Another take on why Merseytram didn’t make the grade

I’ve commented on this very significant urban transport debacle many times before but the other day I came across an article published in June 2008 in an international magazine called Tramways & Urban Transit. Yes I know, railway/tramway enthusiast niche issue……..

The article covered the ever more desperate attempts to breath new life into a project which had been all but killed off by the then Transport Secretary Alistair Darling back in 2005 when he withheld £170m of government funding. Quoted in the article was former Labour MP (for Liverpool Riverside) Louise Ellman who said the project had failed because there was a ‘lack of clarity’ from the bidding partners.*

This promotional Merseytram bookmark is about all that Liverpool City Region has to show for its big tram ideas.

Louise was of course right. If memory serves the big issue for the Labour government of the day was concern over the funding package and rising costs. The article points towards Knowsley (Lab Council) & Liverpool (Lib Dem Council) being unwilling to cover further cost over-runs.

I was leader of Sefton Council at that time and can recall the tortuous process of trying to get Merseytram going through 2004 to 2009, but where the article is silent is with regard to another big issue which led directly to what Louise Ellman called the ‘lack of clarity’. I refer to the destination of the first line – Kirkby. I took the view, as did many others on Sefton Council and indeed politicians across the wider Mersey Region at the time, that the first line should go to the airport. Liverpool John Lennon Airport was in our view the obvious destination to start a tramway system on Merseyside but our voices were lost as Merseytravel was determined the first destination should be Kirkby. We had nothing against Kirkby but it already had a 15 minute Merseyrail service which simply needed extending to a 2nd station in that Town, whereas the airport had no rail/tramway connection and indeed it still doesn’t.

One of the ‘pulls’ towards Kirkby for the 1st Merseytram line was a proposed and huge TESCO/Everton FC redevelopment in that Town but that plan fell over it’s own hurdles with Everton now likely to he headed to a new stadium at Bramley Moore Dock at some point yet to be determined.

The other thing not mentioned in the article is the position of Wirral Council. They were hardly big supporters of Merseytram because being on the other side of the River Mersey they would be highly unlikely to see any benefit from the project at all. Maybe they and their residents still harked back to the first Mersey Tunnel which was supposed to have trams running through it to Birkenhead as well as road vehicles. Of course that never happened so once bitten (even though back in the 1930’s) twice shy?

Anyway, on with the thrust of the article, having given a bit of the local political background, as it was written on the basis that then (in 2008) Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly** had offered to revisit the stalled/virtually failed Merseytram project. In effect she was asking Merseytravel to come up with a new more viable scheme. At this point Merseytravel still had another 2 years to enact the powers given to it by Parliament to build the first phase of the tram system.

Sadly, of course, Merseysiders will know that no such viable plan was put forward and in 2010 the powers lapsed.

To me the project was a lesson in how not to plan major public infrastructure. It seems obvious now, as it should have been then, that the partners in the project needed to have a common view as to how it would be taken forward and as I think I’ve shown above there was no such common view. My feeling is that Merseytravel launched into the Merseytram project with far too many loose ends trailing behind it, hoping that all would be ‘alright on the night’ so to speak – It never was and probably was never going to be.

The irony is that within the same magazine there’s a celebration of NET (Nottingham Express Transit) which had won ‘Light Rail Operator of the year – 2007’ as it had been able to gain government support for it’s system (first opened March 2004) on the basis of it being clearly robust and well supported. I’ve travelled on NET; it is indeed a good system and I hope that I’m not just saying that as a Notts born lad.

A Nottingham NET Tram at the Phoenix Park terminus.

* The bidding partners were Merseytravel (the passenger transport body for Merseyside), Liverpool City Council, St. Helens Borough Council, Knowsley Borough Council, Sefton Borough Council & Wirral Borough Council.

** Ruth Maria Kelly is a former British Labour Party politician, serving as Member of Parliament for Bolton West from 1997 until she stood down in 2010 – Wikipedia

What killed off Merseytram?

