There were once four direct railway routes between Liverpool and Manchester in the North West of England. There are now only two remaining direct railway routes between the two cities. One line, the now northern route, is fully electric and the other, the southern route, is a diesel only line. A third line has been split into one part electric and the other part diesel operation, requiring a passenger change between the two cities. The fourth route is largely abandoned east of Warrington with the remaining section mostly catering for freight trains. The remaining two direct routes are:
- The northern route from Liverpool Lime Street terminus station via Earlestown and Newton-le-Willows to either Manchester Victoria, Manchester Piccadilly or Manchester Airport. This line follows the route of the original 1830 Liverpool and Manchester Railway.
- The southern route from Liverpool Lime Street terminus via Warrington Central to Manchester Piccadilly operates on lines formerly owned by the Cheshire Lines Committee.
The northern route runs from Liverpool Lime Street station, via Earlestown and Newton-le-Willows, and continues to either Manchester Victoria or Manchester Piccadilly. The line follows George Stephenson's original 32-mile (51.5 km) Liverpool and Manchester Railway of 1830, which was the world's first inter-city passenger railway and the first to have run 'scheduled' services. Many early steam locomotives were initially used on this line including Stephenson's Rocket, which won the Rainhill Trials in 1829 (see List of Liverpool and Manchester Railway locomotives). The line also includes a number of listed structures including stations and bridges, particularly the Rainhill Skew Bridge and the nine-arch Sankey Viaduct. The line uses Class 319 electric EMU units.
An hourly semi-fast service is operated by Northern, from Liverpool Lime Street to Manchester Airport, usually calling at Wavertree Technology Park, St Helens Junction, Newton-le-Willows, Manchester Oxford Road and Manchester Piccadilly, and continuing to Manchester Airport.
Northern also operates an hourly service calling at all stations along the line between Liverpool Lime Street and Manchester Victoria. This 'stopping service' is supplemented by an additional all-stations service between Liverpool Lime Street and Earlestown, which continues along the West Coast Main Line to Warrington Bank Quay.
On Sundays there is one train per hour along the line, calling at all stations to Manchester Piccadilly except Edge Hill and Patricroft. It is operated by Northern and continues to Manchester Airport.
Northern is the dominant operator on the route, and its services are operated with Class 319 4-Car EMUs or Class 150, Class 156 and Class 142 Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs). Arriva Trains Wales services between Earlestown and Manchester Piccadilly are usually operated by Class 175 DMUs, but Class 158 units may be substituted on occasions.
From the May 2014 timetable change, a new hourly First TransPennine Express service from Newcastle Central to Liverpool Lime Street via York, Leeds, Huddersfield and Manchester Victoria was introduced. This service is operated by Class 185 DMUs and runs non-stop between Manchester Victoria and Liverpool Lime Street (32 minutes).
The northern Liverpool to Manchester route is also used by First TransPennine Express and East Midlands Trains for empty coaching stock (ECS) movements, and as a diversionary route when the southern route is closed.
In past years, the line has been used by many express services which included through trains to Leeds, York and Newcastle (via Huddersfield), and to Preston, Glasgow Central and Edinburgh (diverging on to the West Coast Main Line at Newton-le-Willows). Local trains also ran to Manchester via Leigh, but these services ceased in 1969 when the Eccles-Tyldesley-Leigh-Kenyon branch was closed as a result of the Beeching Axe. The northern Liverpool to Manchester line has also seen regular use over the years for diverted services from the West Coast Main Line when parts of the latter have been closed for engineering work, but diversions via Manchester instead have now become more common as they do not involve the train reversing, as would be necessary at Edge Hill, following the electrification of the route.
