Monday, 31 August 2020

Work begins on Chester's Northgate development

In 2016 it appeared as if the redevelopment of Chester's Northgate quarter was finally going to get underway, after years in the planning, false starts, and a number of major re-designs. The redevelopment of the area was originally supposed to begin in 2010, but the financial crisis saw funding withdrawn, which lead the company behind the plans to revise the proposal in order to reduce the scale and therefore the cost of the development.

However Cheshire West and Chester Council and the developer were unable to agree on a way forward, therefore the authority took the decision to develop it's own plans and to seek ways in which it could fund any future development itself. 

In 2015 work got underway to transform the old Odean Cinema into a cultural centre, which now includes a theatre,  cinema, restaurant and library. Then in 2016 work got underway to construct a new bus station on George Street, which, once complete would allow for the construction of the Northgate development on the site of the old bus station.

The image above is probably what most people imagine when picturing Chester, black and white mock Tudor rows, complete with Roman Centurion.

Cheshire West and Chester Council continued to develop and redraw plans over a number of years as shopping habits changed and high streets across the country continued to struggle. The original plans put forward included a large department store and were much large in scale. However, the final plans look much smaller in scale and will not include any new shops. The emphasis has instead been on providing a new indoor market space, new 6 screen cinema and a new multi-story car park. The new car park will not however lead to a net increase in city centre parking, as Trinity St and Market St car parks will eventually be closed and demolished in the future to make way for the next phase of the development.

The reduced scale of the development is highlighted by the expected cost for phase 1, which is estimated to be just £72m. Compared to the cost of the original 2010 redevelopment which had a budget of £460m. Unlike the original proposals which were drawn up by a private developer, the cost for the new proposal will be borne by the local authority. The development website states the development will be funded on a "traditional public sector ‘payback’ basis which will ensure that the capital expenditure is written down over a period of 25 years and is factored into the Council’s annual budget"

Part of the development site, with the modern extension to the Storyhouse pictured to the left in the background.

The original proposals which were much larger in scope would have encompassed the old bus station, market building, Forum shopping centre and Crowne Plaza hotel. Whereas the proposals for phase 1 only include the site of the old bus station. A decision is yet to be made on the future of the existing market building and Forum shopping centre, but CWaC says that plans will be drawn up in late 2020 and that work cannot begin on the existing market hall until the new one is complete.

The proposals for phase 1 may be modest in comparison to the original plans, but they still have the potential to transform the area, which for a long time has been neglected. This despite the site sitting within the heart of the city, close to Chester Cathedral and behind the striking Town hall which was built in the Gothic Revival style in 1869. The site is also next to the grade II listed building which now houses the Storyhouse, which is an art deco brick building, built in 1930s, albeit with a modern, but complementary extension. The terracotta façade which formed the entrance to the former library is also grade II listed.

The Grade II listed facade of the former library, which will act as the entrance to the new inclosed market

Thankfully the face of the former library will be retained and will in fact form a key part of the development. The main structure of the building will be largely removed, it had no architectural merit and was a relatively recent development. The faced itself however will serve as a striking entrance to the new indoor market and cinema leading people through into a new modern development. One which the authority hopes will sit well within its surroundings, unlike the concrete and brick building which currently sits at the rear of the town hall and houses the existing market.

The image above shows work taking place to clear the site, in the distance is the clock tower of the Town hall and to the far right, part of the building which houses the existing market.

Work on the Northgate development officially got underway in June 2020, when a modest socially distanced sod-cutting ceremony was held. The main contractor Vinci Construction has now taken possession of the site which is currently in the process of being cleared. The steel and glass bus shelters have already been removed so there was little in the way of demolition required. But that still left the not unsubstantial job of clearing the huge brick paved area which formed the old bus station. A small amount of careful deconstruction is also taking place to remove the building which housed the former library, whilst keeping the facade intact. 

