the MerseyRail Wirral Line. Secondly, a new north-south tunnel to link the former Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway (LYR) lines into Exchange station with former Cheshire Lines Committee (CLC) lines from Liverpool Central High Level south of the city was necessary – this would be MerseyRail’s Northern Line.
It was also planned to reuse the original Liverpool and Manchester Railway 1830 Wapping Tunnel to allow services from the east of Liverpool to access the new underground tunnels and to link existing rail lines into an ‘outer loop’ around the outer suburbs via the city centre. These last two schemes fell victim to 1970s budget cuts requiring local services from the east to enter and occupy platforms at Lime Street high level, thus partially defeating the original point of the MerseyRail scheme.
The Wirral Line reused the former Mersey Railway link line to the Birkenhead and Chester Joint Railway at Rock Ferry, via that company’s underground station at Birkenhead Hamilton Square. To increase capacity, the former flat junction where the Mersey Railway’s lines to Rock Ferry and Birkenhead Park diverge was rebuilt with grade separation to eliminate conflicting moves.
The Northern Line was extended south from Central to Garston in 1978 and on to Hunts Cross in 1983. This latter extension had been intended to continue to Gateacre but never did; Hunts Cross being deemed satisfactory as it enabled interchange between the MerseyRail Northern Line and the City Line (as suburban services east out of Lime Street, even if they remained diesel-operated, had been rebranded following the abandonment of the Wapping Tunnel project) as well as longer distance services out of Lime Street.
Extension to Hooton, Chester and Ellesmere Port
The politics and logistics of Victorian railway construction in Liverpool had seen the electrified Mersey Railway terminate at an interchange station with the Great Western Railway / London North Western Railway (GWR/LNWR) Birkenhead Joint Railway (BJR) at Rock Ferry. Following closure of Birkenhead Woodside, British Rail (BR) cut the remaining Birkenhead–Chester service back to Rock Ferry resulting in two back-to-back terminal stations: one for electric services on MerseyRail and one for BR services onwards towards Chester.
This persisted until 1985 when MerseyRail took over the former BJR south to Hooton and electrified the route. At Hooton the main line carried on to Chester and a branch via Ellesmere Port to Helsby diverged. Hooton therefore assumed the role of Rock Ferry in being a joint terminus for electric MerseyRail services and BR diesel services onwards to Chester and Helsby; the two services used opposite sides of an island platform to minimise passenger inconvenience.
Finally in 1993 electrification was extended to the logical destination of Chester and the Helsby branch was electrified as far as Ellesmere Port. A 30-minute frequency MerseyRail service operates from Ellesmere Port to Liverpool but onwards to Helsby Northern Rail operates two trains per day in each direction. MerseyRail plans to extend services to Helsby using battery electric multiple unit trains according to Liverpool City Region Combined Authority’s Long Term Rail Strategy document of October 2017, making Helsby an outer terminus of the MerseyRail network.
Kirkby to Headbolt Lane and beyond
Even as early as the Grouping of 1923, the ex-LYR Manchester–Liverpool line lost much of its importance as well as its prestigious express services. The London Midland and Scottish (LMS) already had the ex-Liverpool and Manchester main line as well as a share in the ex-CLC line to Manchester – this latter was the fastest of all with end-to-end times of 45 minutes possible.
The LYR was something of a ‘forgotten victim’ of LMS internal politics throughout the 1920s as the former Midland and LNWR factions vied for control of the new company. The LYR route retained heavy commuter traffic into Liverpool Exchange but once MerseyRail came on the scene these diesel services could not continue into the new tunnels under the city centre which had only been designed with electric operation in mind.
As such the line was somewhat arbitrarily divided at Kirkby in 1977: west of Kirkby to Liverpool was electrified third rail and given over to MerseyRail whereas east to Wigan remained under full BR control. Both lines operated into the same platform at Kirkby which was effectively cut in two with buffer stops separating the two single lines meeting head on.
A new station at Headbolt Lane had been proposed as far back as 1972 but it took until 2013 for detailed plans to be developed. The new station is some 0.75 miles east of Kirkby to serve the Northwood area and it was deemed cheaper to create a fleet of battery electric multiple unit trains that can run for up to 20 miles before recharging than to extend the electrification to Headbolt Lane. The new station is built with two (presently terminating) MerseyRail platforms and one platform east of these for northern diesel-worked services to Wigan.
The ultimate destination goal for MerseyRail is Skelmersdale, which lost its railway passenger services in 1956 with the former line south to Rainford Junction on the Wigan–Kirkby line removed completely in 1968.
Ironically in 1961 Skelmersdale was chosen as a ‘new town’ to accommodate population overspill from Liverpool. A new road runs through the site of the former Skelmersdale station and although plans for a rebuilt rail link were considered as far back as the 1970s nothing came of these. Headbolt Lane is designed with passive provision for extension of MerseyRail towards Skelmersdale where a site for a new station has been identified.
In 2022 the Department for Transport (DfT) rejected the outline business plan for the Skelmersdale extension, despite the MerseyTravel PTA having contributed £765,000 and Lancashire County Council £4.3mn towards planning a new rail link to Skelmersdale. The DfT instead suggested better bus links to Rainford station would be a much cheaper way of developing transport links for Skelmersdale. The MerseyRail extension is once again in limbo as of late 2023.
New trains and a bright future for MerseyRail
MerseyRail had been operating since the early 1980s with BR-designed electric multiple unit trains built in the late 1970s. They were refurbished extensively in the early 2000s but are now considered life-expired with a key issue being meeting new mobility-impaired access rules.
It was announced in December 2016 that Stadler of Switzerland had won a contract to supply brand new rolling stock for the MerseyRail network. An initial order was for 52 trainsets with an option for 60 more. So far seven trainsets are configured for battery operation to allow them to work beyond the electrified lines but in theory all the new fleet can be converted.
More new stations are proposed, including a new city centre ‘Liverpool Baltic’ station on the Northern Line anticipated to open in 2027 with new battery electric multiple unit train technology making extensions beyond Ormskirk to Preston, Ellesmere Port to Helsby and Hunts Cross to Warrington all possibilities for the future.
None of this is reliant on funding ‘available due to cancellation of HS2’ (because there is no such pot of money, despite government spin) and MerseyRail isn’t an alternative to HS2. What it does do, and very effectively, is integrate the former disparate railways of the Merseyside area built more with Victorian competition than integration in mind, into a cohesive and effective mass transit scheme.