A TWO mile stretch of disused railway line that could link Chester to Liverpool's John Lennon Airport has been described
as the missing jigsaw piece in the North West's rail infrastructure. BARRY ELLAMS found out more.
How many Chester motorists have been stuck in traffic approaching a heavily congested Runcorn Bridge with a plane to catch at Liverpool's John Lennon Airport?
How many tourists from Germany or Spain have stepped off Easyjet or Ryan Air planes at Liverpool's airport but never heard of Chester?
How many commuters crossing the Mersey to get to work have to take the tunnel by road or rail or have been stranded in heavy queues on either side of Runcorn Bridge?
What price tag on the loss to business and tourism in Chester?
These are some of the issues that trouble local business, public sector agencies and politicians as they count the cost of what is becoming increasingly observed as an inadequate infrastructure between Chester and Liverpool.
More than 90,00 motorists cross Runcorn Bridge every year, 50% more than was first envisaged.
Now Merseytravel is to launch a new station - Liverpool South Parkway - in June 2006. It will provide a direct rail link to Liverpool's John Lennon Airport, with a park-and-ride to cater for 240 cars.
It has been suggested that a disused two mile strip of railway known as Halton Curve could be upgraded to create a new link between John Lennon Airport via Liverpool South Parkway station and Chester station.
The Strategic Rail Authority pulled back from the brink of closing Halton Curve permanently last year.
Liverpool's status as a Capital of Culture 2008, an expanding airport with fleets of low cost airlines followed by calls for improved links between Chester and Liverpool has prompted campaigners to call for Halton Curve to be reopened.
Lobbyists want a regular express train serving passengers and commuters between North Wales, Chester and John Lennon Airport - and the use of Halton Curve to link John Lennon Airport and Chester might no longer be pie in the sky.
More than 4 million passengers are using John Lennon Airport per year bringing a city break tourists into the region.
Many visitors from Germany, Spain, France, and Eastern Europe are coming into Chester on day trips or short breaks.
The Cheshire and Warrington Board CWTB sees this boom in low cost airline tourism as untapped potential. A quick, efficient moderately-priced train link between the airport and Chester would pay huge dividends.
In a letter to The Chronicle Chris Brown CWTB Chief Executive, explained: 'If we are truly to benefit from the opportunities presented by Liverpool John Lennon Airport, but also Liverpool Capital of Culture celebrations in 2008, then it is critical that we have effective gateways for potential visitors to access our area.
He added: 'We know that currently we are poorly served from the airport and with a new station at Liverpool South Parkway, that would serve The Halton Curve opening. We need to all lobby as effectively as possible to have this re-opened. We at the Tourism Board will be very active in that respect.'
A study by the Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR) estimates it would cost £7.5m to re-open Halton Curve.
The report, commissioned by MerseyTravel with the support of Halton Borough Council and the North Cheshire Rail Users Group NCRUG, indicates that Halton Curve would bridge the various regional economies by linking tourists, commuters and businesses between south Liverpool and Chester.
Both borough and county councils have included the line in their Local Transport Plans.
The CEBR report suggests the line would attract new businesses to the area - it predicts 546 jobs coming to Runcorn and Widnes, 150 to Chester and 54 to Liverpool.
Local Authorities are actively lobbying the government and The SRA to make reconnecting the Halton Curve points a reality.
A spokesperson for Halton Borough Council said: 'This is a joint scheme supported by Halton and surrounding authorities - with whom the council is in continuous discussion with - including Mersey Travel, Cheshire County Council, the TAITH Consortium of North Wales authorities and the Strategic Rail Authority.
'The Halton Curve has been highlighted as a scheme that we are keen to pursue.
'Because of the benefits to the surrounding regions, in terms of travel links between Chester, North Wales and Liverpool - as well the as local benefits for Runcorn and Widnes - Halton Council is currently preparing a business case for submission in order to seek funding.'
If the project gets the green light, time is of the essence as a scheduled upgrade between Weaver Junction and Liverpool Lime Street station is to take place in 2007.
Cecil Green of NCRUG said: 'The West Coast mainline upgrades taking place between Weaver Junction to Liverpool are scheduled for 2007 and it is at that time it would be cost effective to make the changes to the points and the upgrade before the 2008 celebrations.'
He said: 'If Halton Curve doesn't reopen then Liverpool's South Parkway station would effectively be half open. Halton Curve is something that jumps up at you as helping to provide a service between Chester, North Wales and Liverpool.'
NCRUG member Janet Briggs, Frodsham added: 'Halton Curve is our reason for being. Reopening would provide a fast service into Liverpool for commuters, students and tourists.'
'It seems such a sensible option in terms of value for money as it offers tremendous potential' explained Robin Tudor Liverpool John Lennon Airport's Corporate Affairs Manager.
He added: 'It would undoubtedly have huge economic benefits in terms of tourism.'