A Virtual Stroll Along the Mickle Trafford-Shotton

Notes For a Controversial History, part I

The first passenger railway service in the world, that between Liverpool and Manchester, opened in September 1830, and the railway first came to Chester when the building of the original line from Warrington to Birmingham in 1837 led to an extension of the line to Chester in 1840.

A line planned to run from Chester to Birkenhead never actually reached the Mersey, as there was a clause in the Act of Incorporation which stipulated that branch lines must be built to all the ferries, if to any at all, and this proved to be financially impossible.
In 1846, a line opened between Chester an
d Ruabon in North Wales, and was soon extended to Holyhead, to meet the boats for Ireland, and this continues in service to this day.
Around thirty years later, in 1875, the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincoln company constructed a new line running from Manchester via Altringham, Northwich and Delamere to the new Northgate Station in Chester. In 1890, the line was extended to Shotton, with new stations at Blacon and Saughall, and included a stretch which allowed trains from Manchester to bypass Northgate station. This in turn connected with others, allowing access to Hawarden and Wrexham, or to Bidston and from there to the popular resort of New Brighton, or to Birkenhead and on to Liverpool.
Around this time, John Summers and Sons, steel manufacturers based at Stalybridge near Manchester, were looking for a second site, and the railway network favoured the eventual choice of Shotton, where they opened their new steelworks in September 1896.
In addition to dealing with a large number of passengers, the line also carried a considerable amount of goods traffic- freight trains passing through Northgate station could carry anything from coal, steel, minerals and building materials through to agricultural produce- for example, milk churns from farms around Chester were transported to Manchester by rail.

As part of the great reduction in the British railway network in the 1960s, the line was closed, and Northgate station demolished- the site is now occupied by the Northgate Arena sports centre and associated car park. Passenger trains from beyond Mickle Trafford were diverted there in order that they might use the General station on the other line. Goods continued to be carried on the 'bypass' line to Shotton.
In 1967, Summers' steelworks passed to British Steel, but in 1980, the works- with the exeption of the coating plant- closed with massive job losses.
For a while, the railway continued to be used for bringing in the massive steel rolls for coating, and for dispaching the finished work. With the continuing shrinking of the British steel industry, including the closure of the massive Ravenscraig works in Scotland, the remaining traffic was transferred to the roads and the Mickle Trafford to Shotton railway closed for good.

Right: a dramatic photograph, kindly contributed by retired driver Ralph Hodgkinson, of the old railway back on the 23rd March 1957 (at 12.52 pm!) Locomotive 62669 roars over the bridge which crosses the Chester main line and the Brook Lane road bridge can be seen on the right hand side of the picture. The industrial area beyond- an aluminium processor and switchgear factory- is now the site of the Duke's Manor housing estate.

• In 1984, a County Council report was produced on possible uses for the disused line. It discussed three options: a place to run preserved steam trains, tarmacking it over to form a new main road or converting it into a landscaped cycle path / bridleway and pedestrian footpath. The report pointed out the growing shortage of recreational green spaces in Chester- especially in Hoole and Blacon- and the economic and tourism advantages to the city of promoting cycling and strongly favoured acting upon the latter option- still the plan overwhelmingly favoured by the public to this day- which it stated could be undertaken at no great expense. However, despite warning that delay would lead to dereliction and problems for neighbouring homes, no action was taken and the line did indeed in places become a rubbish-strewn wasteland.

• Eleven years later, in 1995, cycling charity Sustrans was awarded National Lottery money for the creation of a national cycle network, although Chester was excluded from this- the national route map was published showing gaps between the Welsh coastal route and Chester and also between Liverpool and Chester.

• Also in 1995 came the first public exhibition proposing a guided busway with a partial cycleway / footpath alongside. From the start it was greeted by the public with rather less than overwhelming enthusiasm.
There were only four guided busway systems in operation throughout the world at this time, all of which were experimental and none of them followed the path of a former railway lines. Despite this, Chester councillors and officials visited some of these experimental systems in Europe and were apparently impressed with what they saw. They proclaimed that only mythical 'environmentally friendly' vehicles- which had not yet been yet designed- would be used on the proposed route.

• Opposition to their guided busway mounted as concerned individual members of the public failed to see the logic or merit of the scheme.

• Several local groups and individuals tried to claim credit for several million pounds of public money awarded to Chester at this time. This award failed to ensure the return of Gyles Brandreth as Chester's MP, being replaced by busway-friendly former Labour councillor Christine Russell.
Although much maligned by elements of the local establishment since leaving office, Mr Brandreth should be remembered with gratitude for the excellent work he did in promoting the restoration of the city's canal towpaths- formerly shamefully neglected by British Waterways- for recreational and commuter use. The Hoole to Chester City Centre path, for example, is today a much-used and welcome alternative to the heavily-congested Boughton.

