Small bridge replacements have big impact across north of England

A programme of bridge replacements have future-proofed reliability on a vital route, connecting from north of Crewe on England’s West Coast Main Line. This is the busiest mixed-use railway in Europe. Two adjacent bridges have been replaced on the Middlewich Branch, a freight only line that connects Merseyside and Manchester to markets in the south of England, including access to the massive HS2 project. Operators have praised Network Rail for swift work, completing both projects in under five days.

A relatively modest investment on a relatively modest line, eight miles in length (12.6km) has secured a reliable route for rail freight operators. The short branch line, connects a number of significant freight routes across the north of Engalnd, and helps reduce traffic on both the West Coast Main Line (WCML) and Manchester’s severely congested Castlefield Corridor.

Bridging the gaps

Network Rail is usually engaged in repairing bridges for reasons of vehicle strikes, but the two bridges on the Middlewich branch had reached the end of their life through natural causes. The replacements have been welcomed by freight operators who rely on the short connecting route to serve customers all over the north of England, and closer to the line too – such as the chemical works located on the north end of the line in Northwich.

Network Rail say the relatively modest investment of 4.5 million pounds (almost 5 million euros) has secured the important route, and freight services through Cheshire are now benefiting from a more reliable railway. “The railway was closed for five days so the bridges over the Trent and Mersey canal and Whatcroft Hall Lane in Northwich could be rebuilt to modern standards”, said a statement.

Important in history and important today

The bridges are located in Cheshire, the relatively affluent county to the south of the industrial centres of Liverpool and Manchester. Historically, the county was criss-crossed by many lines, serving industrial operations and trade ports, much as the rationalised network does today.

The Middlewich Branch is a pivotal route for freight across the north of England (Bing Maps / Simon Walton )

The Middlewich branch, which also has potential for restored passenger traffic, survives and has been upgraded for its strategic importance to the region and the network. It forms part of a string of lines which provide freight connectivity from west to east, while avoiding central Manchester. The Middlewich bridges upgrade is part fo the larger Great North Rail Project investment programme, sponsored by the UK government.

Triple welcome from industry

The Middlewich branch is little known to passenger rail users, but is very familiar to the rail freight industry. Emphasising the importance of the line, a trio of the biggest operators in the sector have all welcomed the upgrade. Michael Leadbetter, the planning and resourcing director for Freightliner, said it is a key route for freight traffic moving between the Peak District, the markets in the North West and the Midlands. “Allowing heavy freight trains to access this route is crucial to the success of moving aggregates on these corridors, which will only become more important with increasing volumes for HS2 and other customers”, he said.

Small bridge replacements still require a very big crane (Network Rail)

Heavy freight loads are also important to Quentin Hedderly, network capacity manager at DB Cargo UK, who expects to use the line almost immediately. “The replacement of this asset enables Network Rail to restore heavy axle-weight capability to the route which will allow more freight to be transported by rail across this line in the coming months.” At GB Railfreight, Ian Kapur, head of strategic access planning, was also very pleased that Network Rail has carried out these strengthening works. “This will ensure that the new-to-rail HS2 aggregate flows from the Peak District quarries serving the various receiving terminals with building materials can operate with full loads and keep even more freight movements off the road.”


To complete the engineering work safely, say Network Rail, the Middlewich branch was closed for five days until the end of last week, along with some local road closures, to allow access for an 800 tonne crane to lift the new bridge structures into place.

The railway crosses over the Trent and Mersey Canal, which it commercially superseded in the nineteenth century. Network Rail say their upgrades will ensure the structure remains safe and reliable for the economically important freight services that use it for twenty-first century and many years to come.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

Add your comment

characters remaining.

Log in through one of the following social media partners to comment.