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Railways between Liverpool and Manchester

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Interior of Manchester Picadilly Station.

When the Liverpool to Manchester Railway opened up, it marked the beginning of a revolution in transport. It was the first intercity railway, linking the great port of Liverpool and the world's leading textile city. From here, railway fever spread not only across the country, but across the world. Today railways can be found linking cities across the wastes of Siberia and the mountains of North America. They can all trace their roots back to the Liverpool and Manchester.

It wasn't the only line linking the two cities. Over time there grew to be four competing routes, all of which have changed in some way or another from how they were originally built. We'll look at all four of them.

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway

The original route, also known as the Chat Moss line, links Manchester and Liverpool via Eccles, Newton-le-Willows and St Helens. It was opened by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830 to allow materials to move quicker between Manchester's mills and the port. The existing route was via narrow canals and the Rivers Mersey and Irwell, the Manchester Ship Canal yet to be built.

The Liverpool and Manchester Company was set up by Henry Booth, soon to be secretary and treasurer, with shareholders coming from Liverpool, Manchester and London. Joseph Sandars and John Kennedy, a Liverpool merchant and a Manchester mill owner originally promoted the idea of the line, with William James, a property speculator and land surveyor being influential in the original idea.

William James did the first survey for the line, mainly by trespassing on private lands, however there were errors in the survey. The investors then gave the job of building the line to George Stephenson, the engineer of the Stockton and Darlington line. The plan he produced was put before Parliament, but the politicians looked down on this self-taught man with his wild Northumbrian accent, and rejected it. Part of this was due to his son Robert having left for South America; George was unable to do the maths and left his subordinates to check the survey, which they failed to do correctly.

Stephenson was replaced by the Rennie brothers1, who recruited Charles Vignoles as their surveyor. They chose a different route which avoided both political hassle and the need to cross the Chat Moss bog. The Rennie bothers also decided that the best way gauge for building the new railway was 5ft 6inches (1676mm). This wide gauge would have allowed larger carriages and locomotives and faster, smoother travel. A new Bill for the construction of the line was passed by Parliament.

The Rennies made demands for their services that the company was not willing to pay, so they went back to Stephenson. He didn't appreciate the work of the Rennies so changed the route, stopped the survey (resulting in Vignoles leaving) and most importantly changed the gauge.

Stephenson's previous experience with railways in collieries and on the Stockton and Darlington had always used rails that were 4ft 8½inches (1435mm) apart. This gap had come from the spacing on wheels on horse carts used on trackways and had its origins in Roman times. Given that the Liverpool and Manchester was to become the foundation of the future British Rail network, a network that was copied around the world, the choice that Stephenson made would influence most future railway construction. It can be argued that this choice stifled the development of fast, smooth, spacious rail travel.

Stephenson brought in Joseph Locke, one of the most talented engineers of his generation, as his assistant. Together they built a line that was a massive engineering achievement. Some of the major features were:

  • The Sankey Viaduct over Sankey Brook and Canal near Newton-le-Willows.
  • The Wapping Tunnel that linked Liverpool's docks with Edge Hill Station. It was over two kilometres long and the first tunnel built under a city in the UK. It was originally too steep for locomotives to haul trains in the tunnel, so trains were hauled by cables.
  • The three kilometre long, 20-metre deep cutting through rock at Olive Mount on the approach to Liverpool Lime Street station.
  • The crossing over Chat Moss bog. This was seemingly impassable soggy ground. While Stephenson is credited with the solution, the idea of floating a wood and stone bed on the bog then laying the track on it came from Locke. The Chat Moss section was the only part of the line that used rails attached to sleepers joining the two rails, the rest of the line used rails along stone blocks. Although it was notable that the Chat Moss section was smoother than the rest of the line, Stephenson refused to believe sleepers were an effective way of building a railway.

It is worth noting that these pieces of civil engineering were built for locomotives weighing around 10 tons, 10 times less than the modern locomotives that use the line.

The Rainhill Trials, where various locomotive engineers brought their designs to try and get the contract for the line's locomotive, was one of the celebrated events in rail history. It was won by the Rocket, designed and built by Robert Stephenson's company. Although not the first steam locomotive, the design incorporated a number of important innovations, often invented by other engineers, but all brought together for the first time in Rocket.