This promotional Merseytram bookmark is about all that Liverpool City Region has to show for its previous big tram ideas.

The Liverpool Echo has an interesting article on its website – see link below:-

www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/boost-top-priority-train-link-18259091

One of the major reasons Merseytram was killed off was because the first line proposed to be constructed was NOT to John Lennon Airport. Those that followed the Merseytram saga/fiasco will recall that Merseytravel, in trying to chase government grants/support, decided the first line was going to be built to Kirkby. And this despite it being a community which already had and still has a Merseyrail heavy rail station and a 15 minute frequency train service. It was a mistake from which Merseytram never recovered.

Since then there have been a number of calls for Liverpool’s Airport to be connected by rail despite air travel being an environmental challenge (to put it politely) as we dive head-long into an climate crisis which the world is struggling to address in any meaningful way.

You could say that a rail connection to John Lennon Airport (light or heavy) has been on the agenda for many years but so far the powers that be have failed to find an answer and when they got close (via Merseytram) it got shunted into a siding.

The much needed link between Liverpool Sth Parkway St & John Lennon Airport

Not so long ago I posted about Liverpool Airport’s missing rail link. Here’s a link back to that posting:-

tonyrobertson.mycouncillor.org.uk/2019/08/01/liverpool-airports-missing-rail-link/

Not long after I blogged about it I came across the views of a fellow railway campaigner Cedric Green of the North Cheshire Rail Users Group. Now this group already has a big feather in it’s cap because they were the successful lobbyists for the Halton Curve to be reinstated.

And what have they now turned their sights on? Gaining a connection between Liverpool South Parkway Station and Liverpool John Lennon Airport but you may be surprised by their preferred solution – a Personal Rapid Transport system like the POD at Heathrow Terminal 5. Here it is in action on You Tube:-

www.youtube.com/watch?v=hHyxakXed34

Presently of course South Parkway (often referred to as the airport Station) is only connected to John Lennon Airport via buses using the congested local road network. So would the POD work in Liverpool, it certainly looks like it would be fun to ride on.

Liverpool Airport’s missing rail link

Departure board at Southport Station from back when you could get to Manchester Airport from our local seaside resort by train as well as from Liverpool.

A recent article on the Liverpool Echo website regarding the lack of a rail link to Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport, by Liam Thorpe, got me thinking again about this odd missing link in our local transport infrastructure. Here’s a link to the Echo article:-

www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/after-anfield-new-rail-link-16614708

My angle on this goes back to the failed Merseytram project of some years back. At the time I was leader of Sefton Council so was involved in all the comings and goings as the project slid towards its demise when the last Labour Government in effect pulled the plug on funding Merseytram.

I raise Merseytram again now because I am utterly convinced that if the first line had been planned to go to the airport the local political wrangling which killed off the project would not have happened. If readers recall the first line was going to be built to Kirkby according to plans put forward Merseytravel yet most folk scratched their heads at this and said the first line needed to go to the airport. Well no tram/light railway lines were constructed on Merseyside at all and a lot of political fingers got burnt in the process of going nowhere.

So I’m not surprised that Liverpool Echo readers are saying to the paper what they were saying to the politicians some years back ‘build some form of rail/tram connection to John Lennon Airport’ and I agree with them now as I did in the Merseytram era.

Below is the only thing I have to remember Merseytram – a promotional bookmark:-

This promotional Merseytram bookmark is about all that Liverpool City Region has to show for its big tram ideas.

Liverpool John Lennon Airport staff to strike over pay

News that Liverpool John Lennon Airport staff are to go on strike if their demand for a 3.6% pay rise is not met is on the BBC web site – See link below:-

www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-merseyside-45208696

Extract from the article ‘Firefighters, bird control staff, engineers and drivers at Liverpool John Lennon Airport are to go on strike because of a pay dispute.’