The Mid-Cheshire line has its origins in railways promoted by three separate railway companies in the 19th century. The Cheshire Midland Railway was opened to passengers between Altrincham and Knutsford on 12 May 1862 (1862-05-12), then completed to Northwich on 1 January 1863 (1863-01-01). The West Cheshire Railway opened from Northwich to West Cheshire Junction in 1869. This railway was extended from Mouldsworth to a new terminus at Chester Northgate in 1874 (1874). The line from Altrincham to Manchester was the Manchester, South Junction and Altrincham Railway (MSJAR), opened on 20 July 1849 (1849-07-20) and jointly owned by the London and North Western Railway and the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway (MSLR, later the Great Central Railway). The line from Chester to Altrincham was vested in the Cheshire Lines Committee (CLC), a joint committee regulated by the Great Northern Railway (GNR), MSLR and the Midland Railway (MR). This committee became an independent company after 1867 and survived the 1923 Grouping intact. Services were operated by the CLC until nationalisation on 1 January 1948, when the line became part of British Railways London Midland Region. Between 1880 and 1969, CLC trains from Chester via Altrincham terminated at Manchester Central railway station.
The junction with the Sandbach branch became a triangular junction in 1957, with the addition of the single-line connection from Sandbach towards Chester.
Before the Beeching closures in the 1960s, there were branch lines with services from the Mid-Cheshire line (see also the Winsford and Over branch). Beeching had no plans to close part or all of the Mid-Cheshire line, although in his proposed second phase of closures there were plans to close the line between Chester and Warrington Bank Quay, which would have increased the number of passengers using the Mid-Cheshire line. Although those proposed closures never went ahead, the original termini at Chester and Manchester were closed in 1969 and services were re-routed to Chester General, via a new junction at Mickle Trafford, and Manchester Oxford Road.
The route was double track between Chester and Altrincham, although the section between Mickle Trafford and Mouldsworth was reduced to single track after Chester Northgate station closed in 1969. For many years the line had the reputation of being one of the busiest double-track routes in the UK.
CLC trains from Manchester to Chester departed from Manchester Central and joined the MSJ&A tracks at Old Trafford, sharing the MSJ&A line as far as Altrincham. These trains usually ran "express", some non-stop, others calling only at Sale. The frequency of trains over this section led to a large section of the MSJ&A route between Manchester and Altrincham being quadrupled, and the whole route (from Manchester to the former Bowdon railway station, which was used as carriage sidings and repair depot) was electrified at 1500 volts DC in 1931. Local services between Manchester London Road and Altrincham were then provided by electric multiple unit trains. From 1960, Manchester Oxford Road railway station became the terminus for the Altrincham electrics and through running from London Road (renamed Piccadilly in that year) ceased. The journey time by the electric trains from Oxford Road to Altrincham was typically 20 or 21 minutes. The CLC trains typically took 13 minutes to travel between Manchester Central (Oxford Road from 1969) and Altrincham with one stop at Sale.
The original electric trains, built in 1931, were withdrawn in 1971 and the system was changed to 25 kV AC. Through running to Manchester Piccadilly was reintroduced and some services from Altrincham to Manchester were extended through Manchester to Alderley Edge/Crewe/Stoke-on-Trent and occasionally Wolverhampton. Services were provided by 'AM4' (later British Rail Class 304) electric multiple units. Unlike the 1931-built trains, these had not been designed specifically for the Altrincham route and they lacked the acceleration of the older trains, causing the journey time from Manchester to Altrincham to be extended by 3 minutes.
1990 saw further changes as Mid-Cheshire line trains were diverted via Stockport in preparation for conversion of the Sale route to Metrolink. The electrification system between Manchester and Altrincham was changed for the second time, to 750 V DC, and the electric trains replaced by trams. The journey time by tram to Altrincham was 27 minutes and the faster diesel service (the Mid-Cheshire line trains) ceased as these trains were diverted via Stockport with considerably extended journey times. The journey time by train from Manchester to Hale, for example, doubled from 17 to 34 minutes. Manchester Metrolink trams now exclusively use the trackbed between Deansgate Junction (between Navigation Road and Timperley) and Manchester.
The line serves many small, rural settlements in Cheshire before reaching Chester. Services follow the Crewe line from Manchester Piccadilly as far as Stockport, where the line diverges westwards. The line then curves around the south of Manchester until it meets the Metrolink line. Metrolink and Mainline services run parallel between Deansgate Junction through Navigation Road railway station to Altrincham, where the Metrolink terminates. Part of the route is single track between Stockport and Altrincham. South of Altrincham, the route leaves Manchester's suburbs. There are no further passenger interchanges on the line until the service reaches Chester. There is a single-track freight-only branch to the west of Northwich railway station which links Northwich to Sandbach on the Crewe to Manchester Line. There is a campaign for this line to be re-opened as a passenger line to allow interchange with services at Sandbach or Crewe and serve the town of Middlewich, the railway station of which closed in 1960. There is also a curve to access the West Coast Main Line further west, but passenger services do not use this. The line joins up with the line from Chester to Warrington just east of Chester at Mickle Trafford Junction.
Monday to Friday
Manchester to Chester: 18 trains per day
Stockport to Chester: 2 additional trains per day
Chester to Manchester: 17 trains per day
Chester to Stockport: 2 additional trains per day
Manchester to Chester: 18 trains per day
Chester to Manchester: 17 trains per day
Chester to Manchester & Wigan Wallgate/Southport: 7 trains
Southport/Wigan Wallgate & Manchester to Chester: 7 trains
The above shows a cutback in the number of peak services to and from Manchester, which started in December 2008 and prompted an online petition. It also included the loss of a daily direct service to Blackpool from Northwich and the loss of a limited stop afternoon train from Chester to Manchester. As well as improvements made to the Sunday service, which was previously a 3 hourly Chester to Altrincham service. However, due to growing numbers of passengers, the new Northern franchise will include increased services (see below).
