Bringing electric trains to North West England

There’s very little under the sun that’s new. Promoting and pushing through major rail projects today has characteristics that former generations of railwaymen will recognise.

When that doyen of railway writing, O S Nock, told the tale of British Rail’s 1970s’ electrification of the West Coast Main Line north from Weaver Junction to Glasgow, he raised the matter of connecting lines from Manchester and Liverpool northwards. They were not part of BR’s scheme and so through trains would stop to change from diesel to electric locomotives at Preston (and again in reverse at Carstairs for Edinburgh trains).

Nock wrote: “The trouble with such seemingly tempting additions is that it is difficult to know where to stop. The Liverpool-Scottish trains will be using the historic Liverpool and Manchester Railway line as far as Parkside Junction, and it is almost unthinkable that only the western section of this famous pioneer link should be electrified.

“If on the other hand justification were sought for electrification between Liverpool and Manchester on its own account, the former LNWR route would probably not be favoured. As a short inter-city electrified link one fancies that the old ‘Cheshire Lines’ would find the strongest justification; and this would not be to the advantage of the Liverpool-Scottish service.”

Now, over 40 years after WCML wires reached Glasgow, that historic Liverpool-Manchester link does have electric trains and it was electrified in two parts, with the Manchester half favoured first. The Cheshire Lines route was left untouched.

Of Nock’s Liverpool-Scottish trains, there is now nothing. Today, such a journey demands that a passenger use a local service to reach the WCML spine at Wigan or Preston for an express north. Liverpool, it seems, has lost the rail battle with its rival at the other end of the ship canal. If no bidder for TransPennine Express wishes to run such a service, I hope the Department for Transport will not complain if an open access operator takes an interest.

Nock offers some explanation for BR not wiring Manchester-Euxton via Bolton, Liverpool-Earlestown and Preston-Blackpool. They would have represented an extra 26% on the total WCML route mileage as authorised by government, he said, and “because of their physical and traffic natures would probably have involved a higher percentage increase in total cost.”

Those routes are now being wired, with the addition of the more direct Liverpool-Wigan line. The considerable engineering effort Network Rail is expending at Farnworth Tunnel near Bolton hints that Nock’s assertion was correct.

One Farnworth tunnel bore and track is currently closed while NR expands this bore to take two tracks and their new overhead line equipment. The other bore and track maintains a local weekday service.

Nock looked at the effect of not electrifying what we now call the Lancashire Triangle back in the early 1970s. He noted that the 0753 Manchester-Glasgow took 3hr 29min – “vastly better than anything before electrification”. Today, the closest train is an 0745 departure which will see you in Glasgow in 3hr 31min having changed at Preston. There’s a direct train at 0716, taking 3hr 13min via Parkside Junction. It should be quicker when the more direct Bolton route receives wires.

Back then, Nock reckoned you could clip 25 minutes from the Manchester-Glasgow by running electric throughout via Bolton. He recorded that the first 58 minutes of the 0753’s journey covered just 31 miles!

If it was cost that prevented these lines being added to the WCML scheme, then it will come as no surprise to those calling for Great Western electrification to be extended from Newbury to Bedwyn. Newbury might the the local centre of population and commerce but Bedwyn has been the western limit of commuter services from Paddington for decades. Its trains also serve Kintbury and Hungerford.

In place of 13 route miles of extra wiring, train operator First Great Western faces the prospect of running a diesel shuttle service, perhaps peak diesel services all the way to Paddington, or bringing in a sub-fleet of electric trains with battery capacity to run beyond Newbury without wires.

In assessing the most cost-effective and passenger-friendly option, it doesn’t help that the GW scheme’s cost have already risen from £1bn to over £1.6bn since it was first announced in 2009.

There’s always been a tension between those that fund railways and those that operate railways. If we’re to spend wisely that tension must remain. Blank cheques or excessive credit does the railway no favours.

This article was first published in RAIL 773 in April 2015.

Published by

Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *