FCP’s Call for Evidence submission to the Union Connectivity Review (UCR) has highlighted the economic deprivation that exists in the North Wales coastal towns. This area is served by a poorly performing railway that provides minimal connectivity with North West England and attracts low passenger use.
Rail services provided on the route have been focussed on a declining tourist market whereas greater economic benefit would be secured if the demand for travel to employment centres in North West England, which includes Manchester and Liverpool and their respective airports, was recognised.
The current timetable to meet these journey requirements is an abject offer that is of little practical use for travel to work journeys which in many cases require a change of train.
FCP has undertaken extensive consultation with stakeholders who have understood the potential offered by the railway to improve economic conditions but have been outbid for funding by more affluent areas that up to now have benefitted from the application of investment rules determined by the Treasury. These investment rules have recently been changed as part of the Government’s levelling up agenda.
There is an urgent need to undertake a Strategic Business Case to justify investment and FCP has already completed Stage 0 of the process that identifies the economic need and the opportunity that exists for improvement to the rail corridor that connects North Wales with North West England.
The corridor includes the link between Chester and Warrington, which is a low-speed railway that is an important part of the network as it provides a connection to Liverpool via the recently restored Halton curve and to Manchester via Warrington and the Chat Moss route.
On the approach to Manchester, trains encounter the severely congested Castlefield corridor to reach Manchester Piccadilly, a constraint that did not occur before the closure of Manchester Exchange station in 1969 which was used by the services. Although this station was largely a terminus there was one through platform to Manchester Victoria which was notable for being the longest platform face in Britain.
Infrastructure rationalisation in the Chester area has caused another bottleneck. Originally the city had two stations with the Mid Cheshire line services using Chester Northgate which was closed in 1969 when trains were routed into Chester General with a new junction created at Mickle Trafford.
This is an alternative route to Manchester, but the big opportunity this line offers is that it runs virtually adjacent to Manchester Airport and requires only a 3-mile spur to the airport from Mobberley. A potential route has been protected by the airport authorities which is described as the Western Rail Link in their Surface Access Plan. If sanctioned it will allow the expansion of the existing airport station with through platforms.
The airport would be on a direct route that was less than 30 miles from Chester, offering huge potential for access to employment opportunities at the airport, as well as reducing the carbon emissions created by airline passengers who travel to the airport by road.
Meanwhile the removal of the former Great Western services between Paddington and Birkenhead, and the reduced intermediate services on the route to Shrewsbury, saw platforms at Chester replaced by a car park which is a constraint to improving the frequency of trains to Wrexham and beyond.
The North Wales coastal route was once a 4-track mainline between Chester and Llandudno Junction, but a 2-track railway now exists as the additional tracks have been largely removed. It means that it is difficult to run an express service as a train cannot overtake which will be necessary when higher line speed is available.
The provision of express services for longer distances travel does not ignore a requirement for metro services serving local stations and a well-developed North East Metro plan exists which has a centre-piece of improving Wrexham services using the two available rail routes to Chester and Bidston (for Liverpool) which requires upgrading to modern standards.
FCP’s approach to the Strategic Business Case is to recognise that interim improvements are needed to allow a high frequency express service to operate that meets the current day market potential so that fare box revenue increases to a point where electrification between Crewe and Holyhead can be justified.
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