Under the streets of London, tunnel boring machines are slowly carving out a new east-west route across the capital. Crossrail will provide a vital new railway route, making cross-London connections easier and taking pressure off overcrowded Underground stations.
A predictable complaint from some quarters is that London’s transport infrastructure is receiving investment while the rest of the country is ignored. But a quieter revolution is taking place in the north-west of England, and for tangible evidence of it, you need look no further than Roby, a small station in the suburbs of Liverpool.
This pile of bricks and soil may not look too promising, until you consider that until a few months ago this area contained nothing but weeds. These are the remains of Roby’s third and fourth platforms, removed when the railway line here was reduced from four tracks to two in the 1970s. At the time, rail traffic was in decline and two tracks were sufficient to accommodate the remaining trains.
Now, however, the tide has turned. Passenger numbers are up and a cursory glance at Northern Rail’s Twitter feed will tell you that commuters are increasingly fed up about being crammed into small, slow trains. The powers-that-be want more trains, running more frequently, and faster. To this end, Network Rail is working to reinstate a third track between Roby and Huyton. This additional track will permit express trains to overtake local stopping services, greatly increasing the number of trains that can run on the line. Should the Northern Hub scheme go ahead in its entirety, the fourth track will also be put back.
When these works are completed, TransPennine Express will operate a Liverpool to Newcastle service via this route. It will run non-stop from Liverpool Lime Street to Manchester Victoria, giving a journey time of just 30 minutes between the two cities. Compare with the current fastest journey time of 43 minutes (from Liverpool to Manchester Oxford Road). The train suddenly looks like a much more attractive proposition than the car.
More is to come: by 2015, this entire route will be electrified, and most of the old diesel trains will be gone, replaced by “new” electric trains (actually, refurbished trains from Thameslink). The Class 142 Pacers, wholly unsuited for this route, will finally be consigned to history.
There are already benefits to Liverpool from this scheme. In preparation for the revamped timetable, Northern Rail have reopened the train depot at Allerton in south Liverpool, employing local people in engineering roles. Meanwhile, TransPennine have opened a new train crew depot at Liverpool Lime Street.
It’s great to see real, tangible improvements taking place on the route once travelled by George Stephenson’s Rocket. Exciting times lie ahead…