Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Halton curve

On the 14th of July (2017) work began to upgrade a short 2.4km section of railway which connects the Chester - Manchester railway line with the Weaver Junction to Liverpool branch of the WCML. The section of track which is formally known as Frodsham Branch last saw regular passenger services in the early 1970's, since then the only service that has operated has been a single Parliamentary service between Chester and Runcorn each Saturday during summer.

Looking south-west, an Arriva Trains Wales class 175 on route to Chester passing the Frodsham signal box located at the junction for Halton Curve.

In 1994 the double track branch was reduced to a single track, at the same time diamond crossings were removed from both Frodsham and Halton  junctions, this has meant that ever since only northbound trains have been able to operate over the line.

All this will change in 2018 however when regular passenger trains will once again begin to operate over the line, thanks to £18m worth of investment from the Government Growth Deal and the Liverpool City Region.

Looking north towards Halton Junction signal box and the junction with the WCML 

The project will involve installing a new crossover and 60km/h turnout on WCML and new crossover on the Chester - Manchester line. Signalling will also be upgraded to allow bi-directional operation on Halton curve which will remain single track.

Details of the signal upgrades are as follows. (source NCRUG)
  • New relay based interlocking and re-signalling of existing Frodsham control area with LED colour light signals and train detection provided by track circuits; 
  • Revised signalling arrangements at Frodsham/Halton/MROC to accommodate the bidirectional signalling using TCB
  • Retain the existing method of Absolute Block Working from Frodsham to Helsby Junction and Norton Signal Boxes
  • Replace the existing mechanical lever frame at Frodsham and replace with an Independent Function Switch (IFS) panel; and • Install OLE overrun protection from Halton Junction.
There has been some criticism from the public regarding the cost for a project, that ostensibly seems relatively straight forward. However the list above demonstrates the the complex improvements that will have to be carried out in order to bring the line back into regular use. replacing again semaphore signalling with new modern signalling brings with it its own set of challenges. 

Despite concerns about cost I think the project to re-open the line has been unquestionably welcomed by most. Halton Curve will allow passengers from Chester, Cheshire and North Wales to more easily access Liverpool and Liverpool Airport via Liverpool South Parkway and could help to reduce traffic levels the often congested section of the M56 between Chester and Runcorn

London Midland Class 350 bound for Liverpool just before passing Halton Junction

Barring any problems the first service will begin operating between Chester and Liverpool at the start of the new December 2018 timetable. The hourly service will call at Helsby, Frodsham, Runcorn, Liverpool South Parkway and Liverpool Lime St. It is hoped that if the hourly service proves to be a success then services from the North Wales and or Wrexham will begin to operate over the line. 

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Thursday, 20 July 2017

Electrification - what went wrong?

I don't normally like to write negative or political headlines, however reading the news about the announcement that electrification schemes are to be scrapped on Thursday (20th July) caused me to reflect on promises made by Government back in 2012

The CP5 HLOS (Control Period 5, High Level Output Specification) published in 2012 was full of promises and seemed a real boon for the rail industry. Electrification of the GWML between London to Cardiff, Oxford and Newbury was finally given the go ahead after being delayed in 2010.

Midland Mainline, North West, Transpennine and other electrification schemes were also announced, all due to begin in or be completed during CP5 which covered the period from 2015 to 2019. A map produced by the Department for Transport which set out ambitious plans can still be found here.

Now it seems that a number of these electrification projects will not go ahead, on Thursday (20th July) the Department for Transport announced that electrification of the GWML between Cardiff and Swansea will no longer go ahead, nor will the electrification of the Midland Main Line. Planned electrification of the section of railway in the Lake District between Oxenholme and Windermere has also been cancelled. 

GWML electrification

Cost overruns and delays to the GWML electrification programme could be one reason why the government has lost its appetite for further electrification. The upgrade of the GWML was first costed at around £600m to £800m, however the budget now stands at £2.8bn. 

Great Western Railway will begin to phase out HSTs later in 2017 as they begin to deploy new bi-mode IEP sets. 

Problems such as Network Rail's approach to planning in which permissions were sought for changes to each individual structure rather than for large sections [1], the much lauded high output electrification train did not initially deliver the intended level of output and difficulty designing and installing OHLE on listed structures all contributed to cost overruns and delays.

In hindsight it seems that government plans to electrify so much of the network in a relatively short period of time were overly ambitious. After years of under investment and not having electrified a main line since the ECML was completed in 1991 the UK rail industry simply did not have the skilled workforce, expertise required nor the right equipment to undertake such a large programme of electrification.

There were problems too with the North West electrification programme, although 2 key sections between Liverpool and Manchester were completed in 2015, phases 3 to 7 were delayed after Network Rail and main Contractor Balfour Beatty agreed that the company would not continue with the project.

What went right?

It's not all doom and gloom, it would be unfair to say that Network Rail has failed or that improvements have not been delivered. Key projects across the network have been completed in the 5 years since the CP5 HLOS was announced.

