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.

Merseytravel survey into how we move about – before – during & after C19

There’s an in depth travel survey on the Merseytravel website which you may like to participate in – see link below:-

liverpoolcityregionalca.researchfeedback.net/s.asp?k=158858381676

A Merseytravel consultation event previously held in Maghull.

A Merseyrail electric unit at Bootle New Strand Station.

A Liverpool bound 507 EMU approaching the Crescent Road level crossing in Birkdale, Southport.

New Merseyrail Trains – a construction video on You Tube

A mock-up of a Class 777 – The new Merseyrail trains that will soon replace the Class 507/508 EMU’s

Although Merseytravel posted this video – see link below – on 7th February I had not come across it before. It’s worth watching to see how the new trains are being built and the initial testing of them:-

www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOn07VAeGHU

‘From design concepts to the real thing; watch as the new trains for the Merseyrail network take shape from initial designs to the first train out on the test track in Europe!’

As I post this Merseyrail (still operating Class 507 & 508 units of course) have had their first Stadler unit (777 003) out on nocturnal testing along the Kirkby line of recent nights.

NOTE – Merseyrail are only offering a 30 minute frequency service presently due to the health crisis we find ourselves in.

A mock-up of a Class 777 Stadler EMU as displayed in Birkenhead a while back

Melling – Prescot Road bus shelter – What on earth’s going on?

Whilst I was away on holiday last week a Melling resident contacted me regarding the removal of what looks to me and indeed the resident like a perfectly good and substantial bus shelter yards away from the Pear Tree Pub. This is it:-

The poster advertising the potential removal is on the bus stop sign and this is what it says:-

I took the photos today when I went to have a look at the shelter. Apart from perhaps a bit of pointing the sandstone built shelter is in excellent condition and it’s one of a number of similar shelters erected around Melling Civil Parish by Melling Parish Council quite some years ago. Indeed, I’ve blogged about the shelters a while back (January 2018) and here’s a link to that posting:-

tonyrobertson.mycouncillor.org.uk/2018/01/24/melling-its-rather-grand-sandstone-bus-shelters/

After I penned that posting I realised I missed out a 4th one, also on Prescot Road, i.e. the one now under threat of replacement.

So, why do the powers that be want to exchange it for a modern shelter? What’s wrong with the historic one? Are they going to try to get rid of all of Melling’s sandstone shelters? Is the construction of a cycle path alongside this incredibly busy road a factor in the proposal?

But really, there’s nothing at all wrong with the shelter at face value, so how about just keeping it and the other ones too – just in case someone somewhere has the eye on them as well for ‘modernisation’.

Liverpool to Chester by train – It demonstrates why passengers think our railways are dysfunctional

Having heard about the new(ish) train connecting Liverpool to Chester (via Liverpool South Parkway, Runcorn, Frodsham and Helsby) I decided I needed to try it out.

My TfW Liverpool – Chester train (via Frodsham)

Did you know Liverpool to Chester (and back) is now served by 5 daytime trains each hour – 4 Merseyrail and 1 Transport for Wales. You may not even know that Transport for Wales runs a train between the two destinations because if you use the internet to call up Liverpool – Chester trains invariably it will default to the Merseyrail Service. Certainly if I had not known about the TfW hourly service I would never have found it via the usual rail enquiry sites. Both trains call at or terminate at Liverpool Lime Street – Merseyrail via the underground platforms and TfW via the mainline platforms.

But after quite some faffing about on the internet I found the TfW timetable and rocked up to buy a ticket at Lime Street Station but even then the really helpful lady I bought the ticket from seemed to expect me to want to go via Merseyrail – This new TfW service is being kept very quiet indeed. I had to say I want to go via Frodsham before she realised I did know what I was asking for although I did wonder if she was also wondering where my carer was.

I got on the 11.36 train and it was almost empty but based on what I’ve already said I can’t say I was surprised. But what a nice ride it was, the TfW 3 carriage Class 175 DMU’s are comfortable and I had a table all to myself. I spread out my flask, sandwiches, crisps etc. and made a mess, which I subsequently cleaned up I might add. My ticket was checked by a very polite guard. Just behind me an older couple had found an item that had been left on the inbound service to Liverpool from Chester. What impressed me was the care and attention the guard took and the assurance that he would hand the item in a Chester’s lost people, animals, baggage office.

The service takes a few minutes more than Merseytravel as it travels a longer route but frankly you would not notice the difference. And now my gripe…..

Just before the train set off we were given a friendly lecture (oddly not with a Welsh accent nor indeed was it repeated in the Welsh language), via an announcement, on what would happen to any passenger found to have a Liverpool – Chester ticket on them meant for the Merseyrail service. Basically, being forced to listen to Max Boyce jokes would be their punishment. I nearly got off at that very moment even though I had the right ticket in case they started to play the jokes via the tannoy anyway. I got the distinct impression that TfW may have to deal with this sort of problem regularly so they were hoping that any miscreants holding a Liverpool – Chester ticket would get off their Liverpool – Chester train before they had to call British Transport Police out. But how would the miscreants have known about the all but secret TfW train in the first place?

Now call me grumpy but what the hell does it matter which train you get to Chester from Liverpool Lime Street if you’ve bought a ticket – same start point, same finish point and almost the same travelling time. The only difference is the particular pieces of track your train clicks and clacks along. This nonsensical situation sums up our dysfunctional railway system to me. Integrated transport my foot.

My Merseyrail train from Chester to Liverpool

Interestingly, on my return journey via Merseyrail there was no announcement about what would happen to passengers who got on their train with a TfW Chester – Liverpool ticket. Maybe they’d rather not say as their punishment could be chucking off such unwelcome passengers at Bache (how do you pronounce that?) Station to collect trolleys in the adjacent Morrisons car park? But then again Merseyrail don’t seem check tickets on their trains so you’d not come unstuck until you encountered a ticket barrier at a central Liverpool Station. Oh no, you’d be sent to Mersey Ferries to listen to Gerry Marsden singing Ferry Cross The Mersey on continuous loop (readers of Bill Bryson’s book Notes from a Small Island will get this one) until you promised not to fall foul of railway rules again.

A world where a train ticket is only valid via one route to the same destination is one where the powers that be just can’t be bothered to put the passenger first. There got that off my chest.

I actually enjoyed my trip and will gladly travel to Chester via the TfW train again, although I’d be even more glad if my Merseytravel old beggars travel card would be accepted on it, but that’s another story.