Regular readers will be aware that I’m a lifelong user of the railways and am eagerly awaiting the opening of the new station at Headbolt Lane. When Headbolt Lane opens to passengers, it will become the new terminus for the Northern service which, until recently, operated between Kirkby and Blackburn via Wigan Wallgate on an hourly basis, Monday to Saturday. While I can’t imagine this route will change much in terms of frequency, I believe there is a strong argument for this new station to be a catalyst for transforming links between Merseyside, Greater Manchester and beyond.
As at Kirkby, there will be a dedicated platform for the Blackburn service which will start at terminate from Platform 3, with Platforms 1 and 2 dedicated to Merseyrail services to Liverpool Central. The Blackburn train would then proceed through Rainford, Upholland, Orrell and Pemberton – stations not served by any other services – before arriving at Wigan Wallgate, where the Kirkby line meets the line connecting Southport with Leeds via Manchester.
The Kirkby – Blackburn service is how I would usually get to and from work, but it is an imperfect service, to say the least. It doesn’t run in the evenings, or on Sundays plus there’s only one train an hour. This limits the usefulness of the service, particularly for anyone who might want to travel from Rainford, Upholland, Orrell and Pemberton into Wigan, Manchester or Liverpool for leisure reasons, or to shop. This is reflected in passenger numbers; in 2021-22, Pemberton station, which serves around 14,000 residents, saw 40,790 passenger journeys. By contrast, Prescot station serves a similar residential population and at which trains operating between Liverpool and Wigan North Western call, saw more than 210,000 journeys in 2021-22.
Prescot and Pemberton are just 12 miles apart, so why is there such a massive difference in rail usage? I’d argue that service frequency is a major factor. Prescot gets trains every 30 minutes, Pemberton doesn’t. Prescot has a late evening service, something Pemberton lacks. Hourly trains call at Prescot on Sundays; nothing stops at Pemberton.
Now, because Prescot also has the Shakespeare North theatre, regular events including an annual Elizabethan Fair and Serious Nonsense Festival and a well-supported football team, it might be argued that I’m making an unfair comparison. Pemberton doesn’t have any of those things to attract leisure travel. So, let’s look at Roby station, which is on the same line as Prescot and serves a village with fewer than 10,000 residents. How many passengers used Roby in 2021-22?
Therefore, Roby got almost four times the passengers Pemberton did. Could the fact that it has a more frequent, seven-day service have anything to do with this?
Let’s assume that the greater number of trains which call at Roby is a significant factor in the level of usage experienced by the station and that Headbolt Lane is being seen as an opportunity to get people out of their cars and onto the tracks. (I’m aware that the second assumption is doing quite a lot of heavy lifting here!) Is there a way of increasing service frequency between Headbolt Lane and Wigan Wallgate that makes this line more appealing, particularly outside peak hours?
I believe there is. A ‘Headbolt Flyer’ which operated between Headbolt Lane and Wigan Wallgate could run hourly – roughly opposite the Blackburn service – and terminate into the rarely-used bay platform at Wallgate as a sort of shuttle service. The Headbolt Flyer could operate in the evenings, on Sundays and without increasing congestion elsewhere in the network around Manchester. The track, platforms and signals are already in place.
The impact for the residents of Kirkby and the intermediate stations currently underutilised due to the paucity of their service could be significant. Being able to get from Headbolt Lane to Wigan in under half an hour will open up connections to Manchester without having to first go to Liverpool but it also offers additional connections to London, faster journeys to Birmingham and makes travelling to the Lake District, Carlisle and Scotland much easier. All I’ll have to do is alight at Wallgate, then cross the road to get to North Western.
It works both ways; the Flyer could massively improve connectivity between Wigan and Liverpool, which will receive services from Headbolt Lane every 15 minutes, making it easier to commute between these points and to get to and from sporting fixtures, musical events and to shop.
The more convenient these journeys are, the more likely it is that passengers will make them, which is why adding a shuttle service to the Blackburn route is so important.
There are, of course, practicalities to work through. A train set would need to be allocated to run the Headbolt Flyer and it would need staff, which have to be found from somewhere. It’s also true that, while there is only one passenger service per hour on this line at present, it is also used for freight traffic. However, this need not be an insurmountable obstacle. According to Realtime Trains, there are typically two arrivals at the Knowsley Freight Terminal per day, at 06:29 and 15:15 respectively with return departures at 10:50 and 18:49. These freight services are important – they carry waste from the Liverpool City Region off to Wilton near Redcar, so that waste can be converted into energy, rather than ending up in landfill. However, they shouldn’t be a barrier to enhancing passenger services on the line, should the will exist to do so.
The (hopefully) imminent opening of the Headbolt Lane station ought to be a transformative moment for rail travel in the area; additional services on what is currently an under-utilised line would definitely be transformative and would hopefully encourage greater use of public transport amongst all the communities who would benefit from their introduction. If there haven’t already discussions between Merseytravel, Transport for Greater Manchester and Northern about this kind of idea, might I politely suggest that a meeting is scheduled?