Starting at the city centre stations of Manchester Victoria (also serving Salford Central on the fringe of the City Centre) and Manchester Piccadilly (also serving Manchester Oxford Road and Deansgate). It runs in a north-westerly direction through the suburbs and centres of Salford and Wigan. It then proceeds in the same direction through the small rural villages of West Lancashire, before ending on the Irish Sea coast at the resort town of Southport.
Salford Central - city centre stop serving the western fringes of Manchester city centre, the station lays just on the Manchester/Salford boundary, but Central Manchester is the area this station serves.
There is ongoing feasibility into the conversion of parts of this line (Wigan - Atherton - Manchester) to operate as a Manchester Metrolink service with a higher frequency metro service for the Greater Manchester Boroughs of Wigan and Salford into the city centre. In November 2013 the Greater Manchester Combined Authority approved a recommended strategy for reconfiguring existing commuter services into tram-train operation; identifying the Atherton line as providing an opportunity for extending potential tram-train services from the south-east (Marple, Glossop) across the city centre and outwards to the north west. Southport and Kirkby services on this line would be diverted to operate through Wigan via Bolton and onto Manchester. Additionally Network Rail has identified electrification of Wigan to Southport, together with Ormskirk to Preston Line and the Burscough Curves as a possible source of new services.