Thursday 3 December 2009

Electric Dreams

Christmas shopping: don't you just love it? Well, no actually. It's expensive, it's difficult, it's time consuming. If you go into town to buy things, you end up being wedged into queue after queue and have to spend most of your time avoiding the urge to smack various people in the face. Then you get home and find that you bought the wrong things anyway, but by that point you no longer care, so Auntie Barbara gets that Girls of the Playboy Mansion skinny t-shirt even if she is 94 because you can't be bothered going out and getting her a replacement. And then you have to wrap the bloody things, which takes about four hours, so that someone can rip the paper off in ten seconds and discard all your hard work in the recycling. Christmas shopping is clearly rubbish.

So, like many sensible people, I turned to the wonders of the internet to do my shopping. Marvellous; sat in bed in my pants buying things without a care in the world, sipping on a cup of tea and noshing on digestives. Infinitely preferable.

Until it comes to receiving the hundreds of packages, at which point the system rather falls down. So this morning, little red card in hand, I had to drag myself out in the wind and rain to make my way to Prenton sorting office to pick up my Godson's Christmas present. Since I now have the stirrings of a cold, I hope the little darling is suitably appreciative.

It did give me a chance to take a few photos of Merseyrail's possible future, however. Back when I finished the Borderlands Line, in October, I didn't really go into the electrification plans for it. It doesn't take a genius to work out that this line running from Wrexham to Bidston would be a whole lot more useful - and profitable - if the trains could carry on through Birkenhead and into Liverpool city centre. Unfortunately, since the line is diesel only - and diesel trains are prevented from running on the Loop - that's never going to happen.

Bringing the line into the Merseyrail network is a priority for Merseytravel and the other stakeholders along its length. There have been various studies into it which have concluded that yes, it would be a fantastic idea, but have you seen how much it will cost? The estimates in the last study were a lot more than anyone expected, and so everyone looked a bit embarrassed and shuffled off.

The basic plan would see the line continue as it is, just with Merseyrail trains instead of Arriva ones, calling at the existing stations. However, one new station will almost certainly be built with electrification, and that's the one at Woodchurch. This is the station site down the road from the sorting office; hence why I had all that pre-amble about Christmas, and hence why I had a look at the proposed site this morning.

The reason Woodchurch is such a priority for the new line can be summed up in one word: interchange. It has the potential to be a real boon, and possibly one of the busiest stations on the Wirral, once it's completed.

At the moment, admittedly, it doesn't look like much.

A scraggy bit of field next to the railway line, currently used by various amateur football clubs for Sunday league football. Not too promising.

However, look to the left, and you see this:

That's junction three of the M53, the motorway connecting Liverpool, Chester, and all the towns in between just about visible in the dip.

Look to the right, and you see this:

That's the A552, or the Woodchurch Road, pretty much the main east-west road on the Wirral. It runs from Birkenhead town centre, through Prenton (with Tranmere Rovers and the local shopping centre), past the Woodchurch estate before ending up at Arrowe Park Hospital. It's one of the main bus corridors on the whole peninsular, and is always busy. Apart from when I take a picture obviously.

In short, stick a nice park and ride here, and you could get traffic off the motorway, traffic off the local streets, and a new bus interchange into the bargain. You'd also bring Merseyrail services to Prenton, one of the very few areas this side of the Mersey that doesn't have a handy rail service into Liverpool. Everyone's a winner baby, that's no lie.

The potential station is such a no-brainer, and such an asset, that Merseytravel have even considered just electrifying the couple of miles to reach here, terminating the Wrexham trains even further away from Liverpool. Understandably, the councils in Wales are less keen on that idea, and are working with the PTE to try and get the whole line done at once.

Given the huge costs involved, it won't happen for a few years at least. There's a debate about whether third rail electrification (like the rest of Merseyrail) is what's needed, or whether it would be better to have overhead electrification with new rolling stock capable of going on both types. Merseytravel have even floated the idea of the diesel trains terminating on the currently unused platform at James Street, and therefore not having to go through the Loop at all, as an "on the cheap" way of doing it. Whichever way it happens, it would be good to see the network expand, especially with a nice gleaming station just down the road from me...

(By the way, to get these photos, I had to walk across this footbridge:

Given that I suffer from vertigo, I hope you realise the sacrifice I made for you, gentle readers. It was also blowing a gale which whipped at my coat and made me think I was about to be hurled onto the motorway. It was utterly terrifying. You see what I do for you people?)


dreadedvacuumflaskmonster said...

I recently traversed the Borderlands line between Bidston and Wrexham and agree the whole lot should be done in one go.