Electric trains began operating between Liverpool and Manchester in March 2015 providing improved journeys for passengers and more capacity. In 2013 new electric trains were operating between Manchester and Scotland which was one of the most crowded routes outside of London. It is also anticipated that the final phases of the North West electrification programme will be completed in early 2018, with the exception of Oxenholme and Windermere.

The very first public passenger service using electric trains between Liverpool and Manchester

A £750m project to improve Birmingham New St Station was also completed in 2015, with a new 3,300 square metre atrium which is now filled with light thanks to an impressive plastic and steel roof. 

The ETFE roof that now covers the "Grand Central" atrium at Birmingham New St

The Edinburgh Glasgow Improvement Programme (EGIP) which aims to upgrade key junctions and infrastructure as well as electrification has been underway since 2013, with electrification between Glasgow and Edinburgh expected to be complete by Autumn 2017.

Crossrail may steal the show in London (in terms of rail infrastructure) but the ThamesLink Programme which hasn't been without its controversy has been steadily transforming a crucial part of London's rail network since 2009. 12 car trains began operating between Bedford and Brighton in 2011 and brand new class 700 trains began arriving in 2016.

New look platforms at London Birdge which had already been completed by 2015

The last element to be completed which is also one of the largest and most complex elements of the project has been the transformation of London Bridge, work began back in 2013 and due to be completed by 2018.

There are numerous other projects planned, underway or complete which are listed on Network Rail's website

The future is bi-mode?

Part of "what went wrong" isn't anything to do with budget or planning, but rather Government oversight. In the past 5 years rolling stock technology has advanced significantly. The bi-mode class 800 IEP trains once thought to be a stopgap have turned out better than many expected, even with diesel engines fitted, passengers will enjoy benefits of modern trains, quicker journeys and extra capacity.

Hull Trains, Transpennine Express and Abellio East Anglia have all ordered various bi-mode diesel-electric trains, which will be able to take advantage of the parts of the network that are electrified, whilst also being able to operate on non-electrified lines.

Alternative forms Motive power have also advanced significantly, Alstom has already begun testing a hydrogen fuel cell powered train in Germany and a battery powered train has already been tested on the UK rail network.

The fuel cell powered Coradia iLint built by Alstom has already been tested up to a speed of 80km/h, with hopes to operate the first test passenger services in 2018.

In 2015 Network Rail trialled a battery-powered passenger train between Harwich International and Manningtree, a Class 379 Electrostar was fitted with lithium iron magnesium phosphate batteries which provided enough power to propel the train for about 96km

In the West Midlands battery technology will be retrofitted to 21 of Midland Metro Urbos 3 trams in order to remove the need for the installation of OHLE "in architecturally sensitive areas". The extension of the Midland Metro from New Street station to Centenary Square, which is due to open in 2019 will run through Victoria Square without the installation of overhead line equipment.

Birmingham New St, currently the last stop until the new extension is completed in 2019

So, what can we conclude from all this? Despite my initial feeling of pessimism on Thursday morning, after reflecting on the news and reading Nigel Harris' comment about bi-mode technology in Rail issue 831, I feel that whilst it is not a good news story, it is not particularly bad news for the industry or passengers either.

The story will make news headlines for a few days, there will be plenty of analysis for weeks if not months and it will also fuel more anti HS2 feeling. But I think that when all is said and done commuters will go on as normal, not paying much attention to the improvements going on around them, just glad to get a seat, decent wifi, charging point and for the train to be on time.

Isn't it really only people (myself included) who are interested in the railway who care what actually powers the trains? 

My only one concern and it's a big one, is the environment. Diesel fuelled bi-modes will undoubtedly have their place on the network for decades, but I hope and I would urge the government to seek to quickly move to other (greener) forms of power such as battery and or fuel cell technology sooner rather than later. 

I also believe electrification should continue as and when budget and resources allow, but it is unrealistic to think that the remaining 60% UK's network that is not yet electrified can be done so quickly. 

Further analysis of Trans-Pennine electrification and a suggested "Crossrail North" can be found here

I would also encourage readers to take a look at an excellent article on the subject by Joe Dunckley which can be found here 

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Wednesday, 19 July 2017

A494 to A55 improvement proposals (part 2)

A494 - A55 Red option

In the first part I described some of the background into the previous attempt to upgrade the A494/A55 corridor, in this second part I will explain in more detail the "Red option" which is currently preferred by the Welsh Government.

The Red option involves construction of roughly 3.5km of new dual carriageway between the A548 and the A55. The proposal also involves grade separating a number of roundabouts along the A548 which provide access to the Deeside Industrial Park.

A494 looking south toward the A550 interchange and Deeside Industrial Park

Although the Red option primarily involves the construction of a new road, there will be some major works involving interfaces with existing roads. A new junction will have to be constructed on top of the junction where the A550 meets the A494, a junction that itself was only completed in 2009. 

Proposed A550/A494/A548 interchange (Click to enlarge)
Image for demonstrative purposes only, not to scale. Alignment is subject to change. 

