Wednesday 14 April 2021

Infrastructure! Infrastructure! They've all got it Infrastructure!

When I bravely returned to the trains - still waiting for my OBE, folks - I spotted this at in the booking hall of Birkenhead Park station.

After decades of the only access to the platform being via a stepped ramp - lovely if you've got a pushchair or are in a wheelchair - they're finally going to put in a lift.  Sadly the design isn't anything to write home about, just a brick tower wedged on the side of the existing ramp.  It's a shame they didn't take the opportunity to redevelop the station itself.  Until the Luftwaffe intervened, Birkenhead Park looked like this:

Photo from The Wirral Railway and its Predecessors
by T B Maund FCILT

And now it looks like this:

Photo from Google Streetview

The area around the station is actually remarkably lively, with a varied parade of shops and new apartment blocks being constructed close by.  Plus of course you have the Park itself, which has become a real tourist attraction in recent years.  You could knock down that disappointing brick shed, build something modern and appealing, and stick three or four floors of flats over the top to pay for it.  Merseyrail gets a nice new station, the area gets a load of new homes, everyone's a winner.

Anyway it got me thinking that I haven't really passed my expert* (*not an expert) opinion on the various developments that are happening on my beat so I thought I'd do a little very late news round up.  I'm concentrating on stuff that's happening on Merseyside because I am, at heart, the Merseytart; there are also interesting developments happening across the North and West Midlands that I look forward to visiting someday.

Lift Me Up

So those Birkenhead Park lifts are part of a funding package that'll put new elevators in at five stations across Merseyrail.  Meols got their last year - eventually; it seemed to be the slowest construction project in history, and they didn't even have a pandemic in the way.  Hunts Cross will be next, with Birkenhead Park, Hillside and St Michaels to follow.  The graphics for the plans are all a bit "Grand Designs CGI in an episode from 2003 that isn't even widescreen" but you get the gist.

Combined with the new trains with their sliding footplates this should mean that Merseyrail is getting closer to being entirely step-free.  It's agonisingly slow though.

Lea Lands

Lea Green is mainly famous for being a massive series of ramps with a station attached.  That's not going to change, but St Helens Council recently approved plans for an all new building to improve the facilities there.

Photo from Google Streetview

Let's be honest, the existing station is a public toilet with pretensions.  It's inadequate by most metrics, but more especially for a station whose usage has shot up in recent years.  The plan is for it to be swept away and replaced with something far more interesting.

In addition to a new multi-storey car park for better Park and Ride facilities, there'll be a much bigger station building, with waiting facilities and catering.  The area will be landscaped with a new station square constructed.

All this is great of course and I support it wholeheartedly.  My only slight complaint is that the platforms and station are separated by the new plaza; it seems a bit weird to turn left to buy a ticket, then turn round and leave the building again to reach the trains.  However, with new ticketing technology and a lot of season ticket holders using that Park and Ride I imagine the booking office won't be incredibly busy anyway.  Well done Merseytravel and St Helens; now how about starting work on Carr Mill station?

Quarter Measures

If you've ever used Runcorn station you'll know it's... not great.  It looks like a Portakabin and it's woefully inadequate considering it's the first stop for London trains outside Liverpool.  Things will only get worse as HS2-compatible trains call, not to mention any increase in services to North Wales.  Fortunately the construction of the new Mersey Gateway bridge has meant the council has been able to radically alter the road network around the station.  Previously it cowered under flyovers for the Silver Jubilee bridge; now they've been swept away, and the plans are to replace them with homes, offices and shops, plus a new station building.

That's more like it - glass and concrete creating a welcoming gateway to the town.  The only slight flaw in the plan is the council's application for funding from the Government was rejected.  They're still pushing ahead as best as they can.


The Borderlands Line continues its very slow progress towards being an actually useful part of the railway network.  There are the new trains, of course, with their hybrid engines to make the journey smoother and faster.  Faster, more reliable trains will mean that the service can go to two trains an hour, making it a lot handier.  And the Government recently awarded funds to progress the design of a new Deeside Parkway station, beside the industrial park between Neston and Hawarden Bridge.  Add in Merseytravel's own plans for a Park and Ride station at Woodchurch and the suggestion that the new 777 trains could run down the line from Liverpool city centre and the Mid-Wirral Railway suddenly looks like an extremely interesting prospect indeed.  

New Frontiers

Whenever new Merseyrail stations are floated, two are at the top of the list: Headbolt Lane in Kirkby and St James beneath Liverpool city centre.  (Give it up, Town Meadow, it's never going to happen).  

To briefly summarise St James: until the First World War there was a station in an open cutting just south of the city centre at Parliament Street.  It was never well used and when wartime cuts came in they closed it and never reopened it.  The cutting remains as an access point for Network Rail but it's never been a priority.  

Now the area around it is the fastest growing district in the city centre.  There are new apartment blocks springing up everywhere, Cains Brewery is a big tourist attraction with its bars and eateries, and there are loads of new businesses and hotels appearing in the Baltic area.  Add to that the fact that it's halfway along a mile and a half section of railway without a station and it'd open up investment opportunities in Toxteth and it's all a no brainer.  

The project is now progressing but at a depressingly glacial pace.  Last Autumn the City Region agreed to give Network Rail £1.2 million to progress with the design, while another £300,000 was paid out to buy the land adjoining the cutting, enabling the Council to safeguard it for a station building.  This is all great of course but I just want to scream get on with it!  I want my new glamorous Baltic station!  (St James is, obviously, an unacceptable name).

There's better news for Headbolt Lane station with funding finally in place and plans for work to start later this year, with a hopeful finishing date of 2023.  Headbolt Lane does have the advantage of being in a much more accessible part of the city region, with plenty of space for a station and a bus exchange, but it'll still involve extending the electrified lines another mile or so.  I'm not too impressed by the station building - at first glance I thought it was half-timbered, but instead it seems to be a direct copy of Maghull North - and it still seems to be one platform rather than two.  That'll have to come later, if and when the Skem extension is built, so it seems daft not to do it now.  I also hope, given recent events at Kirkby, that they're going to build a really big set of buffers.  But I'm glad it's finally happening.

In more speculative news, the new Everton stadium at Bramley Moore Dock recently got planning permission.  The dock is barely a quarter of a mile from the Northern Line, at a point which would interrupt the big gap between Sandhills and Moorfields.  Everyone seems to agree that a new station would be a great idea.  Nobody seems to agree who should pay for it.  We'll see.

Elsewhere, the new Paddington development behind the new Royal is right over the tracks into Lime Street, leading to suggestions of a new station there (nice idea, but won't happen); the Mayor is looking into a spot for a brand new HS2 station (will probably open after I die so you know, whatever) and Network Rail continues to scratch its head and try to work out what to do with the hopelessly overcrowded and almost dangerous Liverpool Central.  New platform?  Lots of new platforms?  A new station entirely?  Who knows what will happen?  (Probably nothing until someone literally falls off the packed platform and dies but until then we'll keep our fingers crossed).

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