The key junctions on this route are:
- Edge Hill West Jn (to CLC line via Warrington Central)
- Edge Hill East Jn (to Edge Hill CS)
- Bootle Branch Jn (to Canada Dock Branch, leading to the docks)
- Olive Mount Jn (Olive Mount Jn Chat Moss to Regent Rd)
- Huyton Jn (to Wigan line)
- Earlestown West Jn (West Coast Main Line Southbound via Warrington Bank Quay)
- Earlestown East Jn (West Coast Main Line Southbound via Warrington Bank Quay)
- Newton-le-Willows Jn (for daily Wigan via Golborne Junction services)
- Parkside Jn (for daily Wigan via Golborne Junction services)
- Eccles Station Jn (to the Weaste branch towards the Manchester Ship Canal)
- Ordsall Lane Jn (separates Chat Moss line (to Victoria) from Bolton lines (to Piccadilly) 
During a journey trains are controlled by:
- Lime Street control (LS) (Lime Street and the Lime Street tunnels)
- Edge Hill signal box (LE) (Edge Hill to Edge Hill junction)
- Sandhills IECC (ML) (Olive Mount Jn To Regent Rd)
- Huyton signal box (HN) (Edge Hill to Huyton) - now dedicated desk at new Manchester Rail Operating Centre (LL)
- Warrington signal box (WN)
- Astley signal box (AY)
- Eccles signal box (ES)
- Manchester Piccadilly control (MP)
From 5 March 2015, Class 319 trains started electric operation on this route from Liverpool to Manchester Airport via the Oxford Road viaduct. Manchester Victoria station itself is now electrified and at the new timetable changeover on 17 May 2015 Liverpool to Manchester Victoria stopping services also began electric operation using the same rolling stock.
As a result of completion of the Manchester Castlefield Junction to Newton-le-Willows Junction electrification, TransPennine Express services between Manchester Airport and Glasgow Central/Edinburgh Waverley now use new Class 350 EMUs and are re-routed along a portion of the northern Liverpool to Manchester route before joining the West Coast Main Line at Golborne Junction. TransPennine Express Class 185 DMUs which formerly operated the Manchester Airport - Glasgow/Edinburgh service are now being redeployed to other routes.
The Department for Transport initially announced in July 2009 that the northern route of the Manchester to Liverpool line was to be electrified with 25 kV, 50 Hz AC, overhead line. The electrification process was originally due to be completed by 2013 however, following a change of government in 2010, the work was delayed by the government meaning that, while the Manchester to Newton-le-Willows section was completed by December 2013 to enable Manchester - Scotland electric services, the remaining section to Liverpool was not completed until 5 March 2015. Now that the electrification of the line is complete and electric services are running, the journey time between Liverpool and Manchester has been reduced from around 45 minutes today, to 30 minutes due to the greater acceleration achieved by electric trains and the raising of the speed limit along the line from 75 to 90 mph. Class 319 EMUs have been fully refurbished and transferred from the Thameslink route to operate between Liverpool and Manchester, while Thameslink services will be operated by new energy-efficient trains, which were originally due to be delivered between 2011 and 2013. Electrification also offers electric haulage options for freight trains, giving a secondary route to the West Coast Main Line from Liverpool.
Southern route (old Cheshire Lines Committee line)
The southern route runs from Liverpool Lime Street via Warrington Central to Manchester Piccadilly. There are four passenger trains per hour (tph) in each direction between Liverpool and Manchester, which are usually operated by a variety of Class 185, Class 150, Class 156, Class 158 and Class 142 Diesel Multiple Units. These services are run by a number of rail companies and the time intervals are not evenly spaced out; there are large gaps between some services, and at other times trains leave within minutes of each other. First TransPennine Express uses modern Class 185 trains, while other operators run a mixture of older rolling stock. While TransPennine Express' once per hour service generally take 45 minutes to reach Manchester from Liverpool Lime Street, some Northern services take an hour and ten minutes to cover the 35 miles. The line's newest station is Liverpool South Parkway which opened in June 2006 after its estimated construction cost of £16 million had doubled to £32 million by the time it was completed. This station replaced Allerton and Garston stations and has frequent bus links to Liverpool John Lennon Airport. This route is busier than the northern route in terms of service frequency (2 express & 2 stopping trains per hour each way over the entire route, compared to 1 express, 1 semi-fast and 1 through stopping train via Earlestown, though additional Arriva Trains Wales and TransPennine Express services use the eastern end of the northern route).