The line first ran to a temporary terminus at Liverpool Crown Street before the main terminal at Liverpool Lime Street opened up a few years later. Manchester Liverpool Road was the terminus at the Manchester end until Manchester Victoria opened up in 1844, with Liverpool Road becoming a goods terminal until the 1970s. The Liverpool and Manchester railway became part of the London and North Western Railway. When the LNWR became dissatisfied with their arrangements at Victoria, owned by the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, they opened up a new station at Manchester Exchange in 1884. This served the Liverpool line until it closed in 1969.

The current line is served by trains from both Manchester Victoria and Manchester Piccadilly. Generally the slow trains from Liverpool go through Victoria and on to either Stalybridge or Huddersfield. The fast trains link Liverpool and Manchester Airport via Manchester Piccadilly. The eastern half of the line is also used by trains to North Wales and Chester from Manchester. They use the line as far as Earlstown where they join the West Coast Main Line.

Although this is the older of the two direct routes, it is generally now a secondary route compared with the line through Warrington, which is served by more long distance services. However, the Liverpool and Manchester line has more connections, joining the West Coast Mainline and also the Liverpool to Wigan line, and so was chosen for electrification. It is due to be completed in 2016.

The quickest journey times in the 2012 timetable between Piccadilly and Lime Street on this route are 47 minutes although electrification plans may decrease these times by around ten minutes.

The Cheshire Lines Route

The Cheshire Lines Committee was a railway company set up by The Midland, The Great Central (Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire) and The Great Northern Railways. They were worried that the London and North Western, the largest of the railway companies, had too powerful a presence in the north-west. They set up the company to build routes in Cheshire and Lancashire as well as to allow the companies access to new cities. It opened up in 1873.

The Cheshire Lines route between the two cities ran from Manchester Central station - currently the Manchester Central exhibition space - to Liverpool Central Station. The old Liverpool Central station was at ground level2 and was approached through a tunnel from the south. Most of the approach line still exists, and is used by Merseyrail's Northern Line to Hunts Cross. The current incarnation of the route from Manchester leaves the old line at Hunts Cross and joins the LNWR into Lime Street Station. Manchester Central is no longer used by trains; trains from the Cheshire Lines route run into Manchester Oxford Road and Manchester Piccadilly. Some of the great iron bridges on the approach to the station are now used by the Metrolink tram system.

Principal stations on the route are Warrington Central, Liverpool South Parkway3, Widnes4 and Birchwood.

Local stopping services run from Liverpool Lime Street to Oxford Road and take well over an hour to complete their journey. Fast services run from Lime Street through Piccadilly and on to Yorkshire, the East Midlands and East Anglia. These services are run by Transpennine Express and East Midlands Trains and take around 50 minutes. This is actually slower than some of the Central to Central expresses from the Victorian era.

The Lancashire and Yorkshire Route

The Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway was one of the major companies in the north of England before the grouping of 1923. Their network was very compact, with lots of lines around the conurbations of the north-west and Yorkshire. Although it didn't rival many of the larger companies in terms of miles of track, it was the most densely served network with most locomotives per route mile. They operated out of Manchester's Victoria station and Liverpool's Exchange station. Liverpool Exchange station no longer exists aside from the station frontage and some traces of the platforms. It has been replaced by Moorfields station, which lies underground, almost directly beneath Exchange.

The route between the two used the routes of two railways that were brought by the L&Y. It followed the Liverpool and Bury railway north out of Liverpool, through to Wigan Wallgate then followed the Manchester and Southport railway to Manchester. The route was 37 miles, longer than the other two.

It is still possible to travel by this route, taking the Merseyrail Northern Line from Moorfields to Kirkby and changing trains to get a train to Manchester Victoria via Wigan. The old viaduct into Exchange exists in parts and can be seen from the train between Sandhills and Moorfields. While the Merseyrail service is frequent, the train from Kirby is only hourly and doesn't run late at night or on Sundays. In the Merseyrail brochures this is often marketed as the Kirby to Wigan train, not stressing that it goes on to Manchester and often beyond to Rochdale. The journey time from Liverpool to Manchester using this line is around an hour and forty minutes, most of that on uncomfortable small diesel units that bounce down the line.

