One day, someone will write a history of British New Towns, and under the chapter on Skelmersdale they'll put The name was probably a mistake. It's a hard, guttural name; filled with Celtic and Norse overtones, yes, but still ugly on the tongue. My mum used to find it hilarious; whenever we drove past the sign on the M58 she'd giggle to herself, and sometimes murmur, "Skelmersdale. It's so Northern." Building a New Town means you can start again - the planners could have called it "Lovelytown" or "Happyfields" or "Absolutely Gorgeous City" if they'd wanted, but no, they stuck with Skelmersdale.
And the shortened version is Skem, which is even worse.
Mind you, they made so many mistakes with Skelmersdale, it's hard to know where to start. It was built as an overflow town for Liverpool in the Sixties. The idea was that Scousers would be taken out of their substandard homes and put in new houses in a town filled with jobs and parks. It was designed to be self-sustaining, with factories to work in, schools for the children, and shops and leisure facilities to keep them entertained. The M58 was built along its southern edge so that all the goods could be swept out to the Port of Liverpool or the M6.
It turned out to be more of a hole in the centre of Lancashire, sadly. The businesses didn't come, driven away by the economic recessions of the Seventies and the general collapse in manufacturing in the North. People felt disjointed, abandoned, with nothing to do and nowhere to go. A town built for 80,000 residents today houses barely half that. It means that there are wide, unused boulevards all over town, gigantic roundabouts constructed to carry commuters swiftly to work, underpasses to segregate pedestrians from the fast-flowing traffic that never came. And there's no railway station.
There used to be a railway station. Skelmersdale station was on the western edge of what is now the Old Town, built to service the small hamlet of the same name and on a branch line that ran from Ormskirk to Rainford (then Rainford Junction). There were a couple of other stops on the route, notably at Westhead, but it wasn't a principal route and British Railways closed the station in 1956, with the tracks getting lifted in 1968 and turned into a road.
At no point does it seem to have occurred to anyone that a railway route to Liverpool - even a roundabout one via Ormskirk - might be a good idea for the residents. The car was the future: everyone would have their own, and if they didn't, motor buses would be an admirable alternative. Skelmersdale was a New Town, remember; the planners didn't want everyone rushing back to the old city at the drop of a hat. It's notable that the M58 doesn't go anywhere near Liverpool, instead slicing across the top of the city like it's afraid it might catch something if it gets too close.
Problem was, a lot of people in Skelmersdale didn't have cars. These were Liverpool's poor, remember, and though they had new three bedroom semis, they weren't given an Austin Montego as well. They needed public transport. Even today, the bus journey from Liverpool to Skelmersdale takes an hour. That's a long journey. It's difficult not to note that while Skelmersdale has problems with crime and deprivation, its neighbours in West Lancashire with their own train stations - Ormskirk, Burscough, Parbold - are relatively affluent and successful. Skem needs a station.
The need for a Skelmersdale station has gathered pace over the last five or six years or so. Merseyrail's plans for a station at Headbolt Lane has brought the idea of an extension back onto the table. The Kirkby line is very under capacity; with only three stations of its own, a train every fifteen minutes and an extensive dwell time at the terminal, it'd be a great opportunity to send trains Skelmersdale's way.
With that in mind, Lancashire County Council have launched a new West Lancashire Highways and Transport Masterplan, with the Skelmersdale rail link its top priority. The idea is to create a triangular junction south of the town, then send the trains from Liverpool and Wigan along what is currently Whiteledge Road to a new combined bus/train terminal in the town centre. Interestingly, the masterplan seems to completely void out the road, raising the possibility that the road will be sacrificed for the railway - a pleasing reversal of history.
There had been two other schemes, to create park and rides at the edge of town: one by upgrading the currently underused Upholland station, the other by restoring the Ormskirk-Skem branch. This is the bravest and most gratifying option though, and I'm glad to see it's the one that the County Council want to pursue. There are a few issues, mainly to do with funding: while Network Rail, the County and District councils are all on board with the idea, none of them really want to pay the millions of pounds required to make it happen.
Another, pleasing side effect of this scheme would be poor old Rainford station being brought into the Merseyrail fold. It's always been an orphan: the electric lines stop at Kirkby, even though Rainford is also in Merseyside, leaving it with a substandard service compared to its neighbours in the Merseytravel area.
That's not it for railways in West Lancashire. The report also notes that Burscough and Ormskirk, while having a lot in common, don't actually connect together in a very meaningful way. There's a train service between the two towns but it's erratic and slow, and if you want to continue on to Liverpool you have to change trains.
The consultation proposes electrification of the line at least as far as Burcough Junction, the single platform station at the south of the town, and possibly further towards the centre. In the process, they've finally laid the "Burscough Curves" plan to rest. This would have restored the connections between the Preston/Ormskirk line and the Southport/Wigan line:
I've never been keen on the restoration of the Burscough Curves. There's already an electric line to Southport - this would have been indirect and slower. It seems that Lancashire County Council agree with me, and have now decided to push for electrification beyond Ormskirk. Their idea is that one train an hour from Liverpool will continue on to Burscough Junction/a new Burscough Central station, giving them a good regular service south and helping to alleviate some of the traffic on the A59 and in Ormskirk town centre in the process. This will also have a positive knock on effect for the Preston services, because the trains will have less distance to travel so they might be able to have an every hour service as well.
The eventual aim is for the whole route to Preston to be electrified of course, but that's just an ideal. I mean, where's the benefit in connecting two major north west cities with a fast, direct rail route? That would be MADNESS.
The whole consultation exercise opens on the 2nd December. In the meantime you can read the document here.
That was all a bit boring and worthy, wasn't it? Sorry. I'll get back to wandering the countryside making innuendos soon, I promise.