Posted: Fri 9th Jun 2023

North Wales Transport Commission recommends bringing Merseyrail trains onto Borderlands Line

News and Info from Deeside, Flintshire, North Wales
This article is old - Published: Friday, Jun 9th, 2023

In a bid to revitalise rail travel in the region, a transport commission set up by the Welsh Government has recommended the use of new Merseyrail trains on the Wrexham to Bidston Line.

The North Wales Transport Commission – set up by ministers in Cardiff – is chaired by Lord Burns, a former Chief Economic Advisor to HM Treasury.

It is currently examining the issues, obstacles, and opportunities associated with creating a sustainable, integrated transport system in North Wales.

The Commission is currently considering a ‘multi-modal approach’, taking into account all areas of North Wales, and is exploring ways to encourage a shift away from cars to alternative transport modes in both urban and rural locations.

It operates separately from the Welsh Government’s Roads Review which led to the abandonment of major road infrastructure projects in North Wales.

This includes the controversial £300m Flintshire Red Route scheme aimed at alleviating traffic along the A494 in Deeside and the A55, a decision that faced criticism from all sides of the political spectrum.

The Commission report, published on Thursday, notes the North Wales Main Line, Borderlands Line, and the Shrewsbury to Chester Line as key railways connecting densely populated areas in Wales.

Despite infrastructure constraints and underinvestment leading to limited service frequency and operating hours, these lines are essential due to a large number of daily cross-border movements to England.

Summarising feedback from ‘stakeholders’, the Commission report states, “Public transport in North Wales is neither sufficiently affordable nor convenient to offer a real, appealing alternative to the private car.”

“Bus services are infrequent, unreliable, and do not synchronise with the rail network.”

“In terms of rail, rolling stock is in poor condition, services are overcrowded, sporadic, and costly.”

“People in North Wales do not trust the Public Transport network, leading to a reliance on car ownership.”

The Cinderella line

The Borderlands line, dubbed the “Cinderella” route links North East Wales with Merseyside, it is used by both passenger and freight trains delivering into Tata Shotton and Padeswood Cement Works.

As such, it is recognised by the Office of Rail and Road as ‘congested infrastructure.’

The report notes that resolving the Padeswood sidings issue – where freight trains obstruct the line for up to an hour – is a prerequisite for further upgrades.

The Commission says the line’s naming “does not denote its importance or potential, and that a name that connects it with Liverpool or the Wirral could enhance its profile.”

The Commission proposes that the Borderlands Line – which includes stations at Hawarden, Shotton and Buckley, could be significantly improved if Merseyrail’s new Class 777 trains were able to run from Liverpool to Wrexham, offering a potential boost for the region’s rail infrastructure.

“This aligns with Network Rail’s decarbonisation strategy, which recognised the Borderlands Line as suitable for battery-operated trains instead of full electrification,” adds the report.

Regarding rolling stock, the Commission acknowledges concerns about ageing and overcrowded trains and highlights opportunities that new Merseyrail Class 777 trains could bring to the Borderlands Line.

Any potential introduction of Class 777 trains on the Wrexham to Bidston Line would not be an immediate change and is perceived as a medium to long-term option, contingent on the further development of battery technology.

The interim report states: “Many people we spoke to believe that the rail rolling stock and station infrastructure in the region do not make rail travel appealing, particularly considering the poor service frequency and reliability.”

“Existing trains are ageing and often crowded, and stations offer poor waiting and interchange facilities.”

“The Commission is aware of the recent introduction of Class 197 trains on the North Wales Main Line and re-purposed Class 230 diesel-hybrid trains on the Borderlands Line.”

“Additionally, TfW has outlined a programme for the introduction of an updated rail fleet across the region.”

“There are opportunities to use new Merseyrail trains to enable direct services to Liverpool on the Borderlands line.”

The Commission suggests that the line’s capacity could be increased, and journey times and service frequency between Wrexham and Liverpool could be improved, greatly enhancing the route’s appeal.

The Commission has put forward a draft recommendation in its report which includes, “rail fleet improvements that facilitate the proposed service frequency enhancements should be prioritised, and the use of new Merseyrail trains on the Borderlands line should be considered.”

Class 777s

Merseyrail has taken delivery of 53 new high-spec Class 777 trains, costing £500 million, which were purchased from Swiss manufacturer Stadler in 2016.

Seven of the new fleet have been fitted with batteries which enable them to operate on tracks without a third electrified rail.

The Class 777 IPEMU (Independent Powered Electrical Multiple Unit) will operate on non-electrified lines, connecting Liverpool to its surrounding areas and eliminating the need for passengers to switch to diesel units.

Stadler Rail, who built the trains, announced that the new fleet had successfully run 135km on battery power alone, offering the potential for the new trains to operate on the Borderlands Line from Bidston to Shotton and Wrexham.

The Commission report also supports the creation of a new railway station at Deeside Industrial Park, which currently suffers from poor public transport connectivity, and improvements at Shotton station to enhance transit between the Borderlands Line and the North Wales Main Line.

Transport for Wales concerns

An influential rail user group has expressed significant concerns regarding the management and operation of the Wrexham-Bidston line by Transport for Wales (TfW) and has suggested it should be transferred to Merseyrail.

The Wrexham Bidston Rail User Association (WBRUA) held a committee meeting on 24th March, and unanimously agreed that TfW is incapable of delivering an acceptable service on the line and is urging the Welsh Government to initiate an independent review.

While the final decision has yet to be made, recommendations by the North Wales Transport Commission could ignite hope for a more connected and sustainable future for North Wales.

The report is now open to public discussion before final recommendations are made.

Lee Waters MS, Deputy Minister for Climate Change said: “I am grateful to the Commission for the work it has undertaken to date.”

“I strongly encourage everyone with an interest in the issues raised and the potential solutions in the interim report to provide feedback directly to the Commission.”

“I look forward to receiving the Commission’s final report and recommendations later this year, following which I will set out the Welsh Government’s response.”

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