Rover and ranger tickets are a great way to cover a lot of track in a particular area, as I had discovered a few years ago when I travelled every one of the 268 miles of track in Cornwall in a 15-hour marathon from Saltash, using a £10.00 Ride Cornwall ticket.
Spending the night in Chester after a rain-affected visit to Peak Forest and Buxton, my thoughts turned to the Merseyrail network, which I had long hoped to complete, having only previously travelled the routes from Liverpool to Chester, Kirkby and New Brighton.
Discovering that a £5.60 Merseyrail Day Saver is cheaper than a day return to Liverpool from Chester, I set myself a target of travelling the entire 75-mile Merseyrail network in a day, beginning at Chester, where a service leaves at exactly the moment a Day Saver becomes valid (09.30) and hopefully reaching Liverpool Lime Street by about 18.00.
For those unfamiliar with it, the Merseyrail network comprises 68 stations on two separate, but connecting, lines. Chester is one of four destinations on the Wirral Line, along with Ellesmere Port, West Kirby and New Brighton, while the Northern Line connects Hunts Cross and Liverpool South Parkway to the south of the city with Southport, Ormskirk and Kirkby to the north.
Wirral Line services all travel under the River Mersey before making a clockwise underground circuit of the city centre, with interchange stations for the Northern Line at Moorfields and Liverpool Central and another station, with main line connections, at Lime Street Low Level.
Current day-time service levels provided by the fleet of 57 Class 507/8 units are three trains per hour to West Kirby and New Brighton, four an hour to Chester and two and hour to Ellesmere Port. On the Northern Line there are three Hunts Cross-Southport services each hour, with three trains each hour from Liverpool Central to Ormskirk and the same frequency to Kirkby.
Passing Crewe on recent journeys I had seen a number of the new Stadler Class 777 units that have yet to be introduced into passenger service with Merseyrail, so this day out was possibly a last chance to travel on some of the oldest EMUs currently in service on the national network, the three-car Class 507/8 units dating from 1978-80.
Introduction of the new four-car Class 777 units has been beset by delays, but should happen during the course of the current year, with the 777s promising to improve journey times through faster acceleration and deceleration, while passenger capacity is significantly greater than in the 507/8s and their reduced weight will mean reduced energy use.
Given how long it is since the first 777 units arrived, it was slightly surprising during my day touring the network to not see any out on test running, although there were a number of units out of use on the depot at Kirkdale, and I had counted another four at Crewe (777002/005/012/014) when I passed the previous day.
Heading north from Chester aboard 508124 my first alighting point on 5 April 2022 was Hooton, from where I planned to head to Ellesmere Port. This is a station I had visited the previous day visited after travelling on the “Parliamentary” service from Helsby and one which still boasts a signal box and semaphores, albeit only for the occasional trains from and to Helsby.
Hooton has an interesting three-platform layout, with Liverpool trains serving platform 3 and those bound for Ellesmere Port and Chester platform 2, with platform 1 being a south-facing platform that could be used if there were shuttle services to Ellesmere Port and appears to only be regularly used by a late-night service from Chester (23.30), which terminates here.
After a brief stop at Ellesmere Port, I began heading north once again, noting evidence of the former four-track alignment on the journey to Rock Ferry, where extensive disused tracks remain on the east side of the line, before heading underground to Hamilton Square in Birkenhead and another change of train.
I had a brief photographic interlude on the island platform at Birkenhead Park before heading along the pleasantly rural line to West Kirby. Another unit was parked in the second of the two platforms here, and a second unit was also in evidence when I reached the second of the Wirral termini, New Brighton.
From New Brighton I headed to the city centre and my transfer onto the Northern Line at Liverpool Central, where there is a rather dismal island platform served by trains heading south to Hunts Cross and those bound for the three northern destinations, Southport, Ormskirk and Kirkby.
The journey south to Hunts Cross is mainly in cutting with little to see or appreciate apart from the fine restored station at Cressington. After a stop at Liverpool South Parkway the Northern Line runs as a single track to the north of a railway route towards Warrington Central, serving bay platform 3 alongside the two through platforms at Hunts Cross.
Hunts Cross to Southport is the longest single journey on Merseyrail, with a 26¼-mile trip taking 67 minutes and including no less than 21 intermediate stations. This also appears to be the busiest part of the network, at least during the early afternoon when I was travelling, with ample justification for 6-car trains and a strong case for the restoration of services at 15-minute rather than 20-minute intervals.
From Southport I retraced my steps as far as the island platform at Sandhills, where I then took a train to the delightful terminus at Ormskirk, passing the famous Grand National course at Aintree and wondering how and why, just days before the big race, the excursion platforms here have been completely abandoned.
Ormskirk and Kirkby are two Merseyrail termini where there are onward connections with Northern Rail services to Preston (from Ormskirk) and to Wigan and Manchester (from Kirkby) with connecting trains leaving from the same face of a long single platform, but no physical link retained between the two rail systems.
After finally completing the Merseyrail network with my 17.50 arrival at Lime Street Low Level, my overall impression was of a well-used and well-run system, although on a cold day the automatic opening of all doors at every station is a reminder of how standards of comfort and energy-saving have moved on since the 1970s!
Time-keeping and reliability were both impressive on the day of my visit, with no delays or cancellations and fairly consistent ticket checking. There are some well-kept and attractive stations, such as Cressington, Maghull, Ormskirk and Southport, but there is an air of neglect at others, and I have never seen so many toilets that were either out of order or closed.
I had fully expected to see some evidence of the new Class 777 units, but apart from numerous sets parked out of use at the newly-refurbished Kirkdale depot there was no sign of their imminent entry into service, although new 4-car and 8-car stop boards had appeared at a number of stations in anticipation of their arrival.