Friday, 28 May 2021

Wirral Waters: Transforming Birkenhead's fortunes

I think it's fair to say that for decades Birkenhead has been a town in decline, having once been a very large town with a population of 110,000 and an important hub for shipbuilding. However, by the 1980s shipbuilding had started to decline and by 1993 the last remaining shipbuilder Cammell Laird was forced to close. The name Cammell Laird has since returned to Birkenhead all be it primarily as a ship repairers, although in recent years it has won contracts to build the flight deck for HMS Queen Elizabeth and to build RRS Sir David Attenborough.

Despite the return of shipbuilding to Birkenhead the town has continued to decline. Whilst it does still have a large population, by the 2011 census this had shrunk to 88,000 from a peak of 110,000 in 1901. By any measure, Birkenhead remains a large town, but it has always played second fiddle to Liverpool, both in terms of shipping and commerce. Birkenhead retains a large working dock, but it is nowhere near as big as that of Liverpool. In terms of commerce, in the 1990s the town did see a significant development with the opening of the Pyramids shopping centre and up until recently had a bustling town centre. However, once again Liverpool stole the limelight in terms of shopping, with the massive Liverpool One development which formed part of Liverpool's capital of culture regeneration in 2008. Liverpool One combined with the financial crisis of 2007/08 lead to the decline of the town centre. The global financial crisis also had an impact on housing in the area, with a large number of dilapidated houses demolished prior to 2007, which were supposed to be rebuilt, however, the crisis saw finance withdrawn, which lead to areas of land sitting empty for over a decade.

Since then and with high demand for housing, those empty plots have finally begun to be built upon. However, one of the largest derelict sites in Birkenhead remains the Four Bridges dock area. For years Peel Ports who own the land has talked about regenerating the area with ambitious proposals for skyscrapers to rival those over in Liverpool. However up until now very little has happened, which has lead local people to be sceptical about any proposals. Before now, whenever you read articles about ambitious plans they were usually accompanied by comments such as "we'll believe it when we see it"

Now however, it appears that the first small steps are being taken towards the Wirral Waters development as it's being called. The developments which have begun may seem modest and far from the tall glass skyscrapers promised. However, these are the first steps towards the eventual regeneration of the entire Four Bridges area, which given its size could take decades. But what this could hopefully mean for Birkenhead is a return to population growth, and an increased population will hopefully drive increasing footfall into the town centre. Of course, Liverpool One will always be the big draw for shoppers, even in this post Pandemic era. But hopefully, the recently announced regeneration of Birkenhead's town centre and an increasing population will bring some life back into the town. There won't be a return to the heyday when thousands of people worked in the shipyards and docklands, but perhaps new housing and commercial developments will entice people who currently live on the outskirts of Liverpool to live on the "other side of the water" whilst still being able to commute into Liverpool easily, be it by regular rail service, bus, or even by ferry.

Wirral Waters progress 2021 

Wirral Waters is the name given to the development of the Four Bridges area as a whole, but in reality it is a long term project that will be split up into many smaller projects. The area is currently a mix of large derelict brownfield sites, active docklands and active light industrial sites.

The plaque reads; Thomas Brassey 1805-1870. World's foremost builder of railways in the 19th Century. His Canda Works opened 1853 adjacent to this site.

The initial developments are currently taking place over by the East Float situated alongside Tower Rd and Dock Rd. It is unclear what will become of the active berths, but they are currently still visited by a number of vessels and Peel itself actively promotes its 60,000 sq ft storage facility for steel and metal imports. 

Tower Road transformation

A significant step towards transforming Tower Rd started in June 2020 when work began to radically redesign the road layout. The new design aims to reduce the speed of road traffic and provide better facilities for pedestrians and cyclists.

Tower Road transformation

The £3.2m project was designed and delivered in partnership with Peel L&P, whilst the work was carried out by Wirral-based civil engineering contractor, Cambrianway. The project involved widening pavements, installation of new separate walking and cycling routes, new pedestrian crossings facilities and the planting of 130 trees.

Looking north along Tower Rd, with the recently constructed Wirral Met College building on the left

There was some confusion about part of the new road layout, as an unusual swirl pattern was put onto the road surface, leading people to wonder if it was in fact a roundabout. A spokesperson for the authority said: "Junctions like this one are 'no priority' and do not give one vehicle a right over another nor do they give vehicle drivers priority over people walking and on bikes. "They operate on the basis of all users reducing speed or stopping in order to negotiate the junction safely."

The new 'no priority' junction

I think shared spaces such as this will take some getting used to, especially as currently Tower Rd is a high traffic road, with a mixture of local commuter traffic and heavy vehicles accessing the Twelve Quays terminal from the direction of Birkenhead. But the developers say that as the area is developed and more pedestrians and cyclists take to the street then motorists will begin to take more care and slow down.

It is yet to be seen whether or not the new layout and envisaged greater footfall will reduce the speed of traffic driving through the area, but the project has certainly transformed Tower Rd and made it look like a much more inviting place to walk and cycle.


