Anyone fed up with fighting for a seat on their daily commute, or their longer distance journey, would be amazed if they were to take a trip by train to a station serving the huge Essar Energy oil refinery at Stanlow on the south bank of the Manchester Ship Canal. Stanlow & Thornton station is officially one of Britain’s least used stations, recording a total of just 88 passengers in 2015/6, or little more than one a week.
Not bad, perhaps, when you consider that there is no public access to the station, which stands within the 1,900-acre refinery complex, but disappointing that it is not better used by those working at, or visiting, the UK’s second largest refinery complex.
It is one of two intermediate stations on the curious 5.25 mile double track route from Ellesmere Port, terminus of Merseyrail electric services from Hooton, to Helsby, a significant junction on the route from Chester to Manchester. By comparison with Stanlow & Thornton, the line’s other station – Ince & Elton – is positively bustling, with 1,468 passengers recorded in 2015/6, or almost 30 a week.
For more than two decades since electrification of the line from Hooton to Ellesmere Port was completed in 1993, this route has been reduced from a regular half-hourly service to just four return journeys a day, Mondays to Saturdays, with two early morning trips and then two more in mid-afternoon. Third rail electrification of this stretch of line was apparently ruled out on safety grounds, due to its proximity to the refinery.
Taking a Saturday afternoon trip along the line, I was one of only two passengers aboard the 15.17 service from Helsby, which then returned from Ellesmere Port at 15.34 completely empty. Its second afternoon trip from Helsby also carried two passengers, while heading back to Helsby myself half an hour later on the final service of the day, at 16.04, passenger numbers had swelled to three!
Services are about to get even more sparse, with franchised Train operator (TOC) Northern Rail planning a drastic cut at the December 2017 timetable change, when all that the line will have will be a single daily return service, albeit a through train operating from Ellesmere Port to Leeds via Manchester Victoria.
This has enraged the North Cheshire Rail Users’ Group, whose latest newsletter describes the move as: “a classic case of a TOC doing the bare minimum to comply with its franchise commitment and clearly indicates a lack of understanding, or deliberate denial, of the potential along the line, despite local evidence which has been presented and which suggests that several major developments have taken place along the line since the service was decimated in the mid-90’s.”
Given positive rail developments nearby, notably re-opening to regular services later this year of what is known as the Halton curve, between Frodsham and Runcorn, it does seem rather bizarre that nothing at all is being done to develop traffic along what should be a strategically useful rail corridor.