Re-blog: Improving links between North West England and North Wales

A version of this article was published in Rail Magazine in December 2021

As someone who lives on the Wirral and frequently travels to North Wales via the A494 through Queensferry, and has been a committee member of the Wrexham-Bidston Rail User's Association for a number of years, I'm well aware of current poor transport connections between North West England and North Wales. The bridge which carries the A494 over the River Dee and on to the A55 was used by 60,000 vehicles a day before the Pandemic. So, knowing how busy the A494 can get, particularly during school holidays and on Fridays before bank holidays when people flock to North Wales, I supported a proposal to build a new link road from the A548 Flintshire bridge to the A55, a proposal known as the "Red Route".

You may be wondering what if anything roads have to do with railways? Well, recently my support for the "Red Route" has started to wane, especially as awareness of the climate emergency has grown. However despite the pandemic, the A494 often still gets incredibly congested and in 2020 particularly with many people holidaying in the UK, it seemed as if the A494/A55 was busier than ever. Even so, the Welsh Government may be right to cancel the "Red Route". But it does beg the question, how are the aims of the Union connectivity review which was published in December 2021 going to be delivered if not by upgrading road connections? The report led by Sir Peter Hendy sought to identify ways of improving connectivity between the 4 UK nations and recommended that the Westminster works “with the Welsh Government to undertake a multimodal review of the North Wales transport corridor”

The four-lane bridge which carries the A494 over the River Dee is set to be replaced, with work due to begin in 2024/25 and as the proposal falls under renewals is not subject to the same environmental review as the Red Route. The bridge replacement will see an additional lane in each direction added to the A494 which may relieve congestion in the short term. However, the only long-term solution to improve links would be to build the new link road to the A55.

Map showing the road and rail links between England and North Wales

If new roads aren't the answer then the only other alternative is to improve rail links between the two nations, which are the North Wales Coast Line, the Wrexham-Bidston (Borderlands) Line and Shrewsbury-Chester Line. The latter was recently partially re-double between Chester and Wrexham General, however, the Wrexham-Bidston and North Wales Coast Line are in dire need of upgrades and are currently underutilised. The hourly Transport for Wales service from Manchester to North Wales is often crowded and fares are relatively expensive, also the hourly service on the Borderlands Line isn't viewed as a reliable means of travelling between North East Wales and Liverpool.

North Wales Coast services will be given a boost in December 2023 when TfW plans to introduce an hourly Liverpool to Llandudno service which will use new Class 197 DMUs that are now being introduced. The CAF-built units are being introduced on TfW's long-distance service, such as Manchester to Llandudno Junction and Manchester to South Wales. The introduction of Class 197s and rakes of Mk4 carriages will allow TfW to operate five-car trains between Manchester and South Wales, but TfW is yet to decide if the new stock will allow the operator to improve capacity between Manchester and North Wales. If passengers travelling between Manchester and North Wales are to benefit from the introduction of new units then TfW must operate more four-car (2x2) or three-car services as a minimum. Even in this post-pandemic era, operating two-car trains between Manchester and North Wales is simply unacceptable.

Class 197 002 on display at Chester Station

TfW also plan to introduce a new Liverpool to Shrewsbury via Wrexham General service from December 2024, which will be extended to Cardiff every two hours. The Liverpool to Shrewsbury will be an extension of the current Liverpool to Chester via Halton Curve service and be coupled to the Llandudno service as far as Chester, where the two units will split, with one unit going to Llandudno, whilst the other travels to Shrewsbury/Cardiff. The Llandudno service is set to begin in December this year (2023), whilst the Shrewsbury/Cardiff service isn't due to commence until December 2024 and is subject to capacity improvements being completed between Wrexham and Shrewsbury.

As well as improved connectivity between Liverpool and North Wales the new service to Llandudno will also improve connectivity at Shotton, as currently, only one North Wales Coast service per hour calls at Shotton low-level and one Borderlands Line train per hour calls at high-level. With two trains per hour calling at both high-level and low-level the interchange possibilities between the two lines will be vastly improved.

