Robert Hampton

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9th January 2013

Hells bells, it’s Helsby
Posted by at 8.48pm | No responses | Trains

Sort-of exciting news reported by the Chester Chronicle:-

A NEW specialised rail link service could be introduced between Ellesmere Port and Helsby.

Cheshire West and Chester Council has commissioned a report looking into the feasibility of a new shuttle-type service called a Parry People Mover, which would make use of one of the existing railway lines between the two locations.

For the uninitiated, the Ellesmere Port to Helsby line is a short branch line linking the aforementioned Cheshire towns. At Ellesmere Port, connections are made with the Merseyrail service to Liverpool. At Helsby, services to North Wales, Warrington and Manchester are available. En route, the train calls at Stanlow & Thornton, situated inside the huge Stanlow Oil Refinery complex, and Ince & Elton, serving two small commuter villages.

For further background, you might want to read my friend Scott’s blog, all about the time he and I visited the line and got accosted by a security guard at Stanlow.

Ellesmere Port to Helsby

For many years, the line was effectively treated as part of the Merseyrail network, with system maps showing it in the same green colour as the electric routes. Until 1985, the railway electrification only reached the edge of Birkenhead, so at Rock Ferry passengers from Liverpool were decanted into a diesel train to continue onwards to either Chester or Helsby. Not an ideal set-up, but a fairly slick cross-platform connection meant that it was not too inconvenient.

Then Merseytravel got ambitious, and the third rail was extended, first to Hooton, then Chester. Finally, attention turned to the Helsby branch, but concerns were raised about the noxious fumes being emitted from the Stanlow Oil Refinery, through which the line passes. It was decided that flammable liquids would not sit well with the possibility of arcing from the trains, and the Wirral Line now ends at Ellesmere Port.

On the remaining non-electrified section, a diesel shuttle service was introduced from Ellesmere Port to Warrington via Helsby, with some trains continuing all the way to Liverpool Lime Street (an all-stations trip of over 90 minutes, usually on a Pacer – only an extreme masochist would do the journey end-to-end). However this soon dwindled away, and today only a desultory “will this do?” service remains – four trains in each direction, two at about 6am, 30 minutes apart, and two more at around 4pm. Not particularly useful for commuters, shoppers, or anyone else really.

The local rail users group have long campaigned for a better service. Unfortunately, Northern Rail’s fleet is already stretched to the limit for much of the day. Shuttling a full size diesel multiple unit between Ellesmere Port and Helsby all day would be a waste of a train which could be more usefully deployed elsewhere. Hence the Parry People Mover, a lightweight, low-cost vehicle which has already proved itself in practice on the Stourbridge Town branch line in the West Midlands.

Parry People Mover

I visited the Stourbridge line in October 2012 and found it an interesting experience. The vehicle is more like a bus or small tram than a train. The ride wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it was adequate for a short distance. Crucially, the cost savings have permitted various improvements – the line now enjoys an increased frequency, and the service now operates seven days a week.

On the face of it, trying something similar in Cheshire seems like a good idea. There are problems, however, once you try to mix the little Parry vehicles with main line trains. The Stourbridge Town branch is a self-contained single-track line, with no risk of collision with another train. The Ellesmere Port line, on the other hand, is also used by Freightliner trains conveying coal from Ellesmere Port docks. While a Parry People Mover is a perfectly well-built vehicle, it would not come out too well if a Class 70 locomotive smashed into one. The double-track line would have to be converted to two single lines – one for “normal” trains, and the other dedicated to the light rail vehicle. Also, as the vehicles could never leave the line, some sort of maintenance facility would have to be built somewhere.

The cost for all this is estimated at £2.4 million. It doesn’t sound too much compared to other recently announced rail projects. I hope the feasibility study weighs the study carefully. I can certainly think of a few arguments against a scheme. If you want to go from Helsby to Liverpool, going via Chester is the same price and more or less the same journey time as via Ellesmere Port. There is already an hourly bus service between Ellesmere Port and Helsby serving Ince and Elton, and it could be argued that improving that would be a better use of money.

On the other hand, getting from Ellesmere Port to Manchester by train is difficult and slow, involving two changes at Hooton and Chester. A regular service to Helsby, which has a decent service to Manchester, would improve that particular journey considerably. On the way to Manchester, the train from Helsby calls at Warrington Bank Quay, interchange for the West Coast Main Line, opening up yet more opportunities.

It’ll be interesting to see if this backwater line can be rejuvenated. I’m remaining sceptical, however.

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