Originally this line ran from Liverpool Central High Level terminus station to Manchester Central terminus station built by the Cheshire Lines Committee (CLC) in 1873. Liverpool Central High Level station was demolished in 1973 due to all the long haul distance services on Merseyside being concentrated at Liverpool Lime Street with Merseyrail operating the local urban services with underground stations in Liverpool and Birkenhead centres. Manchester Central closed in 1969 and is now the Manchester Central Convention Complex.
At the Liverpool end, the line from Hunts Cross to Central High Level station—which accessed the station via a tunnel—was given over to the Northern Line of the electric Merseyrail services and the line from Hunts Cross diverted in 1966 onto the short section of the West Coast Main Line to Lime Street station. The divergence is at Allerton Junction to the immediate south east of Liverpool South Parkway.
In 1977-8 the original line in the tunnel approaching Liverpool Central High Level terminus was dropped into a new lower level tunnel immediately south of the station to enter Liverpool Central underground station becoming a through line continuing underground to the north of Liverpool and onto Southport. The Low Level underground station and tunnel was built in 1890 to align with the approach tunnel to the High Level station if in the future the need was there. Victorian foresight was utilised nearly 80 years later.
At the Manchester end the line was diverted to Manchester Oxford Road and Manchester Piccadilly after Manchester Central was closed.
The Liverpool to Warrington section of this line was initially scheduled to be on the Merseyrail electric urban network. The Strategic Plan for the North West, the SPNW, in 1973 envisaged that the Outer Loop which was to be an orbital line circling the city of Liverpool, the Edge Hill Spur which is a tunnel connecting the east of Liverpool to the central underground sections, and the lines to St. Helens, Wigan and Warrington would be electrified and all integrated into Merseyrail by 1991. This meant that trains from Warrington would access Liverpool city centre's underground stations via the Northern Line and Liverpool Central underground station, giving access to Liverpool's shopping and business quarters. This never transpired, however is a long term aspiration of Merseytravel.
Presently (2009), a half-hourly fast service operates between Liverpool Lime Street and Manchester Piccadilly, calling at Warrington Central and Manchester Oxford Road. Of the two trains per hour, one is operated by East Midlands Trains and the other by First TransPennine Express. East Midlands Trains' services usually also stop at Liverpool South Parkway and Widnes, and continue beyond Manchester to Norwich via Sheffield and Nottingham, while the First TransPennine Express services do not call at Widnes, but call instead at Birchwood and usually continue to Scarborough via Leeds and York, although some trains also operate to Hull, Middlesbrough, or Newcastle.
There is also a half-hourly local service operated by Northern along the southern route to Manchester Oxford Road. Many intermediate stations are served by both of these trains, although some just by one per hour, while Glazebrook, Humphrey Park and Trafford Park are served only occasionally outside peak periods. On Sundays this service only operates once per hour, and several stations along the route receive no Sunday service.
The majority of the First TransPennine Express Services are operated by Class 185 trains, although once each weekday evening a Class 170 works along the line from Liverpool Lime Street to Hull via Manchester and operates in the opposite direction each Saturday evening. East Midlands Trains mainly use Class 158s along the line, and as of August 2009, the fleet of 27 units are currently undergoing a thorough refurbishment programme. As on the northern route via Newton-le-Willows, Northern operate a mixture of Class 156, Class 150 and Class 142 units along the line.
In the past, the CLC route was used by a variety of local services in addition to limited-stop expresses between the two cities. These included trains between Warrington Central and Stockport Tiviot Dale, Liverpool and Manchester to Wigan Central and even Liverpool to Southport Lord Street via Aintree Central, although the latter route was closed as long ago as 1952. The diversion of Liverpool-bound trains to Lime Street in 1966 and the closure of Manchester Central in 1969 (all trains subsequently running to Oxford Road and Piccadilly) saw the route downgraded in importance and from then until the mid-1980s it was operated as a self-contained route due to congestion issues at the Manchester end. The service frequency was also lower than at present, for example the British Rail 1985 timetable had one semi-fast and one stopping train per hour in each direction on weekdays (excluding the weekday peaks periods). Through running to destinations east of Manchester via this route only began on a regular basis in 1986, when the opening of a new connection at Hazel Grove allowed trains from the Sheffield direction to run via Stockport and thus avoid conflicting movements across the station throat at Piccadilly.
