Wednesday 22nd May 2019
I left you yesterday morning in Sheffield about to head west on the delightful Hope Valley line (No 12 in My 100 Best Train Journeys) with Trans Pennine Express. It’s a beautiful scenic ride through the Peak District made all the better by a gorgeous sunny day.
I changed trains in Stockport to a southbound Virgin Trains Euston bound Pendolino as far as Crewe then changing again to head northwest over to Chester on another Virgin Trains, this time a ‘Super Voyager’ (according to the Train Manager’s announcement) although I wasn’t sure what was ‘super’ about it.
But it was on time and I arrived in Chester with twenty minutes to spare for the new Transport for Wales hourly service to Liverpool via Frodsham and Runcorn which started this week.
Merseyrail operate a long standing fifteen minute frequency service between Chester and Liverpool via The Wirral with electric trains on the third rail system serving Rock Ferry and Birkenhead. It takes 42 minutes to reach Liverpool Line Street on a city centre underground circuit including Liverpool Central in 44 minutes.
Now we have a choice of train companies and routes with the new TfW hourly service from Chester to Liverpool Lime Street timetabled to take a slighter slower 47 to 50 minutes depending on the journey.
For a visitor it’s rather confusing to see this new interloper heading to Liverpool in the opposite direction to the traditional Merseyrail trains. Even more confusing my 1327 departure was advertised as leaving from Chester’s Platform 6 but neither train in that platform were TfW branded and disconcertingly were locked up with no diesel engine throbbing away ready to leave (on the right pictured below).
The adjacent Platform 5 (on the left) had a Northern train heading to Leeds which is another exciting May timetable initiative achieved by linking new journeys from Chester via Warrington to an existing hourly service from Manchester to Leeds. Except it takes half an hour longer than changing trains in Manchester Victoria on to a faster Trans Pennine Express train to Leeds 15 minutes later rather than the new slower through route via Hebden Bridge taken by the Northern train. Still, it does provide new direct links between stations along the way eg Warrington to Halifax so it is a good development.
After that train left at its scheduled 1321 the handful of us waiting news of the 1327 were told by a shouting orange high-vis wearing dispatcher that the now vacant Platform 5 would be for our Liverpool train – just as well he shouted as bizarrely there seemed to be no dot matrix sign on Platform 6, so old style communication is needed.
Our train wasn’t due to arrive from Liverpool until 1324 giving a tight three minute turn around; it actually arrived at 1328 but with our fresh driver ready to take over we were away at 1330 after an impressively quick handover.
More impressive we got to Lime Street in just 41 minutes, beating Merseyrail’s journey time by a minute.
Even better there are only four stations along the way on the TfW journey whereas Merseyrail has fourteen on its route to Lime Street which makes the journey seem torturously longer.
Local and regional politicians are salivating with delight at this new route as they see future potential in linking trains along the north Wales coast directly with Liverpool and providing handy connections at Liverpool South Parkway (one of the four stations) for the nearby John Lennon Airport.
Two of the new journeys extend beyond Chester to Wrexham and there’s talk of more in the future. There’s also talk of links with through trains to South Wales but quite where all these new links will be diverted from on the existing network is a mystery unless they’re all going to be extra journeys which will be mightily expensive.
Chester, Runcorn and Liverpool South Parkway have already got regular trains to Liverpool so that just leaves Helsby and Frodsham as the two stations newly connected to Merseyside’s capital and as those station names convey, they’re not exactly booming metropoli in themselves. So unless those links are added further back into Wales, which will inevitably mean severing existing through journeys (eg to Cardiff, Manchester or Birmingham) , it’s difficult to see where all the new passengers are going to come from.
This exciting development has been made possible by upgrading what’s called the Halton Curve, a single line curve between Frodsham and Runcorn linking the Chester to Warrington Line with the Crewe to Runcorn and Liverpool line.
Previously this bit of little used track was only signalled for trains in the Runcorn direction and to travel on it you had to catch the once a week Parliamentary train that ran on a summer Saturday around 0700 from Chester to Runcorn just to say you’d done it. When I travelled on it a few years ago there were about six of us all just doing it for the sake of doing it. That’s dedication for you although I’m sure others call it something else!
After a lot of work over the last couple of years this bit of track has been made bidirectional so the new train service can run every hour seven days a week both ways on the new timetable. But all this hasn’t come cheap. A cool £16 million has been spent sorting out the signals and tarting up the track. I originally thought that amount of funding was going to double track the curve, but no, it’s still single line.
The funding was approved by the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority. I hope they think it’s worth the investment.
I had a wander through the train as we left Frodsham (the second station after Chester) to see how many new passengers were on board as we went on to the curve past the signal box marking the junction.
Twelve of us were making the trip including one or two just like me who were keeping a curious eye on what was occurring.
At Liverpool Line Street TfW we’re making their presence for the very first time in that station by promoting the new link with the usual goodie bags containing a pen, smarties and the timetable leaflet.
I guess it’s worth shouting about having blown £16million on revitalising a piece of curved track! It wasn’t up to Azuma launch standards, but then that cost a few hundred million more.
I hope it’s a success but it’s going to take more than just Helsby and Frodsham to achieve payback and those tight turn rounds in Chester look worrying with all the layover at the Liverpool end of the route – presumably for ‘pathing reasons’.
From Liverpool Lime Street I went back across the Pennines on the Trans Pennine Express northerly route via Manchester Victoria, Huddersfield and Leeds and on to York and Durham where it was a good opportunity to hop off and take a deviation to Newcastle via Sunderland.
Also new on the public transport scene this week is the beginning of a much needed brand makeover for Go North East’s vast bus network across the region.
The new X-lines brand sensibly brings all the disparate and individually branded limited stop routes together under one attractive identity. It’s another triumph from Best Impressions and I’m sure it will be a success.
It certainly made a welcome contrast from the grim image created by the down at heel Durham bus station.
Sadly reliability problems impacted my planned journey on the half hourly X-lines route X20 linking Durham with Sunderland and due to depart at 1726.
The bus didn’t arrive from its previous run until well after that time and we didn’t depart until 1739, 13 minutes late.
It turned out to be one of those frustrating journeys where one delay added to another with passengers’ tickets being rejected by the new Ticketer machines and other issues.
Even more frustrating we got overtaken twice by the much more frequent all stops route 20 which turned out to be quicker on this occasion!
We eventually arrived in Sunderland’s bright and airy ‘Interchange’ at Park Lane twenty minutes late and our driver loaded up and hurried off on the other newly branded X-lines route, the X6/7 to Peterlee with which the X20 interworks.
I headed over to Sunderland’s rather brutalist station …
… which is even more depressing on the subterranean platforms ….
… and caught the Metro over to Newcastle for an overnight stop.
Part 3 of this round Britain round up to follow in a couple of days.