Freight objections to passengers in Wales
A much-improved passenger service connecting communities in Wales and England may not go ahead unless a solution can be found to accommodate rail freight. Despite new trains already on delivery, willingness from the devolved government in Cardiff, and cooperation from local authority leaders in England, the needs of existing freight operators may have been overlooked. As a result, an objection has been lodged, with freight effectively stopping progress in its tracks.
Capacity on the UK rail network – or rather lack of it – is in the news once again. The issues in the north of England have been grabbing the headlines, but this time it is North Wales that makes the news. Wrexham to Birkenhead may not be the most glamourous route in the UK, but to those who use it, it’s a vital connection that badly needs upgrading. However, proposed and much needed enhancements to passenger services in the region have been stalled – by objections from an unexpected source: the rail freight sector.
There is a long-standing desire to improve passenger services north from the Welsh town of Wrexham, making better connections with the peninsula of land between North Wales and Liverpool – commonly known as The Wirral – and the principal town of Birkenhead, at the north end. Birkenhead is an Industrial town, somewhat rivalling its neighbour across the River Mersey, Liverpool. It may have been the first settlement in the world to boast a formal public park, but its industrial heritage still generates traffic for the rail sector. Elsewhere, the presence of Shotton steelworks on the line is a significant customer for rail freight operations.
Over the decades, the once extensive rail network has been run down, and now the tracks have little extra capacity for new services. However, Transport for Wales [TfW], the devolved authority for the southern half of the route, and the local authorities around Merseyside want to double passenger frequency on the route – running two trains per hour. Unfortunately, without upgrading, that may adversely affect freight paths. According to local media, that is the basis of an objection to the plans.
An economic development partnership – Growth Track 360 – says the regulator has received an objection. “[A] rail freight operator is understood to have objected to an application by TfW for track access to deliver the new service that has been promised to local communities”, said their statement. “Our Rail Network cannot cope with further growth without prioritised, targeted and sequential infrastructure and service investment”, adds their prospectus.
While the Wrexham – Bidston line is not highlighted as a strategic part of the Growth Track 360 plans for the region, it does figure in their plans and is pivotal to the aims of the Wrexham – Bidston Rail Users Association. They say they represent rail users, potential rail users, and communities’ rail transport interests along the Wrexham-Bidston rail corridor. However, in a social media post, the Association appears unimpressed by the objection. “The freight operator has known about these proposals for year and has decided at the last moment to oppose the half-hourly service”, they say.
The UK government is currently working on a report into cross-border infrastructure. The so-called “Union Connectivity Review” aims to provide a blueprint for better connections between the four nations of the United Kingdom. Scotland to England and Cardiff to London have been the focus, and of course, there has been much talk of grandiose schemes to bridge over or tunnel under the sea between Scotland and Northern Ireland. While indeed also a cross-border connection, it’s not clear if perhaps Wrexham – Wirral may have slipped down that particular agenda.