It appears as if the new junction will be construction so that the A494-A548 route will be the main route to the A55. I assume that signage and lanes will have to be marked in such a way to direct people travelling from England wishing to access the A55 for Wrexham/Chester/Mold via the A494 and those wishing to access the A55 for the North Wales Coast/Anglesey/Holyhead via the new A548 link.

The A548 at the point where it passes the Deeside Industrial Park will be mostly re aligned with the existing carriageway alignment used for exit/entry slips between the new carriageway and roundabouts.

The dumbbell junction on the A584 for Connah's Quay will also have to be relocated as the carriageway will be re aligned to head North West towards the A55. The section of dual A584 currently ends 500 metres after the junction for Connah's Quay. After that the A548 becomes a single carriageway. The current A548 route does eventually meet the A55 but not until it reaches Pensarn some 38km away.

It will be interesting to note if or how the new A584 - A55 link is numbered if it is constructed.

The Welsh government have identified journey time benefits as one of the main benefits of the Red option over that of the Blue option. However there are other potential benefits, such as supporting the case for a new railway station that is proposed within the Deeside Industrial Park on the Wrexham Bidston railway line.

Proposed Deeside Parkway station, image courtesy of the Wrexham-Bidston Rail Users' Association

It is envisaged that the new station as well as providing access to the industrial park for workers, could also provide park and ride facilities for those travelling from Wales wishing to travel to Liverpool. Rather than driving to Liverpool of Hooton station (on the Merseyrail Wirral line), people could park at and travel from Deeside Parkway.

The other obvious benefit over the Blue option is the fact that a lot of the construction will be off the main carriageway. The Blue option involves working on the live carriageway at a point where congestion is already at its worst.

The Red option also provides a diversionary route if problems arise, concurrently the existing A494 would provide access to North Wales if there were problems on the A548. Currently in reality there is only one main route into North Wales and that is the A494-A55 corridor.

Another element to take into consideration is the replacement of the  A494 Dee bridge "which is in a poor structural condition"[1], there are already separate plans being put into place to replace the existing steel and concrete bridge. Replacing the bridge during or after potentially upgrading the A494 would bring with it further disruption. The Red option would at least provide a diversionary route whilst a new bridge is being built.

A decision is expected this year on whether to go ahead and if so which route to progress, so we won't have long to wait. In the meantime you can see how each of the options would look thanks to videos produced by the Welsh Government.

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Monday, 17 July 2017

A494 to A55 improvement proposals (part 1)

[Update 26/09/17]

"Economy Secretary Ken Skates has today announced the red route as the preferred option for the £250m Deeside corridor scheme." View the full statement at www.gov.wales


After a decade of delay the Welsh Government looks set to finally make a decision on how best to improve a vital link between England and Wales. The A494 - A55 link is one of the busiest border crossings between England and Wales, with the 2 lane A494 at the point where it crosses the River Dee alone carrying almost as many vehicles as the 3 lane M4 Second Severn Crossing [1][2]

The first plans to improve the link were put forward in 2007 by which time houses had already been compulsorily purchased and to this day many remain empty. The original proposal was for a 7 lane highway consisting of 4 southbound lanes (heading toward Wales), 3 northbound lanes (heading towards England) with hard shoulders and connector distributor roads either side. It was also proposed that the speed limit would be increased from 50mph to 70mph.

Existing A494 at the point where it crosses the River Dee

Just as the proposal looked to go ahead and with the majority of the land already in government hands the plans were scrapped after fierce public opposition. It was said the proposal which in places would be 11 lanes wide were excessive and disrupted too many people. It was claimed that 5000 people would be adversely affected.

The decision to cancel the proposal as it stood at the time may have had merit, unfortunately though the Welsh Government were slow to come up with an alternative and in the proceeding 10 years traffic levels have increased and congestion between the A494 and A55 has worsened, especial during holiday periods.

New proposals

Two proposals have been put forward by the Welsh Government, one known as the Blue option an adaptation of the original proposal to widen the A494 and upgrade junctions including the  A494/A55 interchange.

The other proposal known as the Red option would bypass a large section of the A494 and the A494/A55 interchange. This would be achieved with the construction of a new section of dual carriageway between Flintshire bridge and the A55 close to junction 33 near to Northop. The flat junctions along the A548 which links A494 to Flintshire bridge would also be grade separated.

Proposed Red and Blue options (source  Deeside Corridor improvement study)

The public consultation for both proposals ended on the 30th of June 2017 with the preferred route expected to be announced this summer. However the Welsh government has already signalled that it prefers the second opinion or what is known as the Red Option. Both options would have a budget of around £200m, however the Red option promises a better benefit to cost ratio and improved journey times.

The A548 Flintshire Bridge

On a more symbolic note, the Red option would see the realisation of a long talked about link from Flintshire bridge which for the last two decades has been known locally as "the bridge to nowhere" to the A55.

The consultation document can still be found here.

Part 2 of the blog descibes the Red option in more detail

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