• The scheme gained all party- and, it was claimed- all council support (Chester City, Cheshire County and Flintshire County Councils)- and this despite the fact that the latter had not yet even been formed! This supposed 'support' by a non-existent entity must be extremely rare, if not unique, in local politics. Unimpressed by their betters, however, the citizens continued their opposition on environmental, safety, economic- and irrelevance- grounds.

• Recruitment of a Busway 'supremo' was announced, one Carlton Roberts-James, a three year contract at a salary of £30,000-plus.

Sustrans, the sustainable transport charity was invited to construct a cycleway / walkway along the edge of the old railway- not down the middle as was their normal practise- thus allowing space for the construction for the busway at a later date.

• Growing local opposition was articulated at the Local Plan public hearing and local councillors became increasingly paranoid about opposition to the scheme, a number of them writing letters to the local press containing of all manner of unsubstantiated claims and assertions. Their efforts, however, continued to be greatly outnumbered by letters of opposition from exasperated citizens. Sections of the local press contributed to the debate by 'neglecting' to fully Chronicle the views of those many, many local people opposed to the busway.

• A large and glossy report on the Busway scheme was produced using public funds- but was made available to the public at a cost of £10 per copy.

• In desperation at not receiving public support and adulation for their Busway, the local council and some sections of the Chester press made much of a timely report from a bunch of ten year-olds from a local primary school, which had apparently been commissioned by a previously unheard of organisation calling itself the 'Sustainable Environmental Education Network'- SEEN. The children's report unsurprisingly came out in favour of the proposed busway. Little trace of SEEN has been er, seen since that time...

• Still no indication of the sustainability of the proposed vehicles to be used on the route appeared. In fact, to date very few details about anything at all to do with the proposed vehicles- or who is to operate them- have ever been released to the public.

Sustrans took over responsibility for constructing a footway and cycleway and submitted a planning application. Their normal practice when converting old railways to cycleways is to construct the course of the track so it runs over varying parts of the old track bed to take advantage of existing trees or other natural features, and to add variety to the route and interest for its users.
In this instance, however, they were said to be most unhappy at being required to submit a planning application which would require the cycle track being laid in a manner which would not cause obstruction to the future course of the Busway. In other words, council planners required that the cycletrack be laid in a dead straight line at the extreme edge of the site.
This was clearly illustrated during the European Summit for Transport and the Environment, which was held at Chester Castle. The public face of this was a 'green transport exhibition'. Alongside the ranks of car dealers, the PR people from the Mickle Trafford Busway were very much in evidence, headed by their shiny new 'Project Manager: Chester-Deeside Transport System' (by now generally referred to by the acronym CDTS), Carlton Roberts-James who- aided by a jolly working model (designed to appeal to the kiddies), obligatory video presentation, stickers, glossy leaflets and badly-drawn artist's impressions- told us how the Busway would form a vital link in Chester's 'people-friendly' integrated transport system, etc. And, tellingly, how it would play an important role in accessing 'future developments' between Chester and Deeside. Actually, Mr Roberts-James seemed a tad unhappy that he'd let that one go, pounced upon as it was by his audience, and forthwith professed to be unaware of any such planned invasion of the green belt in this area, even though it was pointed out to him that much of the land around a projected massive Park and Ride site on the edge of Hoole has already been snapped up by Tesco and other examples of the tin hut brigade, just waiting for the inevitable nod to get cracking. Which, with the deeply-depressing announcements about the £35 million-plus Western Relief Road and associated so-called 'Deeside Development Zone' at the other end of the line is exactly what seems to have happened. Not to mention Tesco's application to have their speculative acquisitions around Mannings Lane removed from the Green Belt altogether. Or the rumoured privatisation of Chester's Park and Ride sites...

Chairman of the CDTS Steering Group, County Councillor Peter Byrne told us in his frequent and repetitive letters to the local press in defence of CDTS that Tesco et al have been told "in no uncertain terms" that no development would be allowed around the Park and Ride, but few locals were remotely convinced by his assurances.
It seemed the great public unpopularity of the intended busway, its enormous cost, and the well- and frequently- argued case regarding Chester's desperate need of a completely traffic-free greenway where people could walk and cycle with their children in peace and safety- just for a change- had been completely disregarded and there at the prestigious European Summit was a sorry little exhibition to prove it.

