Merseyrail has to be one of the success stories of the Liverpool City Region. The rather indifferent suburban railway of 50 years ago, has developed through a programme of new lines, new stations and electrification into an integrated rapid transit network. Today, any station on the Merseyrail network offers reliable and frequent services into central Liverpool.
Over thirty trains an hour converge on the city-centre, helping fuel the economy of the city by delivering office workers, shoppers and people seeking the cultural and entertainment hot-spots. All this goes largely unnoticed at it happens beneath our feet.
Even people who never use Merseyrail or are maybe unaware of its existence, benefit from the reduction in congestion, pollution and accidents that this all-electric underground system brings. Underground rail systems are rare in the UK with only Glasgow and Newcastle outside of London, so it is a major asset for the city and region.
Of course, the system has its limitations. An underground railway is a rather cumbersome way of making cross city-centre journeys compared to, say, a hop-on, hop-off tram. It was never intended for that purpose. However, probably the greatest criticism of the current service is its lack of comprehensive coverage.
People who live in Wirral, Sefton and parts of Knowsley have a fair to excellent service from Merseyrail. For those living in St Helens and the eastern suburbs of Liverpool, it is largely a non-event.
True, for many people who live in these areas, there are train services – and these have improved following recent electrification and the introduction of new, larger (albeit second-hand) trains. However, these services terminate at Lime Street – a location remote from the main commercial and retail areas of the city and with limited interchange opportunities with the rest of the local network.
So, for example, an office worker based in Old Hall Street faces a hefty walk when arriving at Lime Street involving crossing major roads. Should he or she work in Bootle then they will need to walk (or catch the Wirral Line service) to Central and change onto the Northern Line. Maybe better to catch the bus or to drive.
This poor connectivity detracts from use of the rail network and the imbalance in coverage is an obstacle to the development of a homogenous city region. However, there is a solution and one that has been around for a long time. It is known as the Edge Hill Spur.
The Edge Hill Spur makes use of the fact that all of the existing rail lines that arrive in the city centre from the east converge at Edge Hill on the eastern outskirts of the city. These lines include those from Manchester via Newton le Willows and Huyton, Wigan via St Helens and London and Birmingham via Crewe and Runcorn. A mixture of local and national services.
The idea is to divert some of all of the local services into the Northern Line of Merseyrail by means of a new tunnel - leaving the national services to continue on to Lime Street.
For example, a train from Runcorn via Liverpool South Parkway, serving new or re-opened stations at Sefton Park and Wavertree could run into the existing Liverpool Central low level station and then onto Southport or Ormskirk via Moorfields. Similarly, a train from Wigan via St Helens and Huyton could run via Central and James Street to West Kirby or Chester.
People living on the lines served would have direct access to the main retail and commercial centres of the city and, by a maximum of one change to every other station on the Merseyrail network.
There are other advantages. The ability for through running under Liverpool city centre will reduce the duplication of train crews and rolling stock so making more efficient use of resources and the removal of local train services from Lime Street will free up platform space for future long distance train services such as HS2.
Of course, as with any rethinking of existing services, there will be losers. Those city centre destinations closest to Lime Street will become less accessible and passengers on local services that now change to main line services at the terminus will lose that direct connection. However, these disbenefits have to be seen in the light of the major benefits elsewhere.
So, how can the Edge Hill Spur be achieved? Tunnelling is an expensive activity generally limited to multi-billion-pound rail schemes in the London area. Fortunately, much of that tunnelling has already been done.
Two disused tunnels diverge from Edge Hill. One is the Wapping Tunnel, a historic relic of the original Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened as far back as 1830. This worked for over 140 years as a route for goods trains from Wapping goods depot, which is not far from the present Arena and Convention Centre. The second tunnel runs to the old Waterloo goods depot, where Costco is now located and, once served the former Riverside Station on Princes Dock. This is known as the Waterloo / Victoria tunnel as it is effectively divided into two by a small cutting in the Byrom Street area.
Either tunnel could be used for the Edge Hill Spur. At first site, the Wapping Tunnel is the strong contender as it requires a minimal length of new tunnel to link to the Northern Line (around a quarter of a mile) whereas the Waterloo /Victoria would require an extended ‘S’ curve running underneath the approach cutting into Lime Street and a tunnel length of around one mile.
Even so, the Waterloo / Victoria option has its advantages, principally in that it would allow for a new underground station to be constructed in the Mount Pleasant area to serve the University and would arrive at Edge Hill on the northern side of the Lime Street approach tracks, so allowing easy access to the Manchester and Wigan lines. Should the Wapping Tunnel be required to serve those destinations then the partial reconstruction and reconfiguration of the former Edge Hill Circular flyover goods line would be required – a problem exacerbated by part of the route now lying under Wavertree Technology Park!
The recent announcement of the Knowledge Quarter extension on the site of the former Archbishop Blanch school made reference to a new underground station to serve the destination. This would be constructed on the Wapping Tunnel somewhere in the Catherine Street area. However, the site actually sits on top of the Victoria Tunnel.