The Southern Route

While it is possible to use all or most of the other three routes to travel between the two cities, the last connection has long been severed. It used parts of the Stockport to Warrington line and the St Helens and Runcorn gap line. The trains left from Oxford Road station and used the Manchester, South Junction and Altrincham line to Altrincham5 where they joined the line from Stockport. Current trains on this line head only to Chester, but the Liverpool services used to veer off and run towards Warrington. The line had its main station and headquarters at Warrington Arpley, although only having two platforms, it had a grand façade and a full roof. The line then followed the river to join up with the Runcorn to Liverpool Lime Street line at Ditton Junction6.

The line was completed in 1854, but soon the LNWR railway started to lease it and by 1864 had bought the entire route. Since the LNWR already had a passenger route between Liverpool and Manchester, this line became secondary with fewer services between the two cities, although freight traffic was still heavy. Most passenger services ran only from Ditton Junction to Manchester Oxford Road, although there were infrequent trains from Liverpool to Manchester as well as from Liverpool into Stockport. They raised the West Coast line to cross over the Stockport line at Bank Quay and built an set of low level platforms. LNWR tried to close the nearby Arpley station, but it was legally forced to keep it open.

The line was altered when the Manchester Ship Canal was built, and a viaduct at Latchford, east of Warrington, was built to cross it. Arpley Station closed in 1958, while passenger services stopped using the line in 1962. The line remained a busy freight route, especially with coal trains serving Fidder's Ferry Power Station. The line east of Warrington was forced to close in the 1980s when it was decided that it was uneconomic to make repairs to the Latchford viaduct, however the rest of the line still sees heavy use. As Ditton Junction station was no longer a junction for passenger services, it lost Junction from its name in 1974, although many of the signs remained the same. Gradually, it saw its passenger services reduced to just the occasional Liverpool to Crewe train. The station closed completely in 1994.

Today the only sections you can still use as a passenger are from Oxford Road to Deansgate on the main line, from Cornbrook to Altringham on the Metrolink and from Ditton to Liverpool Lime Street on the Liverpool to Runcorn line.

The Future

It is in the interests of the economy and the environment to encourage as many people to choose to take the train over the car between the two cities. Various improvements have been announced for rail transport in the region.

Liverpool Lime Street has just been refurbished, and Manchester Piccadilly was rebuilt for the 2002 Commonwealth Games, however Manchester Victoria was voted the worst station in the country in 20097. While it retains an impressive, airy, Victorian feel to the main body of the station, the roof over most the platforms leaks and there is a feeling that the place has seen better days. Money to improve it is due to come as part of the Northern Hub Scheme, which will also include adding more through platforms to Manchester Piccadilly, which is the area of the station served by Liverpool trains.

Liverpool Road station remains linked to the national network, and sees occasional special trains visit it, however under the Northern Hub plans to link Victoria and Manchester, it may lose its connection.

As one of the busiest intercity routes in the country, it is a surprise that the railway hasn't already been electrified. Plans were announced for the electrification of the Chat Moss line. While it currently is more of a secondary route, it has better connections, with links to the West Coast Main Line, so was chosen for being wired up.

New developments along the route include Port Salford, a new port and distribution centre on the Manchester Ship Canal. Key to the development is its connection to the rail network via the Chat Moss line.

National Rail Stations in Central ManchesterThe Liverpool Overhead Railway
1George Rennie (1791-1866) and his younger brother Sir John Rennie (1794-1874).2The current platforms are deep underground.3This station links the West Coast Main Line, Cheshire Lines services and Merseyrail. It is close to Liverpool Airport and is served by direct bus services.4This was originally Widnes North Station, with a separate loop serving Widnes Central. The station has a plaque commemorating Paul Simon writing Homeward Bound on the platform while trying to get back to London. Simon was actually waiting at the now closed Ditton Station nearby.5Now part of the Metrolink tram network.6This is where Paul Simon was supposed to have been waiting for a train to London.7Just behind Clapham Junction.

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