On a sunny day, there are few better places to wait for a train than Helsby station, a proper old-school country station. It is awash with colour and flowers, thanks to the efforts of the North Cheshire Rail Users Group, who keep the place looking spick and span. Network Rail contractors in orange overalls were busy repointing the stonework on the station buildings. The sound of chirping birds mixed with the bells and clunking levers from the old -fashioned mechanical signal box on the platform.
I was waiting on platform 4 for the 1517 to Ellesmere Port, via Ince & Elton and Stanlow & Thornton. Seeing the latter station on the scrolling electronic display triggered old memories, sending a shiver down my spine.
Let’s go back in the mists of time to April 2010. I was strolling, as nonchalantly as I could, along the service road for Stanlow Oil Refinery with my friend Scott Willison. He has made it his mission to visit every station on the Merseyrail and Northern Rail networks, and he was trying to tick off Stanlow & Thornton, an intermediate station on the Ellesmere Port branch line.
It was all going very well until we attracted the attention of the refinery’s security guards. One of them (Kevin) strolled over the station footbridge to meet us and question us as to what the hell we were doing there. It’s a question I ask myself sometimes and have trouble answering, but Kevin was eventually satisfied that we weren’t the trainspotter wing of Al Qaeda. He still stayed with us “for our safety” until the train arrived, mind you.
That trip was the direct inspiration for my own station collecting adventures which started the following year. Yes, it’s all Scott’s (and Kevin’s) fault. Blame him (them)!
There was just one small problem: when I visited the Ellesmere Port branch back in 2010, I didn’t take any photos of myself at the stations. This left a gap which needed to be filled. There was nothing else for it – I would have to go back. I had the day off work on 4th August, so I bought a Cheshire Day Ranger and travelled out to Helsby.
Whilst en route I mentioned on Twitter that I was on my way to Stanlow & Thornton:
@Hampo I'll alert the authorities.
— Scottieboy (@merseytart) August 4, 2014
— Peter Shilli.TXTo (@theshillito) August 4, 2014
THANKS FOR THE SUPPORT GUYS.
The prospect of revisiting Stanlow & Thornton station did not exactly fill me with joy. It’s probably the nearest “Parliamentary” station to me – it’s even on the Merseyrail network map – but I got stressed out at the thought of returning to this harsh world of heavy industry and burly security guards. In addition, the curious timetable on the line makes it a bit of a pain to get to.
Some backstory is needed as to why passengers on the Ellesmere Port to Helsby line get such a raw deal. As far back as the 1970s, Merseyrail maps showed the line in green as part of the Wirral Line. A regular service ran to Rock Ferry to connect with the electrics to Liverpool. OK, a change of train was needed to complete the journey, but the intent was clear – eventually our shiny electric trains will reach Helsby.
The electrification was extended – first to Hooton in 1985, then to Ellesmere Port in 1994. Then it just… stopped. I’ve heard two different stories to explain this. One is that privatisation intervened and the money ran out. The other is that the refinery’s owners were concerned that arcing from the 3rd rail could pose an explosion risk with so many petrochemical fumes hanging in the air. Whatever the reason, the third rail stops at Ellesmere Port, leaving the last few miles to Helsby to remain served by diesels. Around this time, the line on the Merseyrail map was quietly recoloured to grey.
A complicated new timetable was introduced, with a train east from Ellesmere Port every two hours, continuing beyond Helsby to Warrington Bank Quay. Some services even continued all the way to Liverpool Lime Street via Earlestown, although surely only a masochist would have chosen this train – which took nearly two hours to make the journey – over the Merseyrail service.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this new service did not last very long, and within a few years it was pruned back to a minimal shuttle service. A train arrives at Helsby in the early hours of the morning, runs to Ellesmere Port and back twice, and then disappears back where it came from. The pattern is repeated mid-afternoon. Four trains a day, and that’s it.
Fortunately, for my purposes, they are timed in such a way that it is possible to visit both stations on the branch, with a bit of planning. Arrive at Helsby in time for the 1517 train to Stanlow & Thornton, then zigzag back to Ince & Elton, before doubling-back again to reach Ellesmere Port and (relative) civilisation.
A Northern Rail Sprinter approached from the Chester direction, stopped just beyond the station and reversed into the branch platform. The guard seemed surprised to see me, which was to be expected – I was the only passenger. I took up a seat near the rear cab to save him having to walk down the train, although he never came down to check tickets.
We set off down the branch. No going back now, I thought.
I will admit to being a little bit concerned. Last time I had Scott with me and he could do the talking. This time I was alone and had no-one to turn to for moral support in the event that I caused a security alert at the refinery. Would I be hauled, kicking and screaming, into a police van, to be interrogated by Cheshire Constabulary’s finest?
I was about to find out. I alighted at Stanlow & Thornton and watched the train disappear into the distance. I had precisely 16 minutes until it returned in the other direction.
I took a few snaps of the station, while being mindful of the giant “NO PHOTOGRAPHY” sign that I’d seen at the refinery entrance on my last visit.
Stanlow & Thornton was opened in 1940 and, as you would expect from a station built in wartime, is an austere structure. A couple of rudimentary shelters, a wooden hut (long since boarded up) to serve as a ticket office, and a footbridge. Interestingly the platform is much longer than the Northern Rail trains which serve it. If a Merseyrail train ever did venture down this line, a 6-car train could probably be accommodated here.