The Liverpool City Region Long Term Rail Strategy published in 2014 envisages the use of the Wapping Tunnel for services to Edge Hill and this appears to be the most likely option at the present time.
Whichever route is chosen for the Edge Hill Spur scheme, the connection to the existing Northern Line tunnels, which would be in the Duke Street area, would be relatively simple as a flyover junction and short header tunnels were constructed as part of the Link Line scheme of the 1970s. So, this operation could be carried out with minimal disruption to existing services.
How likely is this scheme ever to see the light of day?
The Edge Hill Spur is not a new idea. It owes its genesis to the Outer Rail Loop scheme of the 1960s. The idea then was to convert the existing rail route which runs from Halewood through to Walton via Gateacre, Childwall and West Derby into an electrified rapid transit line. This would form the eastern section of a circular rail route running into Liverpool City Centre. Though the scheme never went ahead, the most expensive part of it – the Link Line tunnel between Central Station and Moorfields - was constructed and nowadays forms part of the Merseyrail Northern Line.
The Outer Rail Loop would serve many of those east Liverpool suburbs currently remote from the rail network but it had one major drawback – it was indirect. Passengers from West Derby or Childwall would have to travel via either Walton or Halewood to get to Liverpool city centre. That reduced its competitiveness compared to conventional bus services.
To get around this problem, the Loop was effectively cut into two sections by a new route from Broadgreen to Liverpool Central via the Edge Hill Spur. Sensible as this was, it required a complex grade-separated junction at Broadgreen and a six-platform underground station under the Rocket Pub on Queens Drive. The combination of cost in a time of austerity and political opposition in an area already devastated by the M62 motorway led to the scheme being cancelled. Today the route of the Loop is a country park enjoyed by walkers and cyclists.
Whilst the Outer Rail Loop scheme has largely been forgotten, the Edge Hill Spur has been kept on the back burner. An attempt was made to revive it in the mid-1980s and then following the collapse of the Merseytram scheme in 2005. The publication of the Liverpool City Region Long Term Rail Strategy represents another attempt to revive the scheme but, this time changing circumstances may prove decisive.
The electrification of the lines from Edge Hill to Wigan and Manchester has removed a major element of cost from the project (diesel trains could not run into the tunnels) and the decision to go ahead with the introduction of new trains to the Merseyrail network, which will have dual voltage capability, removes a technical barrier (the existing Merseyrail lines are electrified on the third rail DC principle whereas those that run into Lime Street are overhead AC).
Other factors that may influence the viability of the project are the general increase in rail travel and the need to reduce atmospheric pollution in major urban areas.
There is no avoiding the fact that tunnelling and underground station construction are very expensive and there are likely to be additional costs – principally from the need to extend the existing congested Central Low Level station and, possibly, to create a high capacity through route to James Street and the Wirral Line, but these do have to be seen in the context of what was achieved in the 1970s. The Loop and Link scheme involved some two miles of new single track tunnel and one mile of new double track together with four new underground stations, a burrowing junction in Birkenhead and electrification from Walton to Kirkby and Liverpool Central to Garston.
As with the Loop and Link line scheme, new journey opportunities can be opened up by investment in critical infrastructure. The 70s scheme was followed by electrification from Birkenhead to Chester and Ellesmere Port and from Garston to Hunts Cross and a programme of new stations and station enhancements. The same could be true of the Edge Hill Spur.
If we assume that the initial scheme would be the opening up of the Wapping Tunnel then the possibility of the reopening of stations at Wavertree (Wellington Road) and Sefton Park (Smithdown Road) becomes more realistic. These, combined with existing stations at Mossley Hill and West Allerton and Liverpool South Parkway would bring a sizeable area of South East Liverpool onto the Merseyrail network.
The long-mooted possibility of a rail link to Liverpool John Lennon Airport would become easier as the distance from the Runcorn line to the Airport is significantly less than from the Hunts Cross line.
Should the Wapping Tunnel scheme be followed by the reconstruction of the old freight viaduct at Edge Hill, the Wigan and Manchester lines could be connected into the Merseyrail network, so introducing a step-change in accessibility and integration. Were these services to be linked to James Street by the existing former Mersey Railway tunnel (not currently used for passenger services but as a stock interchange line between the Wirral and Northern lines), the possibility of giving the Liverpool City Region a west - east ‘Crossrail’ to match the existing north – south Southport to Hunts Cross route emerges. This could be achieved at a tiny fraction of the cost of the London Crossrail schemes.
There are other possibilities. There has long been a scheme to open the freight only Canada Dock branch from Edge Hill to Kirkdale via Tuebrook and Anfield to passenger services. This would become more viable with the Edge Hill Spur as it would allow for a circular service via Central rather than terminating in Lime Street.
Then, of course, there is the Outer Rail Loop – just over nine miles of largely intact track bed from Hunts Cross through to Warbreck where it links to the freight only North Mersey Branch. The Edge Hill Spur would certainly make its reopening more viable, even if the loss of the country park would be a significant obstacle.
The vision emerges of a comprehensive rapid transit rail network covering a large part of the Liverpool City Region. It would only require the construction of the Edge Hill Spur to change this vision into a practical proposition.