Friday 31 May 2024


Last week I wrote a piece about the plans for Baltic station and in passing, I sarcastically mentioned how there was "no further info on how and when they're going to sort out Liverpool Central."  Literally the next day Steve Rotherham put out some info on how and when they're going to sort out Liverpool Central.  Well played, Rotherham.

I say that: this was more of a hopes and dreams announcement rather than anything actually tangible.  Still, they included some whizzy CGI, which is always pleasing to see.  

The announcement came with the establishment of a Liverpool-Manchester Railway Board, which exists to try and get funding for improvements to the connections between the two largest cities in the North West.  Their vision is for a brand new high speed railway via Warrington and Manchester Airport with new termini at each end - an underground station at Piccadilly, enabling through running to Leeds if anyone decides that joining up with a third major city is something worth doing, and a massively revamped Liverpool Central.

This last part came as a surprise.  Central did, of course, once have direct trains to Manchester, as well as London and other destinations.  Beeching axed most of the routes in the Sixties, diverted the long distance ones into Lime Street, then the Link and Loop project sent the commuter routes underground.  The train shed was demolished, the platforms swept away, and Central became nothing more than a local station.

It is, however, a local station and a half.  Despite having only three platforms, Central is the tenth busiest station outside the capital with 11.4 million passengers last year - 900,000 less than Glasgow Queen Street, and more than Lime Street.  The Northern Line platforms in particular are beyond capacity, a single island somehow expected to cope with twelve trains an hour in each direction, including terminating services from Kirkby and Ormskirk that need to be turned round.  Something has to be done.

The proposed solution appears to be using the new Liverpool-Manchester route as an excuse to completely rebuild Central, gaining access to funds that wouldn't otherwise be available, and creating an entirely new station that none the less contains elements that are more than 150 years old.  But enough of that: where's the whizzy CGI?

It's important to note that these are images of what Central could look like, which does, of course, mean nothing.  I could look like Ryan Gosling given enough money and plastic surgery, but it's not going to happen.  This appears to be the existing entrance to the station on Ranelagh Street, with the existing shopping mall demolished in favour of a large open public space.  This is a great idea.  Central's shops have always been down at heel, and (with the exception of the Sainsbury's Local) have never really taken advantage of their location.  There are people streaming through there eighteen hours a day and yet most of the shops open at nine and close at five, leaving a dead space in the evening.  The only sadness is that this will mean the end of the legendary Leather Shop, a store that nobody has ever gone into, nobody has ever purchased anything from, and which has none the less existed on this site for decades.

Another image shows a second entrance to the station; the building behind the overhang is the Art Deco Oxfam so we can deduce this seems to be an opening out onto a pedestrianised Newington.  This makes sense.  The movement of traffic from the station is no longer straight out into the shopping district.  Bold Street and Ropewalks are vibrant, busy areas, and a back entrance would shorten the journey for people going to, for example, Chinatown or the Philharmonic.  

Connecting the two entrances is this long concourse which appears to finally take advantage of Liverpool Central's big plus: land.  Most of the time, expanding an underground station in a city centre is an expensive job involving a lot of demolition.  Central had the good luck - depending on what way you look at it - to have been demolished in the middle of an economic downturn.  That means the land where the old above ground station was has never really been filled in.

This image from Google Maps - I drew the rough paths of the Northern and Wirral lines on myself - shows that beyond the mall at the front there's car parks, workshops, nothing much.  Over the years proposals have come and gone - a couple of skyscrapers, a leisure development that ties in with the adjacent Lewis's building - but nothing of any real import has actually happened.  Meaning that the land is there to be exploited, and building work can be carried out with relatively little disruption to the rest of the city.  A new concourse can fill this gap between the buildings and cover any new tunnelling work - of which there will presumably be a lot.  The plans are vague, but since the images don't show any actual platforms, we have to conclude the new line from Manchester to Liverpool will occupy a third underground level, below the Northern and Wirral lines.  That's a pretty deep construction, but is again ideal if they're going to use the opportunity to split the busy Northern platforms.  The simplest option would be a central rail line with platforms either side, getting rid of the island, but I would hope they would try and future proof it a little and build four platforms - two for terminating services and two for through services. 

The press release vaguely mentions two other parts of the scheme intended to alleviate the pressure on the city's termini.  One is a tunnel to enable more local trains to go to Central instead of Lime Street; this was, of course, an original aspiration of the Link and Loop back in the 1970s.  That would've used the Victoria Tunnel to get there, with a new station at the University, but the various crises of the decade put the end to it.  Ironically, that may have been a good thing on one level, as Central would've reached breaking point a long time ago if there were also services from St Helens and Huyton trying to pass through it.

The other suggestion is an underground route between Lime Street and Central, providing seamless interchange and effectively turning them into one big station.  I'm less keen on this idea to be honest.  The inspiration is apparently King's Cross St Pancras, where you're able to move entirely under cover from the Eurostar to the Leeds trains and vice versa.  What this misses is that the reason they're interconnected is because there's a bloody great Underground station in the gap.  Also, the two stations are literally next door to one another, while Central and Lime Street are very much separate.

It's a five minute walk between the two, which ok, probably isn't great on a rainy Thursday, and yes, is not the most glamorous of routes (call in at the Blob Shop on your way past, you know you want to).  But it's nothing that couldn't be helped with some traffic calming and a little light refurbishment.  An underground route would be several hundred metres long, if it went as the crow flies (not guaranteed given the large buildings en route) and you'd probably need some travelators in there.  It'd be windowless, obviously, and if it's not behind the ticket barriers, it would be a magnet for the unhoused and the undesirable.  It's one of the reasons they filled in the subway from Lime Street to St John's, after all.  Also, judging by how the roof of the passageway between the mainline and underground stations at Lime Street has been leaking for, I would estimate, the best part of a decade, maintaining such a passageway would be an expensive job that's beyond the capabilities of the authorities.

I'm cautiously optimistic.  The Mayors working together is a start, and a new incoming Labour government would mean the city region's politics would align with the national ones (I mean by the colour of their rosettes, obviously; Liverpool is to the left of pretty much any potential administration).  I'm not enamoured with the designs, mainly because they're old fashioned to me - they remind me of the concept for the rebuild of Camden Town, which dates from the turn of the millennium.

Baltic's industrial feel was far more intriguing to me, but I get that you need a hook to grab people when you have concept art; a big sailing roof or a neon glow is headline grabbing in a way that simplicity isn't.  My only sadness is that I've reached that point of middle age where I look at the proposals pessimistically and wonder if I'll even be around when they're built.  

Well, that was a cheery way to end things, wasn't it?


Caramell said...

Whatever will happen to the Warhammer shop? Oh nooo!
The Leather Shop hahahaha so true

John said...

Steve Rotheram's surname doesn't have an H. Weird I know