Wednesday, 29 May 2019

A494 Dee bridge renewal

The A494 at the point where is crosses the River Dee carries over 60,000 vehicles per day and is a vital link which connects North West England with North Wales. It also forms part of the TEN-T European transport network, linking ports to the East of England with the port of Holyhead. The road also provides employees who live in North Wales access to the Deeside Industrial Park, which is to the east of the River Dee.

The video below gives an overview of the A494 from the junction with the A540, located to the west of the M56 (where the M56 becomes the A494), across the Dee bridge to Queensferry.

The bridge over the River Dee was constructed in the 1960s and carries almost double the number of vehicles that it was designed for, this has lead, according to the Welsh Government to “deterioration to some structural features[1]. Therefore in 2018 it was announced that the bridge was to be renewed, with a public consultation held during summer 2018 which outlined the proposals.

A494 Dee bridge

As an important link carrying 60k vehicles per day it is vital that the A494 remains open, closing the section of road simply isn't option. So the Welsh Government working with the North and Mid Wales Trunk Road Agency appointed Mott MacDonald and their partners Richards, Morehead & Laing to consider options for the replacement of the bridge.

The final proposal which was put to the public for consultation will see the construction of an all new 4 lane bridge crossing the River Dee to the south of the existing A494 bridge. Once the new bridge is complete, engineers will begin to remove and then replace the deck of the existing bridge. Once complete the 2 bridges will provide 3 lanes, plus a hard shoulder in each direction. The additional lane will provide entry and exit from the A548 and Queensferry junctions, this will give drivers more time to merge onto or leave the A494 and help to remove a current pinch point.

A494 Dee bridge proposal [click to enlarge]

The alignment of the A494 on east side of the river had already been altered in 2004 as part of the A494 “Drome Corner” upgrade undertaken by Highways England. The alignment change was to allow for an increased number of lanes which would have crossed the River Dee and continued up Aston Hill to the junction with the A55. However after strong opposition from local residents the plans to widen the A494 were cancelled by the Welsh Government in 2007.

The proposals for the new bridge will make use of the altered alignment with the bridge built to the south of the existing bridge. A new section of road will also be constructed west from the new bridge, underneath the Chester to North Wales railway, ending at the junction for Queensferry. Once complete the new bridge and re-decked existing bridge will provide additional benefits for motorists, by providing the 3rd lane and by providing a hard shoulder for motorist should they get into difficulty whilst travelling on that section of the A494.

Building a new bridge was, in reality the only viable option. The construction of the existing bridge is such that it is not possible to work on either side of the carriageway at a time, whilst trying to keep at least 1 lane of traffic open in each direction. Also the idea of keeping only 1 live lane open in each direction would have been unthinkable, given the volume of traffic that currently use the crossing.

Dee bridge from underneath

Building a new 4 lane bridge allows for 2 lanes of traffic in each direction to continue to cross the River Dee while work is carried out on the existing bridge. It also makes sense to retain and re-deck the exiting bridge, which apart from the deck is still structurally sound. Putting both sets of work into a single package will allow, not only for the renewal of the bridge but an upgrade of the crossing, which should in itself help to improve the business case for the proposal as a whole.

Work is expected to begin during summer/autumn 2020, subject to Minister's approval. I wasn't able to find out if a completion date has been set, however I would estimate a project of this scale would take at least 18 months, possibly up to 30 months to complete.

It is unfortunate that the urgency of the work means that it will have to take place before work commences on the so called “Red Route”, which will see much of the traffic that currently uses the A494 Dee crossing using a new route. The Red route will make use of the exiting A548, the Flintshire Bridge which was constructed 1998 and a new section of road linking the A548 at Connah's Quay to the A55 close to Pentre Halkyn. Work on this £250m proposal is not due to commence until 2025, subject to approval from Welsh Government.