The platform signage teases non-existent services to Hooton, Birkenhead and Liverpool. I wonder – did the powers-that-be actually get as far as ordering new signs for the station before the electrification was cancelled? In any event, these wrong signs should really be addressed by the station manager, Geoff. He looks very happy in that photo. It clearly wasn’t taken at Stanlow & Thornton.
There used to be many railway sidings here. Sadly they are long-abandoned – all the refinery’s output leaves by lorry these days. Nature has reclaimed the disused trackbed, and the trees and bushes growing either side of the station help hide the refinery buildings. At first glance, from platform level, it looks almost rural, but no amount of lineside vegetation can mask the pungent smells being belched into the air from various chimneys nearby.
Few have stood where I now stood. The “official” count of passengers at this station is 260. This is unsurprising, considering the station is completely surrounded by the Essar oil refinery with limited public access.
The “onward travel” poster gives the names of local taxi firms. This is rather optimistic – it’s unlikely a taxi would be able to get anywhere near the station. The road leading to the station, the romantically-named Oil Sites Road, is closed to all traffic except that on refinery business. Even the rail replacement buses have to drop off on the roundabout outside the complex. There is still a foot/cycle path open to the public, but it’s a long walk from here to anywhere.
To get the required sign pic would require leaving railway property and venturing onto the refinery land briefly. I was incredibly nervous as I ventured down the steps to the station exit. If the money shot is blurred, that is because I was trembling (seriously) when I took it. I didn’t hang around to have another go; instead I darted back up the steps and back into the station as quickly as possible.
I hate to be pernickety (stop laughing) but the entrance sign reads “Stanlow & Thornton, while the nameboards on the platform read “Stanlow and Thornton”. Following on from the Teesside/Tees-side kerfuffle a couple of months ago, I can only conclude that Northern Rail’s sign making department is not paying close enough attention. They need to be more anal, but then, don’t we all?
I paced up and down the eastbound platform, checking my watch repeatedly. A hopeful glance down the track – was that my train? No, just a signal glowing in the distance. I looked up at the footbridge – no sign of any heavies coming in to duff me up or, worse, make me delete my photos. Just to be on the safe side, I opened the Mail app and e-mailed all my pictures to myself, so they’d be waiting for me on my computer when I got home. Belt and braces approach, and all that.
Then – oh joy! I spied the train approaching. I don’t think I have ever been so happy to see a train arrive in my life.
I had escaped from Stanlow, completely unmolested. In fact, I hadn’t seen any evidence of security at all. Now I’m a bit worried – I hope Kevin still has his job and hasn’t been laid off.
The hard part was over, but I couldn’t relax too much – I still had to visit the other station on the line, Ince & Elton. Just three minutes after leaving Stanlow, we were slowing for the stop. As I stood up to alight, I noticed something amazing – another passenger! He was sitting at the far end of the next coach. No time to speak to him though, as I had to alight.
The station, as its name suggests, serves the two villages of that name. Ince was the site of an enormous (now demolished) power station, while Elton is probably best known as the birthplace of Louise Woodward. Just going to leave those little facts there for you.
The station itself is clean and tidy, although the dented nameboards seemed to indicate that the local wildlife had been using it for target practice. The empty car park made me sad. “Cars parked at owners’ risk”, read the sign – yes, the risk that you will never get a train. I have a feeling there is park and ride potential here waiting to be tapped, if a decent train service were provided. As things stand now, however, just 460 people used this station in the 2012/13 accounting period.
I only had ten minutes before the train returned to whisk me off to Ellesmere Port, so I had to be quick. Unfortunately getting the sign pic involved me staring directly into the sun, hence the appallingly squinty picture. I’ve probably permanently damaged my retinas for you, blog readers. YOU’RE WELCOME.
Another reason I had to be quick: the only access to the Ellesmere Port-bound platform was via a foot crossing controlled by these lights. I didn’t want to risk getting stuck the wrong side of a red light as a train approached.
Yes, there are other trains using this line. While passenger services are, as we’ve seen, almost non-existent, there are regular freight workings to Ellesmere Port docks. There are also plans for the Quinn Glass company to start using rail to transport materials in and out of their factory in Ince.
I paused briefly on the crossing itself and looked at the tracks stretching off into the distance. In fact, the straight section of track lasts all the way from Little Sutton (on Merseyrail) almost to Helsby.
While I waited for my next train, I noticed a couple of people in the car park appearing to pick up litter. Were they volunteers with NCRUG or other public-spirited citizens? Either way, it was good to see people taking an interest in the station, even if the railway companies don’t seem to.
I boarded the train for the third and final time. There was one final surprise in store. At Stanlow & Thornton an actual real passenger got on the train – a young woman in her late 20s. She couldn’t possibly be a “crank” – she looked, well, normal.
The train arrived at Ellesmere Port, where the Merseyrail service to Liverpool was already ticking over in the adjacent platform. I caught up to to my fellow passenger as she crossed the footbridge. She was a bit startled but volunteered the information that she actually works at the refinery as a physiotherapist and uses the train “two or three times a week”.
“That’s amazing!” I said, “I didn’t think anyone actually used this train. I was just riding it for fun! I’m so happy it’s useful to someone.”
I think I babbled some other random railway-related nonsense too. In retrospect, I think I sounded like a crazy person. She deliberately chose a different carriage to me on the Merseyrail train.
So there you have it. The Ellesmere Port to Helsby line has at least one semi-regular commuter. It’s not much, but it’s a start.