Passenger train services are operated by Transport for Wales between Wrexham Central and Bidston. Bidston is an interchange station for Merseyrail services to Liverpool and the Wirral. Trains run every hour Monday to Saturday daytime, every two hours after 18:45 and on Sundays. Connections with other National Rail services are at Bidston (changing for Merseyrail services to West Kirby, Birkenhead and Liverpool Lime Street for London and long haul national routes), Shotton (change for Chester and London trains and the North Wales Coast line) and Wrexham General (for the Shrewsbury–Chester line).
The line is also referred to as the Mid Wirral line, as most of the line runs north-south through the middle of the Wirral peninsula. The Wirral's other railway routes are provided with frequent Merseyrail electric trains. The Borderlands line has a service of one train per hour. From 2019 the service will improve to two trains per hour using fully refurbished metro trains with primarily battery power plants and a diesel engine as a fail-safe.
Holders of the Concessionary Travel Pass resident in Wrexham and Flintshire can travel free along part of the line, from Wrexham Central Station to Hawarden Bridge Station. Holders of the Merseytravel Concessionary Travel Pass can travel free along the section of the line that runs through Merseyside, from Heswall Station to Bidston Station.
The service is normally operated with Class 150s trains. It was formerly operated by Class 153s, Class 101s, and Class 142s. In October 2006, the operator moved to using Class 150s or paired Class 153 units. The latter disappeared in favour of the Class 150s in December 2006.
Upon privatisation, passenger services were transferred from Regional Railways to North West Trains, later known as First North Western. In 2003, a review led to the creation of the All-Wales Franchise, meaning services were transferred to Wales & Borders Trains. Arriva Trains Wales succeeded Wales & Borders on 8 December 2003, and operated all passenger services on the line until October 2018, when Transport for Wales began its 15 franchise. Future electrification plans could see the line transfer to Merseyrail.
The southern part of the line was built by the Wrexham, Mold and Connah's Quay Railway (WMCQR) in 1864 and the northern part by the North Wales and Liverpool Railway, a joint committee of the WMCQR and the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway in 1896. The North Wales and Liverpool Railway northern terminus was at Bidston with the southern terminus at Hawarden Bridge Both railways were acquired by the Great Central Railway on 1 January 1905.
Two Wirral stations on the line closed in the 1950s; Storeton in 1951 and Burton Point in 1955. No trace of the station at Storeton remains, yet Burton Point station is still almost entirely intact, the station buildings currently forming part of a garden centre. Further south, the high level platforms of Hope Exchange closed in 1958.
Development and electrification
- "New stations at Beechwood and Woodchurch in Birkenhead (the latter "would be around junction 3 of the M53, the Prenton/Oxton side") and Deeside Industrial Park. These changes would "Incorporate the line into the Merseyrail Wirral line to provide direct connectivity with Liverpool city centre."
The draft of the Network Rail Welsh Route Study in March 2015 contained several suggestions for improving services on the line, including:.
- Replacing the High and Low levels at Shotton station with a dedicated interchange station, improving connectivity between the North Wales Coast Main Line & the Borderlands line
- The removal of level crossings to improve line speed.
The doubling of the journey frequency on the line is one of the aims of the Growth Track 360 group, a consortium of business, politicians and public sector leaders. The group aims to improve transport and create jobs in the North Wales, Merseyside and Cheshire area over the next 20 years. During the 2017 Autumn budget, Chancellor Philip Hammond stated that part of the additional £1.2 billion funding Wales was receiving would be used to look into proposals to improve journey times on the line and developing a business case.
Proposals exist to electrify a section or all of the line with incorporation into the Wirral line of the Merseyrail network, allowing through services to the underground sections of Birkenhead and Liverpool and onwards to Liverpool John Lennon Airport. A study conducted by Network Rail in 2008, investigated the costs of extending the Merseyrail network third-rail electrification to Wrexham. However, when the cost was estimated at £207 million, Merseytravel stated that cheaper overhead-wire electrification would also be considered announcing a lower estimated figure of £66 million. This scheme would require dual-voltage trains with third-rail and overhead-wire capability.
Network Rail's conclusion was that full line electrification is only feasible if it could be delivered for less than £100,000 for each km per single track. The twin track line would be £200,000 per line km, giving a total figure of £8.7 million, which is far below the estimate of full line electrification of £66 million. Another consideration is whether a new pattern of service delivers significant net benefits.
Political pressure to electrify the line has been ongoing. The Welsh government is pressing for improved rail connections between North Wales and Liverpool which may accelerate the electrification of the line.
Merseytravel Committee Chairman, Councillor Liam Robinson, revealed in 2016 that a working group had been set up to examine improving the line. It is believed that by increasing the frequency of trains, the number of passengers will increase making the case for electrification stronger. Merseytravel expect that frequency improvements on the line will be delivered as part of CP6, which has a potential delivery timescale of up to 2024. Councillor Robinson revealed in an interview in 2017 that passenger use on the line had increased 75% over the previous decade but electrification was still a long term aspiration. He also stated that the new rolling stock that was being procured for Merseyrail could be utilised to run on the line.
Proposed battery trains
The operation of battery trains that receive energy from batteries and an electric pick-up has been proposed for operation on unelectrified and electrified sections of the track. Adoption of these types of trains would reduce the need for full line electrification.
A trial of a converted Electrostar train using energy from overhead wires and batteries when on non-electrified sections of track was undertaken in January and February 2015 on the Mayflower line. The train can travel up to 60 miles on energy stored in the batteries also recharging the batteries via the overhead-wires when on electrified track, at stations and via brake regeneration. A month later in March 2015, the introduction of battery powered trains was proposed for the Borderlands line by Network Rail.
The Network Rail document suggested that consideration had been given to electrification and to extending the terminus from Bidston further into Birkenhead for greater connectivity. However these options were expressed as offering low value for money. The document proposes that using battery powered rolling stock precluding full electrification of the line, provides a cheaper method of increasing connectivity and extending the service into the electrified Birkenhead and Liverpool sections of the Wirral line. From the document:
- "In the longer term, potential deployment of rolling stock with the ability to operate on battery power for part of their journey may provide the ability in an affordable manner to improve the service offering between the Wrexham – Bidston route and Liverpool."
It was announced in June 2018 that from 2019 refurbished Class 230 Metro trains with battery power plants and a diesel engine as a failsafe are to be introduced between Wrexham and Bidston. There is an intention to extend from Bidston onto the Merseyrail Wirral Line taking trains into the Liverpool and Birkenhead underground sections on electrified 3rd rail track using bimodal trains with a 3rd rail pickup.
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- Mitchell & Smith 2013, map XXXIII
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