Platform 4 at Helsby station in North Cheshire is not somewhere you battle the crowds in order to board your train. It briefly comes to life just once a day, when a Northern Rail Class 156 unit prepares to set off on its 10-minute, 5¼ mile, journey to Ellesmere Port.
Coming to life is probably a bit of an exaggeration, as there are few takers for a “Parliamentary” service that is run at times seemingly designed to be as useless as possible to anyone contemplating a journey.
Miss the 06.00 departure for Ellesmere Port, which leaves from platform 3, and you will have to wait almost 13 hours for the next, and only other, direct weekday service at 18.54. If that doesn’t suit then there is always the alternative of spending an hour or more travelling via Chester and Hooton, with two changes en route.
Arriving at Helsby from Chester in good time for the 18.54 to Ellesmere Port on Monday, 4 April 2022 I was pleasantly surprised to see one other hardy passenger waiting for the train, a local person who was an occasional user of the service and whose past experiences of its reliability were distinctly mixed.
On my previous trip five years ago I had been allowed to briefly alight at one of the two intermediate stations, Stanlow & Thornton, to take a photo. Alas, that is no longer possible, as this station has been “temporarily” closed since early February over concerns regarding the safety of its footbridge.
Setting off 13 minutes late, after unit 156459 had arrived late from the depot at Chester, we made good time on our evening excursion to Ellesmere Port, stopping briefly at Ince & Elton, where no-one boarded or alighted, then speeding through Stanlow & Thornton to arrive at our destination a mere 12 minutes late (19.17).
Waiting for us on Ellesmere Port’s little-used platform 2 was a positive throng of passengers, with a group of three blokes who were travelling beyond Helsby (the train runs on to Warrington and Liverpool Lime Street) along with a female passenger who alighted at Ince & Elton.
In rapidly descending gloom our return journey set off 10 minutes late at 19.20, with a further signal check on the approach to Helsby meaning a 13-minute late departure at 19.34 and barely enough light to photograph the train passing co-acting signal HY38. This is the last of its type on the national network in England and only pulled off once a day for the passage of train 2F17 from Ellesmere Port to Liverpool Lime Street.
While the Ellesmere Port-Helsby line has clung on for decades with a train service unlikely to attract anyone apart from diehard enthusiasts to the route, an innovative solution could be found that finally brings a worthwhile service back to the line.
Merseyrail’s new fleet of Stadler Class 777 units, due to be introduced later this year, feature battery packs that allow them to operate beyond the existing extent of third rail, and are already set to go off electric power when a new interchange station called Headbolt Lane, near Kirkby, is completed.
Once these new units have taken over from the ageing Class 507/8 units currently in service, it would not take much imagination to suppose that at least one of the twice-hourly Merseyrail services currently terminating at Ellesmere Port could be extended to Helsby, providing a range of connections and new journey opportunities.