The campaign to reopen Halton Curve is entering a crucial and exciting new phase. BARRY ELLAMS reports.
REOPENING the Halton Curve has been likened to a slow train moving along the track – gathering speed.
The stretch of practically disused line is coveted by private and public sector agencies in Halton, Chester and North Wales in providing a seamless transport link for enterprise and inward investment.
Reinstating the Halton Curve would provide a direct link between the expanding John Lennon Airport, only minutes away from Merseytravel’s latest station Liverpool South Parkway, and Chester and North Wales.
Halton Curve was due to be closed by the Strategic Rail Authority in 2004, but was kept alive by passengers lobby the North Cheshire Rail Users’ Group (NCRUG), who identified its potential.
The cause was taken up by Merseytravel which operates Merseyrail Electrics which runs trains between Liverpool, Wirral and Chester.
Halton Curve is also high on the agenda of Halton Borough Council’s Local Transport Plan and it jointly commissioned a Centre for Economic Business Research (CEBR) report into the potential legacy of making the line fully operational.
Halton Curve has also been strongly backed by Weaver Vale MP Mike Hall, Chester MP Christine Russell and Halton MP Derek Twigg for some years.
In 2005, it was estimated fixing the points and re-signalling the stretch of railway line would cost about £7m.
Whatever inflationary costs are added they will be as pennies from heaven for Chester considering the huge dividends it could bring to the city. If John Lennon Airport is one of Chester’s gateways to Europe then Halton Curve is the key that unlocks it.
The announcement KLM is to join budget airline Easyjet in shuttling passengers to Schiedam Airport in Amsterdam provides even more incentives for local industry.
Chester holidaymakers potentially have an alternative link to long-haul flights but the city’s bid to become a must-see European city by 2015 could be given a landmark boost.
Tourism board Visit Chester and Cheshire has been working closely with Merseytravel, lobbying public sector and parliamentary partners.
Chief executive Chris Brown said: “VCC has championed the need for this for sometime and with the news that Liverpool Airport has now forged links with KLM to create an international hub operation the need for this project has intensified.”
If the line were to be reopened the CEBR report forecasts 546 jobs coming to Runcorn and Widnes, 150 to Chester and 54 to Liverpool, as the line attracts businesses to the area.
Of these, 508 could be new jobs coming into the area by firms relocating from outside the North West. The other 452 could be from businesses moving in from other parts of the North West.
Halton Curve is on the Guide to Railway Investment Projects which has eight stages. It has recently passed stage 3.
Merseytravel has commissioned a business plan to assess demand and will be consulting rail user and passenger groups.
A Merseytravel spokesman said: “We are at the analysis stage and analysis is key. We will now be assessing customer demand looking at the cost benefit ratio. The survey will look at where the demand for the route is and which stations in order to put forward a business case.
“We are always looking to improve travel to work and travel to business areas and we think this will benefit a lot of passengers. We are happy that things are progressing. We are 100% behind it. If we can get this delivered it will be fantastic.”
Once the business survey is completed by March then funding streams will have to be identified. The project could go before a Network Rail Investment Panel.
NCRUG is monitoring the various stages with a sense of growing optimism.
Frank Thomas, its public relations officer, said: “Halton Curve has never been off the agenda. It is going through a number of stages and it takes time. People are not unhappy with the progress that is being made at this stage but it can’t be rushed.”
If Halton Curve is to be reinstated by 2010/11 it will be because of the unified support of local councils, MPs and train operators backed by the thousands of passengers who threaten to use it.
From December 14 Virgin Trains will introduce the first phase of its new fleet of direct Voyager fleet from Chester to London Euston station. The political consensus is that as the missing jigsaw piece, Halton Curve could help Cheshire become an integrated transport network hub vital to the commercial growth of the North West.