The key junctions on this route are:
- Lime Street (used to move trains onto appropriate platform)
- Edge Hill East Junction (for the Huyton line)
- Allerton West Junction (to West Coast Main Line, known as Allerton junction)
- Hunts Cross Junction (to Merseyrail Northern Line)
- Glazebrook East Junction (formerly for Warrington-Stockport services, but now used as a passing point)
- Trafford Park Junction (for Euroterminal freight terminal)
- Castlefield Junction (where lines to Manchester converge).
During a journey trains are controlled by:
- Lime Street control (LS) (Lime Street and the Lime Street tunnels)
- Edge Hill signal box (LE) (Edge Hill to Edge Hill junction)
- Allerton signal box (AN) (Edge Hill junction to Liverpool South Parkway)
- Hunts Cross signal box (HC) (Allerton junction to Widnes Station)
- Warrington Central signal box (WC) (Widnes station to Padgate station)
- Glazebrook East signal box (GE) (Birchwood station to Urmston)
- Manchester Piccadilly control (MP) (Urmston to route terminus)
It is possible to travel between Liverpool and Manchester, with a change of train from Liverpool Central underground station via Kirkby and Wigan Wallgate to Manchester Victoria. However this line requires a change at Kirkby, using the same platform, to change from the Merseyrail electric Northern Line trains to the Northern diesel trains. Sections of this route were built by the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway and their acquired railways, such as the Liverpool and Bury Railway and the Manchester and Southport Railway.
This line was partially built by the Liverpool and Bury Railway, opening in 1848, which later merged into the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway who on acquisition owned the Manchester and Southport Railway which formed the complete continuous line from Liverpool into Manchester. The route was continuous from Liverpool Exchange terminus to Manchester Victoria. With the creation of the electric Merseyrail urban network the line was effectively cut into two with two modes of traction. The Liverpool half is fast third rail electric and the Manchester side slower diesel traction. The point at which the two modes meet is Kirkby which functions as a terminus for the electric and diesel services.
The Merseyrail terminus at the Liverpool end of the line was extended from Liverpool Exchange to underground Liverpool Central. With the closure of Liverpool Exchange terminus station in 1977, the terminus at the Liverpool end of the diesel service was cut back to Kirkby station. Passengers from Manchester alight at Kirkby walk down the same platform boarding a Liverpool bound electric train terminating at Liverpool's underground Central station. The diesel train from Manchester is scheduled to meet a Merseyrail electric train from Liverpool at Kirkby for ease of passenger transfers. A new underground through station was built at Moorfields replacing some of the services of nearby Liverpool Exchange terminus station.
At 37 miles (59.5 km) this route is longer than either of the two direct routes. According to National Rail Enquires website the travelling time from end to end would be 1 hour 38 minutes, including the change, compared with less than 50 minutes from Lime Street to Manchester Piccadilly and the projected 30 minutes when the northern direct route is electrified. However, for passengers who live near to the stations in the middle section of the line it may prove a quicker journey into Liverpool or Manchester.
A further southerly route, using what was St Helens and Runcorn Gap Railway and Warrington and Stockport Railway, connected Liverpool Lime Street with Manchester Oxford Road via Ditton Junction, Warrington Bank Quay (low level platforms) and Timperley. Part of this route is still used for coal and limestone traffic to Fiddlers Ferry Power Station, but east of Warrington it has been abandoned and now forms part of the Trans Pennine Trail.
Timings and line speeds
As of 2016[update], the fastest journey times are around half an hour, which is little better than over a century earlier. The fastest recorded run was from Manchester Exchange to Liverpool Lime St in 30 minutes 46 seconds by a 1936 built Jubilee 5707 with 7 coaches. An 1882-built compound steam locomotive was timed on the same route in 38 minutes 18 seconds. Until 1968 trains from Liverpool to Manchester by all 3 routes were scheduled to take 40 minutes and often took less. The southern route via Warrington is now restricted to 85 mph and the northern route via Earlestown to 90 mph, with 75 mph over Chat Moss.
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