New trains worth £460m will come into service in 2021 offering more capacity, faster journeys and better access for disabled people. Tony McDonough reports
Stations across the Merseyrail network will close for up to 30 days at a time from this autumn until summer 2019 as platforms are upgraded in readiness for a new generation of trains.
Merseyrail, Merseytravel and Network Rail unveiled the work schedule on Monday ahead of the first phase which will see the line from Ormskirk to Walton closed from October 20 to 26. Rail replacement buses will be lined up to ferry passengers to their destinations.
There will be 11 phases of works during the programme, which ends on June 16 next year. Only short sections of line will be closed at any one time, with all stations on that section closed. Closures will vary in duration, but most will be between nine and 30 days at a time.
Merseyrail’s current train fleet is now almost 40 years’ old and the new trains will cost £460m and will offer what the company is calling “ground breaking”, sliding step technology that will offer much easier access for disabled people.
When the train doors open a step will slide out from the carriage and, using electronic sensors, will stop millimetres from the platform.
Andy Heath, managing director of Merseyrail, explained: “At the moment, a wheelchair user has to give notice of their journey so that our staff can have a ramp ready so they can get on the train. With the new trains, people can just turn up and get on.”
The trains, supplied by Swiss manufacturer Stadler, are scheduled to come into operation in 2021 and the forthcoming works will see upgrades to 100 platforms at 58 stations. Those windows of time will also be used to carry out other essential track maintenance.
The new fleet will offer trains with 50% more passenger capacity, without reducing the number or size of the seats. They will also be faster, cutting current journey times but up to 10%.
“This project is absolutely transformational,” added Mr Heath. “We have put together a series of line closures to get ready for this. We will be optimising times when there is low usage of the network and avoiding the busier times, such as when there are big events.”
David Powell, programme director, rolling stock, at Merseytravel said: “The current fleet is coming to the end of its working life. Some were built in 1978. We need to upgrade our infrastructure.
“This is a major modernisation of the railway. Currently there are limitations imposed by the 1970s technology. The new trains will operate beyond the third rail which will offer us the potential to expand the Merseyrail network.”
Features such as wi-fi access will also be available across the network and the doors will have sensors that will stop the train if a passenger were to see clothing or bag straps caught in the door.
Members of the public will be able to see one of the new trains for themselves when one of the units goes on display in the coming months.
Marcus Barnes, senior sponsor for Network Rail, said: “Adjusting the height, width and layout of the platforms is more complex than it may sound and we’ll need to close sections of the line to complete these vital works safely.
“Many of these upgrades may not be obvious to passengers, but are key to enable improved access onto new Merseyrail trains using the new sliding step technology.”
Merseyrail remains in dispute with the RMT union as the new trains well be driver-operated and will not require a guard. Although the train operator has pledged to redeploy the current team of guards in other roles the union claims the one-man operation will compromise public safety.