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Monday, 20 May 2019

Halton Curve passenger services commence

Today marks the official launch of direct rail services between Wrexham General and Liverpool Lime St via Liverpool South Parkway, the first direct rail link between North Wales and Liverpool since the mid 1970s. From today there will be 1 outbound service from Wrexham General per day departing at 06:35 and 2 return services departing Liverpool Lime St at 17:37 and 20:14. The service is in addition to the new hourly service which will depart from Chester. The service departing from Chester will call at Helsby, Frodsham, Runcorn, Liverpool South Parkway (for Liverpool Airport) and Liverpool Lime St, with a journey time from Chester of around 55 minutes.

Services between Chester and Liverpool Lime St actually began on Sunday (18th May 2019), which is when I took my first trip over Halton Curve. I picked up the service at Frodsham as I had some shots I wanted to capture in Runcorn upon my return. The trip out was on a humble class 150, but with new seating, disabled access toilet and charging points it wasn't bad at all. The return was made aboard a class 158 in smart Transport for Wales Rail colours and was a bit of a step up from the 150. I'm not sure if the 158 will remain on the route, or if it will be worked solely by 150s once attention from the press has gone.

Class 150 upon arrival at Liverpool Lime St [click to enlage]

One passenger I spoke to was under the impression that the route was to be operated by new trains, but that is not to be unfortunately. I'm not sure which units will operate on the service once the new trains being built by CAF are delivered. However what I am sure of is that no matter what train serves the route, passengers are happy to finally be able to get to Liverpool from Helsby and Frodsham by train, without having to drive to Runcorn, Ellesmere Port, or even Hooton.

Class 158 at Liverpool Lime St
Below is a short video montage I put together with some clips of the highlights of the trip.

It is hoped that the new service will remove some traffic from the often congested M56 which connects Chester and West Cheshire to the M6 and Manchester. The service will increase the number of services between Frodsham, Helsby and Chester from just 1 to 2 trains per hour. The service will also provide improved links between Chester and Liverpool Airport which can be accessed via a regular bus service from Liverpool South Parkway.

The new service between North Wales and Liverpool has been made possible thanks to an £18m upgrade of Halton Curve and recent improvements made to Liverpool Lime St. The funding was part of a larger £340m package of upgrades that took place across the Liverpool City Region.

Regular passenger services had operated over Halton Curve up until the mid 1970s, when, despite avoiding cuts made by Beaching, services were withdrawn. Then in 1994 the 2.4km double track line was reduced to a single track, and at the same time the points which allowed south bound trains to use the line were also removed in a bid to reduce costs of maintaining the Liverpool branch of the WCML. Since then the only service which had used the line was a single Parliamentary train each Saturday during Summer, between Chester and Liverpool, operated by Northern.

TfW class 158 travelling over Halton Curve on route to Liverpool

The North Cheshire Rail Users Group, which represents passengers using services on the Manchester-Chester line (part of The Birkenhead Railway) had been campaigning tirelessly for over 20 years to re-instate Halton curve, and in April 2016 their hard work finally paid off, when it was announced that the junction on the WCML would be re-instated, allowing bi-directional traffic to use the line once more.

On the 14th of July 2017 work began to upgrade a short 2.4km section of railway, which involved installing a new crossover and 60km/h turnout on WCML. In addition signalling was also upgraded on the WCML, with control transferred from Halton to Manchester Rail Operating Centre . Work was also carried out to re-signal the Frodsham area and fit a new modern signalling panel at Frodsham Signal box

Halton Curve route map

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.
The upgrade was actually completed in time for the timetable change in December 2018, however due to the lack of available DMU stock passengers have had to wait until now (May 2019) for the new service to commence. But now (finally) passengers can travel direct from North Wales to Liverpool and it is hoped that eventually in the future there will be more services will between North Wales to Liverpool. There is also talk of a Liverpool to Cardiff service which will also use Halton Curve.

It would seem that after the disaster that was the December 2018 timetable change, that passengers are finally starting to see the benefits of years of engineering works and the introduction of new and cascaded rolling stock.

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