North West England
|Track gauge||1,435 mm (4 ft 8 1⁄2 in) standard gauge|
The Mid-Cheshire line has its origins in railways promoted by three separate railway companies in the 19th century. The Cheshire Midland Railway was opened to passengers between Altrincham and Knutsford on 12 May 1862 , then completed to Northwich on 1 January 1863 . The West Cheshire Railway opened from Northwich to West Cheshire Junction in 1869. This railway was extended from Mouldsworth to a new terminus at Chester Northgate in 1874 . The line from Altrincham to Manchester was the Manchester, South Junction and Altrincham Railway (MSJAR), opened on 20 July 1849 and jointly owned by the London and North Western Railway and the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway (MSLR, later the Great Central Railway). The line from Chester to Altrincham was vested in the Cheshire Lines Committee (CLC), a joint committee regulated by the Great Northern Railway (GNR), MSLR and the Midland Railway (MR). This committee became an independent company after 1867 and survived the 1923 Grouping intact. Services were operated by the CLC until nationalisation on 1 January 1948, when the line became part of British Railways London Midland Region. Between 1880 and 1969, CLC trains from Chester via Altrincham terminated at Manchester Central railway station.
Before the Beeching closures in the 1960s, there were branch lines with services from the Mid-Cheshire line (see also the Winsford and Over branch). Beeching had no plans to close part or all of the Mid-Cheshire line, although in his proposed second phase of closures there were plans to close the line between Chester and Warrington Bank Quay, which would have increased the number of passengers using the Mid-Cheshire line. Although those proposed closures never went ahead, the original termini at Chester and Manchester were closed in 1969 and services were re-routed to Chester General, via a new junction at Mickle Trafford, and Manchester Oxford Road.
The route was double track between Chester and Altrincham, although the section between Mickle Trafford and Mouldsworth was reduced to single track after Chester Northgate station closed in 1969. For many years the line had the reputation of being one of the busiest double-track routes in the UK.
A large section of the route between Altrincham and Manchester was quadrupled and electrified to 1500 volts DC in 1931. Local services were provided by electric multiple unit trains. At that time, a journey between Manchester London Road and Altrincham took 24 minutes, but some peak hour "semi-fast" trains omitted five stops and took 17 minutes. The CLC trains from Chester to Manchester Central over this section usually ran "express", some non-stop, others calling only at Sale. There were at one time plans to electrify the whole Chester to Manchester line but it was deemed too expensive.
The original electric trains were withdrawn in 1971 and the system was changed to 25 kV AC. Some services were extended through Manchester London Road (renamed Piccadilly in 1960) to Alderley Edge/Crewe/Stoke-on-Trent and occasionally Wolverhampton. 1989 saw further changes as Chester trains were diverted via Stockport. This has increased journey times between Chester and Manchester significantly, although a change at Altrincham, depending upon connections, often resulted in an earlier arrival. In 1992, the system was changed to 750V DC to accommodate the Manchester Metrolink trams that now exclusively used the trackbed between Deansgate Junction (between Navigation Road and Timperley) and Manchester.
The line serves many small, rural settlements in Cheshire before reaching Chester. Services follow the Crewe line from Manchester Piccadilly as far as Stockport, where the line diverges westwards. The line then curves around the south of Manchester until it meets the Metrolink line. Metrolink and Mainline services run parallel between Deansgate Junction through Navigation Road railway station to Altrincham, where the Metrolink terminates. Part of the route is single track between Stockport and Altrincham. South of Altrincham, the route leaves Manchester's suburbs. There are no further passenger interchanges on the line until the service reaches Chester. There is a single-track freight-only branch to the west of Northwich railway station which links Northwich to Sandbach on the Crewe to Manchester Line. There is a campaign for this line to be re-opened as a passenger line, to serve the town of Middlewich. There is also a curve to access the West Coast Main Line further west, but passenger services do not use this. The line joins up with the line from Chester to Warrington just east of Chester at Mickle Trafford Junction.
Monday to Friday
Manchester to Chester: 18 trains per day
Stockport to Chester: 2 additional trains per day
Chester to Manchester: 17 trains per day
Chester to Stockport: 2 additional trains per day
Manchester to Chester: 18 trains per day
Chester to Manchester: 17 trains per day
Chester to Manchester & Wigan Wallgate/Southport: 7 trains
Southport/Wigan Wallgate & Manchester to Chester: 7 trains
The above shows a cutback in the number of peak services to and from Manchester, which started on 15 December 2008 and has prompted an online petition. It also includes the loss of a daily direct service to Blackpool from Northwich and the loss of a limited stop afternoon train from Chester to Manchester. As well as improvements made to the Sunday service, which was previously a 3 hourly Chester to Altrincham service.
As of 17 July 2009, GMPTE (who have since become TfGM) are considering restoration of axed services and/or re-timing of peak services to better fit demand. Consultation with Northern Rail regarding such improvement is "ongoing".
