Semaphores and freight action on the Mid-Cheshire Line

Discovering a route where there is almost as much freight action as passenger traffic, as well as one with some mechanical signalling interest and one I had not previously travelled, has at last taken me on 8 June 2022 to the fascinating Mid-Cheshire Line.

Standing roughly mid-way along the 38¾-mile Stockport to Chester route is Plumley West Signal Box, where two semaphore signals are the only ones on this line and, along with Beeston Castle, Ellesmere Port and Helsby, one of just four Cheshire locations to retain any mechanical signalling. 

Freightliner 70014 approaches signal PY3 with a binliner working from Runcorn to Brindle Heath

Passenger services along Mid-Cheshire route comprise hourly Class 150/156 worked trips between Manchester Piccadilly and Chester, while varied freight action includes “Binliner” trains between terminals in Manchester and an incinerator at Runcorn, bio-mass from Liverpool to Drax Power station, along with some stone and cement traffic.

150201 approaches Plumley West SB with 2D47 from Manchester Piccadilly (11.39) to Chester

Plumley West Signal Box is a Cheshire Lines Committee (CLC) design dating from 1908, housing a 26-lever frame, on which the remaining semaphores are up (Manchester-bound) section signal PY3 and down (westbound) home signal PY25, standing very close to the signal box.

150201 approaches signal PY25 with 2D47 from Manchester Piccadilly (11.39) to Chester

Travelling to Plumley by train from Stockport takes you in a north-westerly direction along a partly single line to the next stop, Navigation Road, where the station is shared with Metrolonk trams, which serve the northernmost platform while Mid-Cheshire Line trains use what was the down platform.

DB 66181 passes Plumley West with a working from Knowsley Freight Termiing to Teesside

Next comes Altrincham, where Metrolink trams terminate in the two northernmost platforms, with two through platforms for trains to and from Chester. Once south of Altrincham, trains pass through pleasantly rural scenery and a number of delightfully kept and preserved stations, including Hale, Ashley and Mobberley.

156429/424 approach PY3 with the delayed 2H33 from Chester (12.02) to Manchester Piccadilly

Getting to Plumley West Signal Box involves a pleasant 15-minute walk from Plumley station, taking the road leading north from the station, then a sharp left at the Methodist church. After continuing down this road for about 250 yards you then fork right into a cul de sac and after crossing a small bridge follow a track towards Holford Hall before turning left onto a path that brings you to a bridge close to signal PY3.

150102/123 pass Plumley West SB with 2D48 from Manchester jPiccadilly (12.39) to Chester

From here there is a good view of eastbound trains as the approach the down section signal, which is close to the bridge, while looking round the right hand curve in the line you can see Chester-bound services as they pass home signal PY25 and the signal box. For another view of the box there is a foot crossing of the line some distance west of the box.

GBRf 60026 “Helvellyn” passes Plumley West with biomass from Liverpool to Drax Power Station

What is particularly impressive here is the variety and amount of freight traffic. In the two hours I was here on 8 June I saw three eastbound freight workings, each with a different operator and different class of loco, with a Freightliner Class 70, DB Class 66 and finally a GBRf Class 60 on biomass for Drax Power Station.

After a signal check at PY3 60026 continues its journey from Liverpool to Drax Power Station

Returning to Plumley station to continue my journey to Chester it was interesting to note colour light distant signal PY26, which had a three-aspect head but where the lower aspect – what would have shown red – was blanked out, which is not something I have seen before.

For an enjoyable interlude before catching a train from Plumley I can highly recommend a JW Lees pub called the Golden Pheasant, just south of the station entrance. John Willie Lees is one of Manchester’s best known and oldest brewers and its 4.5% Founder’s Ale (£4.20) is rather good.

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