Isn't Wrexham Central station an anti-climax? Brilliant frontage, yet rather uninspiring on the platform?

However, it's rather hilly south of Shotton and one of the main reasons the 502/503 sets were taken out of service in the late 70s/early 80s was because they had trouble with the steep gradients on the Northern Line as they exited the northern end of the Moorfields-Sandhills Link, and that was just a short run. I can imagine our 507/508 sets getting into the same trouble, much quicker, over a longer section of track?

And I'm sure Arriva will be made up having their rail franchise taken from them to be replaced by Serco/Ned Rail/Merseyrail units. Which is no bad thing, seeing as they think they have a cartel of bus operation on Merseyside as it is!

Sean O'Brien said...

Oooh you were right next to my house when you did this! Even without Merseyrail electrification they should build a station at Woodchurch/Prenton as it would definately be worthwhile for Arriva. It'd serve the massive Woodchurch and Noctorum council estates, the Holmlands estate, that new estate, the estate next to the sorting office, the Prenton Dell estate, endless estates basically!

I reckon they could build it near one of the subways that go under the motorway to Woodchurch and have a park and ride on that side as there's two fields by each subway. Positioning it there would also allow pedestrian access from both Noctorum and the Holmlands.

Sadly it'll probably never happen and I wouldn't be surprised to see the line axed altogether before anything happened to it!

Scott Willison said...

Glad I didn't know you was there at the time Sean, or I'd have been hammering on your door demanding a cup of tea and shelter from the rain! You're right, there is a massive catchment area there who would swap straight onto the trains if they could.

I'd much prefer there to be an all or nothing electrification, but I can see how it would be a problem. It would take Merseyrail from being an urban railway into more of a regional service, and I'm not sure that's what it's designed for. The idea of services stopping in Gwersylt and Moorfields just seems bizarre, somehow. I've never been as far as Wrexham, though I've heard it is a dump from various sources...

If it did happen thought, it wouldn't be until the new rolling stock comes in, so I should imagine they'd take those gradients into account when they order them. I've no complaints about Arriva getting a line taken off them - one down, several dozen to go!

Unknown said...

The operator that should have all its lines taken off them is.....NORTHERN. I hate them. I am constantly late for work because of them.

Sean O'Brien said...

Have to agree with that. Northern run all the trains in Leeds where I'm currently at uni and I've never experienced such late, slow services in all my life. The trains are... how can I put it... rank, old, hideous, crampt, smelly, stupid. What an awful train company. It really does beggar believe that it's run by the same people as the second-to-none Merseyrail.

Scott Willison said...

That really surprises me, about Northern being shite. Serco/Nedrail run both Merseyrail and the DLR, and, as you say, they're excellent. I assumed Northern would be just as good.

I have to admit I don't like Northern because they changed all the City Line station signs so they were in Northern's font and had a little purple logo on the bottom.

Unknown said...

No wonder then that even though half of Northerns fleet are ex-Arriva trains and the remainder are clearly ex-Merseyrail. They really are simply shite! 2 weeks ago I was locked on an empty Northern train at Lime Street for 50 mins until I finally grabbed the attention of a passing FirstNorthwestern employee.

John said...

The Bidston to Neston section of the Borderlands line should be on Merseyrail electrics, with a station at Woodchurch. Neston then be the Whexham terminal for the diesel trains. Going any further towards Wales and the network becomes a regional railway not an uban one.

Uprating the Halton Curve will give direct rail access to Liverpool Lime St and South Parkway from North Wales and Chester - very cheaply. This line will probably be run by Arriva Wales or Northern Rail. I doubt Merseyrail will get involved in that.

Jonathan said...

Regarding train performance, at least, the 507/508 was really designed as a regional EMU for the Southern network (at which point it had two trailers in the middle, not just one). The gradients in the tunnel entrances are reportedly *very* steep compared to anything you find on the surface, and these trains can still accelerate up them, so I don't see any potential trouble there.

There's also the factor that the 507/508 units are due for replacement within the next decade - their close cousins the 313s have already been virtually replaced down South. It's very likely that replacements would be purpose-designed for this network, taking into account lessons learned from the past few decades' experience.

What would be really interesting to see is if half the network stays with the 507/508 - which I suspect are not totally worn out yet! - and an equal number of new units take over the other half. That would provide enough stock to cover an expanded network both to the southwest and the northeast (ie. beyond Ormskirk to Preston, another no-brainer).

Overhead electrification would make more sense for the Chat Moss line (ie. to Man. Vic.) since it would mesh well with the existing infrastructure at Lime Street. Anything that sends Pacers to the scrapheap gets my vote, anyway.