AS COMMUTERS prepare for weeks of disruption in the New Year, Merseytravel committee chairman Cllr Liam Robinson explains why the short-term pain of the £340m track renewal project will be worth the long-term gain...

IT MAY mean disruption and changes to how rail users make their journeys, but the Wirral loop line track renewal marks the start of £340 million investment in the Liverpool City Region's rail network over the next three years, an investment that will not only ensure we can deal with an increase in passenger numbers – an anticipated 50 per cent increase at peak times by 2043 – but one that will put the right pieces in place to really benefit our economy.

Granted, there won’t be a lot of visible benefits from the essential track renewal work, though you will get smoother more reliable journeys, but it is a key building block in getting the network ready for new Merseyrail trains that will be introduced from the early 2020s to replace the current 40-year-old fleet which is among the oldest in the UK.

A further share of the £340 million will be for specific projects relating to the new trains including platform and electrical supply work.

Our ambition doesn’t stop at new trains on the existing network, but how we can take the new trains onto the wider rail network over the next few decades?

They’ll be fitted with technology that, with other infrastructure improvements, could ultimately see direct services from Wirral to places beyond the existing Merseyrail network boundaries such as on the Bidston to Wrexham line.

In the meantime, people in Wirral will still continue to benefit from one of the country’s best-performing rail networks for customer service and reliability.

Being locally managed by Merseytravel, Merseyrail can respond to local needs and opportunities from offering strengthened services during big events such as the Three Queens to Boxing Day Services – one of only a small number of rail operators who offered this last year.

I often get asked if there are new rail stations planned in Wirral. Woodchurch, Beechwood and Town Meadow are listed as potential new stations in a list of more than 20 for the City Region in its 30-year Long Term Rail Strategy. However, new stations are not a quick process.

It takes at least five years from business case, design and build to completion and with stations on existing lines costing at a minimum £10 million with a limited funding pot, those with the strongest business cases will understandably take priority.

It is the job of the leaders of all the districts, through the Combined Authority, to decide, based on evidence, which transport infrastructure projects get taken forward.

As part of the £340 million investment in rail in the next three years, people in Wirral are set to benefit from the work that starts at Liverpool Lime St next year.

New and longer platforms will support more frequent services and new services, including direct ones to Scotland, from the end of 2018. These have been made possible through the new Northern and TransPennine franchises which the City Region, through Merseytravel helped shape to get a better deal for people in our area.

A £60 million investment in new trains as a result of these franchises has already meant an increase from one to two First TransPennine Express services an hour between Liverpool and Manchester and a new hourly service direct to Newcastle.

Also, journey times between Liverpool and Manchester now take just 32 minutes on certain services.

Staying with services that link our area with those beyond, I am regularly asked about Bidston to Wrexham services and what can be done to improve them.

A working group has been set up to examine options which include doubling service frequencies during the day time to two services per hour, line speed improvements, and considering new stations along the route or improvements to them.

Electrification is the ultimate aspiration, it’s in the City Region’s Long Term Rail Strategy, but as it requires massive investment, incremental improvements are seen as the best option first. The more people there are using the services ultimately strengthens the business case for electrification.

Enhancing the Borderlands line is also identified within the Growth Track 360 prospectus. The campaign seeks to secure £1 billion rail improvements to transform Cheshire and North Wales regional economy.

While a direct HS2 link isn’t currently planned for Liverpool, much work is under way by Merseytravel, representing the City Region, to ensure we get the full benefits of high speed rail north-south and east-west, not only for passengers but also to release capacity for freight on the existing rail lines so our ports can reach their full potential.

We believe we have a strong case for this to be realised through a new line between Liverpool and Manchester connecting onto the planned HS2 line near Warrington.

HS2 Ltd published its report Changing Britain: HS2 taking root at the end of October, which outlines how HS2 is essential to plans for economic growth for the City Region. On the same day, we released new research figures that show this could create a huge £15 billion boost to the Liverpool City Region economy, 20,000 new jobs along with 10,000 new homes and an extra 2.9 million visitors a year.

We’re pushing the case to Government through Transport for the North to secure the very best for the City Region.