In December 2020 work started on a new £7.5 development which aims to provide 25,000 sq ft of high-quality flexible office space for local businesses. The building is being constructed alongside Tower Rd which is located on the East Float.

Steelwork forming the hythe structure

Hythe as it is called, formally known as No1 Tower Road South is due for completion in late 2021. Funding for the new office space was provided by Peel L&P, Liverpool City Region Combined Authority and the Merseyside Pension Fund. 

East Float 

Site clearance for a new 350 home development continued through 2020 and now work has begun on the construction phase. The East Float development is a joint venture between Urban Splash and Peel L&P, which promised to deliver "a brand new waterside neighbourhood on the left bank of the Mersey. With communal open spaces, pedestrianised streets, 1500 trees and soothing open waters"

Artist's representation of the new East Float development. Image Credit Urban Splash

A total of 347 homes will be constructed which will be comprised of three-storey townhouses, row houses and apartments. The developers also say there will be "quiet pedestrianised streets and large communal gardens."

Maritime Knowledge Hub

The iconic Grade II-listed Hydraulic Tower is set to be transformed after ambitious plans for £23m Maritime Knowledge Hub was agreed. The new hub will feature a maritime technology centre, space for offshore survival training, a marine simulation and training centre, a hydrobab, 60,000 sq ft of collaborative space and state of the art research and development facilities.

Hydraulic tower, Tower Road

Wirral Council has agreed on a 250-year lease of the building and to invest in its redevelopment to help maintain the momentum of regeneration in the area. The next stage in the development will be to secure detailed planning permission and Listed Building consent before work can start on the site.

Egerton Village

Plans for the £4m Egerton Village development were agreed in 2019 however, work has yet to begin. The new space which will be located next to hythe will provide shops and arts and events space, which according to Peel, will be a "creative and community hub for visitors, students, businesses and residents".

The waterside village has been designed by OMI Architects and will be be "modularly constructed", which will provide work experience opportunities for construction students at Wirral Metropolitan College.

The projects described may seem modest by themselves but collectively will transform a large part of the East Float, and will hopefully in time make the area look much more attractive and in doing so encourage more investment in the Four Bridges area. Redeveloping the whole 52 acres site will probably take decades, but these first tentative steps could transform the area and in turn transform the fortunes of Birkenhead as a whole.

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Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Re-Blog: Merseyrail: Expanding the network

Originally published in Rail Magazine issue 920

The Merseyrail network currently consists of 75 miles of railway, 6.5 miles of which are underground, split between 2 lines serving a total of 68 stations. The line is electrified by means of 750v DC third-rail and is served by 56 Class 507 and 508 EMUs, however, these units are due to be replaced by new, Class 777 trains over the next couple of years.

Prior to the outbreak of Covid 19 the network carried 110,000 passengers per day and Central Station where the Wirral Line intersects with the Northern Line was the second busiest station in the North West with over 14 million entries and exits between 2018-2019.

Current extent of the Merseyrail network

The Merseyrail network is, in effect a self-contained network which has 8 termini, 6 of which join the national rail network where passengers can transfer on to services which operate beyond the Merseyrail network. These include Southport, Ormskirk, Kirkby, Ellesmere Port, Chester and Hunts Cross. Ellesmere Port currently only has a limited service beyond the Merseyrail Network with 1 arrival from Leeds at 18:08 and a service to Liverpool Lime Street via Warrington Bank Quay departing at 18:25.

The network also has a number of other stations which have connections to the national rail network. They include Liverpool Lime St, Liverpool South Parkway, and Bidston where passengers can join Wrexham-Bidston line services.

Outgoing Class 507/8s are due to be replaced by Class 777s over the next couple of years.


Currently, Merseyrail services are unable to travel beyond those 8 termini because that is the extent of the third-rail network. It is unlikely that the third-rail network will be extended, as the Department for Transport and Network Rail have little appetite for future expansion of the UK third-rail lines.

When compared to 25kv overhead electrification, 750v DC third-rail is less efficient, more expensive to install and maintain, and with a live conductor rail at ground level is also more dangerous. Having said that, in terms of efficiency, third-rail electrification is still vastly more efficent than diesel traction.

Taking this into account you could be forgiven for thinking it is unlikely that the Merseyrail network will be expanded in future and that services are destined to remain limited to third-rail lines. However, there is some good news on the horizon and Merseytravel which is the strategic transport advisor to the Liverpool City Region is certainly not content with terminating services at the current stations.

The Class 777 units being delivered to Merseyrail are set to provide serious opportunities for expansion beyond the third-rail network and Merseytravel is working with the train manufacture Stadler to investigate technologies that would allow just that. Firstly, units on which Class 777 are based can be constructed with a pantograph and transformer to take power from 25kv overhead wires. Or could be fitted with batteries, and in fact, one of the Class 777s which is being delivered to Merseyrail will be fitted with batteries and trialled on the Merseyrail Network.

Update. The first Class 777 fitted with batteries, 777 002 arrived in the UK last week and was spotted in Crewe on the 5th of May.

