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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