In June 1998, Sustrans submitted their planning appication for the Chester section of the National Cycle Network, estimated to cost around £400,000. A city council spokesman confirmed that the application dealt only with the cycleway, and that "the Busway was a separate issue, for which funding was being separately sought"

Left: This fascinating photograph from May 1959, taken from the Chester East signal box. The right-hand branch is the modern course of the Sustrans Cycleway while the left-hand, which headed for the now-vanished Northgate Station, has gone without trace, to be replaced by a park and the housing estates of Northgate Village. (Thanks to Ralph Hodgkinson for this photograph)

July 1998 Depressingly, the local press now reported that a
planning application had submitted its to Flintshire County Council's planning department and work on the busway could commence in Spring 1999, to be completed sometime in 2000. Flintshire transport chairman Cllr Merion Jones commented "This is the first stage of the scheme and we are very much looking forward to it. It is an exciting and innovative scheme and very much in line with the transport White Paper which will be out later this month" (indicating he'd not actually read it yet). "We have been in discussions with government officials, including the deputy Prime Minister John Prescott about funding for the guided bus route". (Translation: Despite all the hype, they didn't even have the money to pay for it- just like their equally disastous plans for the aforementioned Western Relief Road and new industrial wasteland- of which this unwanted Busway was intended to form an integral part) He continued "We are also talking to bus companies interested in operating the system once planning permission is sorted out. We are very upbeat about it".
We're sure they were. The rest of the car-bound thought it was a good idea too. Not that they'd be actually using it- everyone knows only the poor ride bikes or take buses- but they were doubtless hoping the scheme may result in getting a few of other people's cars off the road to make more room for themselves.

• Planners admitted that up to half a million cyclists and pedestrians each year could be using the Sustrans path to be built along the busway- not one of whom, we're certain, wouldn't have been much, much happier if all the trees hadn't been chopped down and they didn't have to share the narrow space with buses!! Just for once, a place where they and their children could relax and not always have to be on the lookout for approaching fast-moving vehicles?
Surely such a massive projected usage by cyclists and walkers demonstrated the demand and amply justified adapting the old railway for the benefit of just these users?
Predictably, selective interpretation of John Prescott's long-awaited Transport White Paper by the pro-bus brigade was being seen as an endorsement of the CDTS. City council Head of Planning Andy Farrall, for example, who said "Public transport, particularly imaginative schemes such as this, is one of Mr Prescott's key themes. This is off road and it takes people into the city centre, one of the priority areas for public transport development". Many were puzzled as to exactly how a system could be 'off road' and in the city centre at one and the same time.

• The mere proposed provision of a narrow cycle / footpath cutting through the little park at the end of Northgate Avenue (on the grounds that it was "the only possible route from the old railway to the city centre") was met with a storm of local opposition. So how would it be when buses start hurtling through it, as was now planned? People were being promised everything but actually shown very little.

• You'll remember the White Paper also had much to say about promoting safe, traffic-free routes for our children to cycle to school. Asking them to share this extremely narrow corridor with a fast moving bus roaring by every few minutes is hardly, we feel, exactly what the government had in mind- 'safely' fenced off or not.

• Chester's MP, Christine Russell said she would be "urging County transport chiefs to speed up efforts" to get the thing built as soon as possible, and Cllr David Robinson, chairman of the county's Environmental Services Committee- and reputedly pro-cycling to boot- said "There are to be 150 new transport projects and I hope CDTS is one of them. All the ministers know about it because they saw the scheme (which was clever of them, considering it only existed as a glorified Hornby Double-0 set and a pretty video)- when they came to Chester for the Euro Transport Conference in March". David Lloyd-Griffiths, chairman of the County's Key Environment Committee- whatever that is- said he was enthusiastic about the scheme: "It is a sensible and realistic way forward. It could serve as a model example of success and give the government confidence to identify other such transport corridors". Gullibility being by no means confined to Chester. Equally, of course, it could also have proved to be an unwanted, unpopular, unnecessary, expensive disaster whose true function was, as many citizens were by now quite aware, merely to fast-track the planned Park and Ride and speculative Tescoland near the M56 with the big shops in the city centre.
We had a feeling the White Paper had a thing or two to say about the curtailment of future greenfield development, too? Or were our councillors and planners too busy debating plans for the future well-being of the region's cyclists and pedestrians- sorry- speculators, developers and supermarkets- to notice?

Now go on to parts II and III of our history of the Mickle Trafford-Shotton Railway or read what the People think: a growing collection of letters to these pages and the Chester press in favour of the busway and- far, far more numerous!- letters against it. A true and accurate indication of public opinion...

In addition, we invite you to take our Virtual Stroll Along the Mickle Trafford Railway
for yourself!

Much more about this major planning shambles may be learned by perusing our growing collection of letters to these pages and the Chester press in favour of the busway and- far, far more numerous!- letters against it. A true and accurate indication of public opinion!

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