Semaphores and bi-modes in West Lancashire

Paying an overdue return to charming Parbold, mid-way along the West Lancashire Line between Wigan and Southport, it was interesting see a significant change in rolling stock since my previous visit five years ago.

As services along the route run extensively under the wires on journeys between Southport and Stalybridge or Alderley Edge via Manchester, many are now formed of the bi-mode Class 769 units that have been created by adding a diesel engine to former Class 319 units.

While there is still a big presence of the Class 150 and 156 units I had seen in 2017, no less than four of Northern’s small eight-strong Class 769 fleet (769442/8/50/56) made an appearance during the four hours I spent at Parbold on 11 May 2022, a year after the units had made their debuts with Northern Trains.

769450 departs Parbold with 2W08 from Alderley Edge (10.50) to Southport

The Class 769 bi-mode multiple units (BMUs) are being created by Porterbrook and Brush Traction, with units also going to Transport for Wales (TfW) and GWR, where there have been some significant delays with their planned deployment on Reading-Gatwick Airport, Thames Valley and Valley Lines (TfW) services. Introduction of the units at Northern also ran late, having originally been planned for May 2018. 

Before spending a few hours at Parbold, I took a first-ever trip along the full length of the 17½-mile route from Wigan Wallgate to Southport for the princely sum of 95p, having been able to get an advance ticket (with railcard) in the Great British Rail Sale.

769450 departs Parbold with 2K88 from Southport (13.15) to Alderley Edge

This is a pleasantly rural route, with a half-hourly service frequency, although three stations west of Parbold (Hoscar, New Lane and Bescar Lane) are only served by stopping services every two hours. There is an impressive signal box at Wigan Wallgate and another at Burscough Bridge Junction, as well as the fine and listed Parbold Cabin.

769450 passes the Parbold section signal and Chapel Lane distant with 2K88 to Alderley Edge

Semaphore interest is confined to Parbold, where there are a total of seven signal arms controlled by Parbold and nearby Chapel Lane Crossing. In the down (Southport) direction these comprise a Chapel Lane home signal above the Parbold distant, then home and section signals either side of Parbold station.

A view of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal looking east from the Chapel Lane bridge

In the up direction, the Parbold home (PD4) is a single colour light standing on the platform, but some way east of the station there is the Parbold section signal above the Chapel Lane distant, with another home signal protecting the level crossing, as seen below.

769456 passes Chapel Lane Crossing with 2W12 from Alderley Edge (12.51) to Southport

Taking a pleasant ten-minute stroll along the towpath of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal brings you to a bridge and a country lane that runs north to a wooden hut that serves as the Chapel Lane Crossing box. Immediately to the east of the box is the post holding its down home signal, beneath which is the Parbold distant signal, as seen below.

769456 approaches Parbold with 2W12 from Alderley Edge (12.51) to Southport

Given the lack of road traffic using Chapel Lane, the crossing gates remain closed to traffic unless a vehicle wishes to cross, so both the crossing’s home signals are normally left in the off position.

769456 departs Parbold with 2K90 from Southport (15.17) to Alderley Edge

As I wrote after my 2017 visit, Parbold is a delightful place and Parbold Cabin is a gem of a signal box that has been lovingly preserved with no modern features like a metal stairway to ruin its appearance. For a refreshment break between trains, I can recommend The Windmill pub, close to the canal and just 200 yards south of the station, where I enjoyed a very acceptable pint of Moorhouse’s White Witch ale (£3.70).

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