Passenger numbers for the Mid-Cheshire line show that the station on the line with the highest number of people boarding and alighting Manchester to Chester via Altrincham services is Manchester Piccadilly. Surprisingly the second highest is Knutsford, ahead of Stockport in third place, Chester in fourth and Altrincham in fifth. Ashley is the station which contributes the fewest passengers to the service.
Passenger services in the off-peak period are better utilised than passenger services on similar lines, with Altrincham being in the top 10 busiest Greater Manchester stations (excluding Central Manchester stations) for the morning off-peak period; Hale and Altrincham also both perform well in the morning peak period.
Motive power and rolling stock
The CLC owned its own coaching stock but no locomotives (apart from four Sentinel steam railmotors). From the start of operations, motive power was provided by the MSLR and later the GCR, although locomotives and stock from the other CLC constituent companies could also be seen. This gave the Mid-Cheshire line a very "cosmopolitan" feel until well into the 1960s when older locomotives were replaced by British Railways (BR) standard designs.
Early passenger services were handled by MSLR/GCR class 12A (LNER class E3) 2-4-0 locomotives designed by Charles Sacre. These were replaced by John Robinson-built GCR class 11B (LNER class D9) 4-4-0, GCR class 11E (LNER class D10) 4-4-0 'Small Directors', GCR class 11F (LNER class D11) 4-4-0 'Large Directors' and GCR class 9K (LNER class C13) 4-4-2 tank locomotives. The 'Directors' and C13s lasted well into the nationalisation era and were eventually displaced by LMS and BR standard tank engines. Dieselisation of passenger services began in the early 1960s with class 108 and later class 101 diesel multiple units displacing the steam locomotives.
The route was a very busy freight artery – especially the section between Greenbank and Deansgate Junction. The I.C.I. works at Winnington and Lostock attracted much traffic, in particular heavy trains consisting of custom-built bogie hoppers, which carried limestone from Derbyshire. These trains required banking between Northwich and Winnington works and were the preserve of LMS class 8F 2-8-0 locomotives, later BR class 40, class 47 and class 20 diesels. Other locomotives to be seen included LMS class 4F, GCR class 8K (LNER class O4) and class 9H (LNER class J10) steam locomotives. Shunting and trip working was carried out by GCR class 9F (LNER class N5) steam and BR class 08 diesel locomotives.
The line sees a mix of diesel traction. The majority of passenger trains used on this line are still Class 142 Pacer trains. However due to increasing passenger numbers, Class 150 Sprinters and Class 156 Super Sprinters are becoming a frequent sight on the line, especially on peak time services.
In the past Class 158 Super Sprinter trains and Class 175 Coradia trains were used on some journeys on this line. Class 175s have not been used on services on this line since Northern Rail took over and the small fleet of Manchester based Class 158s, which were used on the line til 2005, were transferred to Leeds to work services in the Yorkshire and North East areas. Class 175 Coradia trains occasionally travel along the line if engineering work is taking place on the Chester to Manchester via Warrington line.
Goods trains continue to use the line, mainly to carry limestone from quarries near Buxton, Derbyshire, to Brunner Mond’s works at Winnington. These are usually hauled by a Class 60 engine or a Class 66 engine.
The following are proposals for future services to the line.
Additional trains between Greenbank and Stockport
The Northern Hub proposes an additional hourly service to run between Greenbank and Stockport.
Reopening the Northwich to Sandbach line to passenger trains
This will allow a direct train service from places on the line to Crewe, which will should reduce journey times to destinations south of Chester, as well as reducing fares to those destinations. It would also allow the former station at Middlewich to re-open, and the possibility of a new station opening at Rudheath.
Manchester Airport link Proposals for a link to Manchester Airport from near Mobberley were first put forward in the 1990s, though little progress was made. However, in March 2009 it was mentioned in a Network Rail document as a possible project in the future, although reopening the Northwich to Sandbach line to regular passenger services was not mentioned in that document.
Running tram-trains directly to Manchester
This would allow a faster service to central Manchester, as they would be able to run alongside both the existing trains and the existing trams. The tram-trains would be likely to start and terminate at Northwich.
- Bolger, Paul (1984). An Illustrated History of the Cheshire Lines Committee. Heyday. ISBN 0-947562-00-1.
- Dyckhoff, Nigel (1984). The Cheshire Lines Committee Then and Now. Ian Allan. ISBN 0-7110-1410-8.
- Dyckhoff, Nigel (1999). Portrait of the Cheshire Lines Committee. Ian Allan. ISBN 0-7110-2521-5.
- Griffiths, R. Prys; Goode, C. Tony (1978). The Cheshire Lines Railway. The Oakwood Press.
- Wilkinson, Alan. Scenes from the Past : 41 (Part 1) : Railways Across Mid-Cheshire. Foxline. ISBN 1-870119-66-5.