As well as site clearance, work is also underway to redirect utilities and to construct a new drainage tunnel. In addition, archaeological work is also taking place, with several Roman artifacts already discovered.

The image above shows the remaining structure of the former library as of Augst 2020

Work is also taking place on the A5628 St Martin's way to remodel the junction, with Hunters St now closed to traffic. Eventually, a new junction will be constructed to replace the existing Sens Cl junction which will connect to the new Hunters St alignment, leading to Northgate St.

The dual carriageway has temporarily been reduced from 4 lanes to just 2, which is causing congestion, this despite the overall reduction in traffic volume brought about by Covid-19. With work expected to take until Summer 2021 to complete, and schools set to re-open in September it is possible that congestion could start to become more of an issue over the next few months. It's probably advisable to avoid that section of the A5628 all together if possible. 

Whilst the upheaval will undoubtedly be frustrating for motorists and local residents, it will only be temporary, it is hoped, transform a large part of the city centre, helping the city to attract more visitors and secure the future for the city's independent market traders.

There is a video on Youtube which shows the scale and the development and progress on site clearance as of August 2020. [see below]

Tuesday, 18 August 2020

End of the line nearing for Merseyrail's 508s and 507s

On Sunday 16th of August, a pair of Merseyrail class 508s left Birkenhead North depot for the last time. The units were hauled by a class 57 operated by Rail Operations Group over the Wrexham-Bidston line, then on to Craven Arms, there they would remain overnight before being taken to Newport docks, where they are to be scrapped.

The scrapping of Merseyrail's fleet of class 508 and 507 units has been on the cards for some time, as they are to be replaced by new class 777 units built by Stadler. However, 110 and 134 have been retired much earlier than their classmates and months before the expected introduction of the first class 777.

It appears 110 and 134 had reached their mileage limit and were in need of an overhaul, therefore with new units on the way it wasn't deemed cost-effective to keep them in service. Space at Metseyrail's Birkenhead North and Kirkdale depots will also start to become limited as more class 777s arrive. 6 have arrived so far and are being stabled at the recently rebuilt Kirkdale depot. There is space for overnight stabling at some stations for 508/7s, but it is likely that depot space will still start to become constrained soon.

508 115 at Liverpool Lime Street

It is however unlikely that we will see more 508 or 507s being sent off-lease just yet, at least not until the first class 777s begin to enter service later this year. Before Covid-19, 52 class 508/7s were required to be in service each day. With 110 and 134 now sent for scrap, that leaves a total of 57 class 508s and 507s remaining in service. With the fleet approaching 40 years old it can be assumed that a number of the units will be out of service for maintenance or repair at any given time. 134 hadn't been used since January 2020, however 110 was in service as recently as Wednesday the 12th of August. 

507 003 at Chester Station

Merseyrail has ordered just 52 class 777s, with only 50 being required each day. This reduction in the requirement will be achieved through the speeding up of the timetable, which will reduce the number of diagrams. The new units should also be much more reliable and therefore fewer will be out of service each day for maintenance or repairs. Merseyrail does have the option to purchase a further 60 units, but this is on the basis that services are extended in future to places such as Helsby, Skelmersdale or Wrexham. With extension dependant on the success of a battery trial and or further electrification. One class 777 is to be fitted with batteries and tested on the Merseyrail network, this will be to test the feasibility of future extensions without the need for costly electrification. 

 507 001 alongside a Network Rail measurement train at Hooton Station

I posted a video to Youtube of the move on Sunday night and was surprised by the number of people who were saying that they will be sad to see the 508/7s go. I assumed that people would be glad to see the old making way for the new, but thinking about it, it is easy to see why people may think fondly of the old class 508s and 507s. They have served the Merseyrail network well for almost 40 years, with Merseyrail as an operator regularly sitting at or near the top of National Rail Passenger Survey. The refurbishment carried out between 2002 to 2004 also means that the units still look fairly modern to this day, both inside and out.