Merseytravel plans to test how well the battery-powered Class 777 can perform, initially limited to operating on the third-rail network to provide a fail-safe should the batteries fail. However, Merseytravel will be able to put the battery-powered unit to the test across the Merseyrail network. Particular attention will likely be paid to how the unit performs on the steep incline on either side of the tunnel underneath the Mersey. The standard Class 777 units will have much better acceleration characteristics when compared to the outgoing Class 507/8s, so much so, when all Class 777s are in service the timetable will be sped up. This will allow Merseyrail to provide the same level of service (pre Covid19) with fewer vehicles, the order for new units stands at 52, compared to the current 56 units. For the battery trail to be successful the unit must perform comparably under all conditions to the Class 777s which are not fitted with batteries.

Class 777s at Kirkdale TMD

Merseytravel isn't paying lip service to future expansion with this trial, they have serious ambitions to extend the network and are already working on plans for an initial modest extension from Kirkby to a new station to be constructed at Headbolt Lane, but they have more ambitious plans to extend services to Skelmersdale, which would require reinstating a former route which was closed in the 1960s and the construction of a new station. Plans for Skelmersdale link are currently at the GRIP 3 stage. The new Headbolt Lane station would become the new eastern terminus on the Kirkby branch, until such time that services can be extended further. The new station would require a short section of third-rail from Kirkby, although if the battery trial is successful the new station could instead be served by Class 777s fitted with batteries.

Merseytravel also has a long term goal to extend services from Ellesmere Port to Helsby or Warrington Bank Quay, they would also like to extend services from Ormskirk to Preston and from Bidston to Wrexham. In order to ensure that any further extensions can become a reality Merseytravel has an option to purchase a further 60 units from Stadler, should the need arise. These units could be fitted with either pantographs or batteries, depending on how further extensions are to be delivered.

Wrexham-Bidston Line extension 

Electrification of the Wrexham-Bidston line was discounted back in 2008 when Network Rail published a report which estimated the cost of electrifying 27 miles of railway with 750v DC third-rail to be £207m, a figure which was said to be 3 times higher than that estimated by Merseytravel. This meant that it seemed as if through services to Liverpool from Wrexham would be put on hold indefinitely. However, the introduction of Class 777s does provide a reason to be optimistic that, in the medium to long term services could operate from Wrexham Central through to Liverpool on the Wrexham-Bidston line.

One option that was investigated was electrifying the Wrexham-Bidston line with 25kv overhead wires, this was thought to be a cheaper option than third-rail electrification, and with the option for Class 777s variants to be constructed to take power from both third-rail and overhead wires, that could have been a real option. However, the publication Network Rail's traction decarbonisation network strategy suggests that the Wrexham-Bidston will not be electrified. The report now suggests that through services will be provided by battery-powered units.

It is likely that if the Class 777 battery trial is a success and proposals for the Wrexham-Bidston line are taken forward, that some infrastructure would be required at the Wrexham end of the line in order to re-charge the units. Vivarail which is currently delivering class 230 hybrid units to Transport for Wales for use on the Wrexham-Bidston line, has been working on battery technology for some time and they say one of their units fitted with batteries could travel as far as 60 miles on a single charge.

Class 230 diesel-electric hybrid built by Vivarail currently being tested on the Wrexham-Bidston line before their introduction later this year

If we assume that a Stadler unit could be fitted with enough batteries to travel up 60 miles between charge, whilst maintaining the same acceleration characteristics as the non-battery variants, it is still thought that the 54 mile round trip from Bidston to Wrexham and back on one charge would be difficult. This is due to the steep gradients on the route from Shotton towards Buckley and the frequent stops spaced closely together from Shotton to Wrexham Central. Therefore it is likely that a short section of third-rail would have to be installed leading into Wrexham Central.

Rapid charging via third-rail is another area in which Vivarail is leading the way. The system which Vivarail is developing has interim Network Rail approval and is set to become the UK standard system. Their system is capable of providing enough charge in just 8 minutes to power a class 230 battery variant for up to 60 miles. The system uses a short section of third-rail to charge the batteries via third rail shoe gear. This power can either be provided directly from the National Grid, or via stationary second-life batteries, which could be charged more slowly and then used to provide rapid charging to a unit.

Ormskirk to Preston and Ellesmere Port have been classified by Network Rail's report as “multiple (proposed battery)”, which could mean partial electrification with batteries being used to bridge the gap between electrified and non-electrified sections. This raises the question about which means of electrification would be used, as the DfT, Network Rail are against expansion of third-rail. Class 777 variants could only be built to take third-rail and 25kv overhead power, or third-rail and batteries. This is because the batteries would occupy the same space in which the transformers to convert the 25kv AC to 750v DC would. But Merseytravel is also investigating using 750v DC overhead, this means it could potentially be possible to produce units that could draw power from third-rail, overhead 750v DC and also be fitted with batteries.

So, whilst the expansion of the Merseyrail network isn't something that is going to happen in the short term, with new more adaptable units on the way and ever-improving battery technology, it is a real possibility that the network can be expanded in the medium to long term.