Whilst the Borderlands line isn't currently viewed as a reliable means to travel between Liverpool and NE Wales, the line will hopefully see improvements as the delayed increase in the frequency of the service from one, to two trains per hour is finally set to begin this year. Thankfully the ORR has settled the dispute between TfW who wanted to increase the frequency and GBRf who wanted more freight paths into the cement works at Padeswood. However, a proposed compromise will see gaps in the half-hourly service during the day to allow freight movements into and out of Padeswood. 

The only thing holding up the half-hourly service now is the entry into service of the much-delayed Class 230s, which have been dogged by technical issues, the Pandemic and last year the unit's manufacturer going into administration. However, TfW who owns the Class 230s seems to have come to an agreement regarding maintenance and Class 230s which have once again started driver training on the line. In addition to the gaps during the day, the additional service will be a skip-stop service and will cut out a number of stations between Gwersyllt and Shotton. This isn't to do with freight however, but based on concerns about hitting a specific reliability target, as the turnaround of the current service is already very tight.

The interior of Class 230 which was converted from redundant D78 stock

In the long term groups such as the WBRUA and Growth Track 360 would like to see four trains per hour operating from Wrexham directly through into Liverpool and if the trial of the battery variant of the Class 777 is successful, then this may be a real possibility. This could be quite expensive, as it would require additional infrastructure, such as rapid charging via 3rd rail at the Wrexham end of the line, the installation of additional block sections, particularly between Penyffordd and Dee Marsh and of course additional battery Class 777s IPEMUs (independently powered electrical multiple units) to be ordered.

Class 777 002 on display at Rail Live

Providing additional capacity is one thing, but fare prices may also be a barrier for many people and there does seem to be a disparity between the cost of fares offered by TfW and other TOCs, and between North and South Wales. In 2019 a BBC investigation found that it cost 41p per mile to travel from Flint to Bangor, in contrast, it cost just 27p per mile to travel from Swansea to Cardiff Central. I believe strongly that somehow prices need to be reduced and simplified for passengers travelling between NW England and N Wales in order to drive any meaningful modal shift from road to rail.

Returning to the UCR, the document itself seems to be lacking in detail and there doesn't appear to be any concrete plans for improving cross-border links, instead, it suggests that Westminster and the Welsh Government should investigate ways of improving connectivity. Very little attention is given to freight but does recognise the importance of the M56, A494 and A55 and the link they provide to the port of Holyhead, which moved 5.3 million tonnes of freight and 1.9 people between the mainland and Dublin in 2019.

Brexit will undoubtedly continue to have an impact on EU freight travelling between ports in the east of England to Dublin via Holyhead, but the port will remain an important and heavily used link between the mainland and Ireland. In my view, the DfT should explore options for providing container handling facilities near to the port to reduce HGV traffic travelling from England to Holyhead. That way at least freight could be transported to Holyhead by rail and then transferred to HGVs which can then be loaded onto ferry services. Building a container port at Holyhead would possibly be a better solution, but ultimately not easily achievable.

One thing is clear if more capacity is to be provided for passenger and freight services then the North Wales Mainline should be electrified and signalling upgraded. It's unlikely that there would be much capacity for additional services beyond those already proposed by TfW and Avanti. Electrification also provides the potential for HS2 classic compatible services to use the North Wales Coast Line, rather than the current proposals which would see passengers from North Wales having to change trains at Crewe to access HS2 services heading to the capital. Although it should be pointed out that even with the interchange at Crewe passengers from North Wales could still see a significant reduction in journey times for N Wales to London when compared to direct services via the WCML.

It does finally appear as if improved rail links between NW England and N Wales are on the horizon, but I do not believe the current pipeline of improvements on their own will be enough to have any meaningful impact on thousands of daily trips made by car between the two nations. I believe that much more investment will be needed to further improve rail links combined with a review of fares to try to simplify and bring down the costs in order to drive the considerable shift from road to rail that is needed if the UK is to achieve its net-zero goals.


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