However, their days are numbered, so if you want to experience a Merseyrail class 508 or 507 you probably have about 18 months left in which to do so, before they're all sent off for scrap.

In 2019 I wrote about how Merseyrail are adapting station platforms to provide step-free access once the new 777s enter services, find out more: Paving the way for new trains

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

HS2 connecting the Northern Powerhouse to the Midlands Engine

Many proponents of HS2, myself included have over the years tried to ensure that the benefits of building HS2 are focused mainly on capacity, which is the most important reason for building the new railway. The journey time improvements that will be brought about by the introduction of HS2 services are welcome, and are indeed also important, but in terms of absolute need for the project, cutting journey times is secondary.

This is undeniably true for phase 1 between London and the West Midlands, which serves to alleviate the chronic capacity shortage on the existing southern section of the West Coast Mainline. Even heading further North, between the West Midlands and Crewe there is limited to no remaining capacity available on the WCML, this despite upgrades to the existing infrastructure, such at the £250m Stafford AreaImprovement Programme, which involved grade separation of Norton Bridge junction.

The East Coast Main Line is also nearing capacity and will benefit from construction of the eastern arm of HS2. The eastern section will benefit both the ECML and MML by releasing capacity on those lines for more local and regional services. With express services from Edinburgh, Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield and others transferred onto HS2.

It seems however that the debate about whether or not to build the eastern section has resurfaced once again. There are those who ague; that the section from the West Midlands to Leeds and the ECML should not be built at all. They argue that it isn't required and capacity could be increased more cost effectively on the existing Midland and East Coast Main Lines.

I for one think this argument is nonsense and that the capacity argument which is true for the WCML is equally true for the ECML and MML. However I also think that a massive benefit of HS2 from the West Midlands to Leeds and Manchester is often overlooked.

That benefit being; the slashing of journey times from Leeds to Birmingham and from Manchester to Birmingham. A phrase which I often use (which is yet catch on) is "HS2 connects the Northern Powerhouse to the Midlands Engine". It's corny I know, but it does say simply what the northern section of HS2 is capable of delivering. Connecting regions covered by the Northern Powerhouse partnership with regions covered by the Midlands Engine partnership.
HS2 Ltd map showing phases 2a and 2b

Currently to get from Manchester to Birmingham takes 1 hour 30 minutes. To get from Leeds to Birmingham takes up to 2 hours! In this day and age it seems crazy that it takes so long. But it does highlight the fact that there simply isn't space on the existing infrastructure to improve services which connect 3 of the UK's largest cities.

If HS2 is delivered in full these journey times will be dramatically reduced. Manchester to Birmingham slashed to just 40 minutes, with Leeds to Manchester cut by over a half, to just 49 minutes. Journey time reductions such as these simply would not be possible without the construction of HS2.

HS2 Manchester to Birmingham - 40 minutes

HS2 Leeds to Birmingham - 49 minutes

Currently the fastest services from Leeds and Manchester to Birmingham are also some of the most crowded. The problem being that the Cross Country services which currently connect Leeds and Manchester to Birmingham also serve other routes, continuing south from Birmingham to Plymouth and Bournemouth. In effect Cross Country services serve two different markets, long distance to the south coast and regional to Birmingham. As vital as these sorts of long distance routes are, it does mean that passengers end up with busy, suboptimal regional links.

So whilst I agree it is absolutely critical that proponents of HS2 continue to push the message that HS2 is needed for capacity, I also think not enough emphasis is given to Leeds - Manchester - Birmingham connectivity. The connection of which with fast and frequent rail services could boost the economies of the Midlands and the North and shift the balance the UK economy north of Watford Gap.

I must point out however, that I do not subscribe to the argument that we should be building the northern sections first. Building the section between London and the West Midlands is needed to unlock capacity on the southern section of WCML. Providing extra capacity into London still remains vital and in addition unlocks the potential for even greater connectivity with other parts of the south via Old Oak Common.

I would like to discus Old Oak Common in more detail in a future blog.....

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