Passenger numbers for the Mid-Cheshire line show that the station on the line with the highest number of people boarding and alighting Manchester to Chester via Altrincham services is Manchester Piccadilly. The second highest, and the highest station served only by this line, is Knutsford, followed by Stockport, Chester, and Altrincham respectively. Ashley contributes the fewest passengers to the service.
Passenger services in the off-peak period are better utilised than passenger services on similar lines, with Altrincham being in the top 10 busiest Greater Manchester stations (excluding Central Manchester stations) for the morning off-peak period; Hale and Altrincham also both perform well in the morning peak period.
Additional train every hour
As part of the new Northern franchise, commencing in April 2016, the new operator will be required to run the existing service, as well as an additional service every hour on weekdays and Saturdays between Greenbank and Manchester. One service is required by the terms of the invitation to tender to run semi-fast and must call at Stockport, Altrincham, Knutsford and Northwich only, between Greenbank and Manchester in both directions. The announcement of Arriva as the franchise winner in December 2015 indicated that the future operator has gained agreement for the additional service to call at Hale although this was not specified in the invitation to tender. Services on Sunday from Chester to Manchester will become every hour in each direction.
Also required is the removal and replacement of all Pacer trains by 2020.
The following are proposals for future services to the line.
Reopening the Northwich to Sandbach line to passenger trains
This would allow a direct train service from places on the line to Crewe, which will should reduce journey times to destinations south of Chester, as well as reducing fares to those destinations. It would also allow the former station at Middlewich to re-open, and the possibility of a new station opening at Rudheath. An independent feasibility report found the Benefit to Cost Ratio for the reopening to be 5:1, which is almost four times higher than the recently reopened Borders railway in Scotland.
Manchester Airport western link
Proposals for a link to Manchester Airport from near Mobberley were first put forward in the 1990s, though little progress was made. However, in March 2009 it was mentioned in a Network Rail document as a possible project in the future, although reopening the Northwich to Sandbach line to regular passenger services was not mentioned in that document. The link to Manchester Airport railway station would be a 3.5 mile new railway, starting north of Mobberley railway station and continuing under the airport campus in tunnel, before making an end-on junction with the southernmost platforms of the existing airport station, which was designed with this extension in mind. As well as providing links from mid Cheshire and Chester to Manchester Airport, the new line would enable services from North Wales, Liverpool and the Wirral to reach the airport by shorter routes than today. The route from Chester and North Wales, in particular, would cut off more than 20 miles from today's route via Warrington and Manchester. Additionally, by running services from Cheshire through the airport to Manchester Piccadilly, a new route would be established which cuts more than 5 miles off the current Stockport route. This would restore journey times between Cheshire and Manchester to the times achieved before 1990, when the Sale route was transferred to Manchester Metrolink (see above).
Running tram-trains directly to Manchester
The possibility of running tram-trains between Greenbank or Knutsford and central Manchester has been examined. However, it was decided in 2013 that the use of tram-trains alongside existing heavy rail passenger and freight services would provide poor value for money and alternative heavy rail options should be examined instead.
In March 2015, the Electrification Task Force said that the Mid-Cheshire line was a tier 1 priority for being electrified in the CP6 period (2019-2024).
The CLC owned its own coaching stock but no locomotives (apart from four Sentinel steam railmotors). From the start of operations, motive power was provided by the MSLR and later the GCR, although locomotives and stock from the other CLC constituent companies could also be seen. This gave the Mid-Cheshire line a very "cosmopolitan" feel until well into the 1960s when older locomotives were replaced by British Railways (BR) standard designs.
Early passenger services were handled by MSLR/GCR class 12A (LNER class E3) 2-4-0 locomotives designed by Charles Sacre. These were replaced by John Robinson-built GCR class 11B (LNER class D9) 4-4-0, GCR class 11E (LNER class D10) 4-4-0 'Small Directors', GCR class 11F (LNER class D11) 4-4-0 'Large Directors' and GCR class 9K (LNER class C13) 4-4-2 tank locomotives. The 'Directors' and C13s lasted well into the nationalisation era and were eventually displaced by LMS and BR standard tank engines. Dieselisation of passenger services began in the early 1960s with class 108 and later class 101 diesel multiple units displacing the steam locomotives.
The route was a very busy freight artery – especially the section between Greenbank and Deansgate Junction. The I.C.I. works at Winnington and Lostock attracted much traffic, in particular heavy trains consisting of custom-built bogie hoppers, which carried limestone from Derbyshire. These trains required banking between Northwich and Winnington works and were the preserve of LMS class 8F 2-8-0 locomotives, later BR class 40, class 47 and class 20 diesels. Other locomotives to be seen included LMS class 4F, GCR class 8K (LNER class O4) and class 9H (LNER class J10) steam locomotives. Shunting and trip working was carried out by GCR class 9F (LNER class N5) steam and BR class 08 diesel locomotives.
The line sees a mix of diesel traction. Many of the passenger trains used on this line are still Class 142 Pacer trains, but due to increasing passenger numbers, Class 150 Sprinters and Class 156 Super Sprinters are now also frequently used on the line, especially on peak time services.
In the past Class 158 Super Sprinter trains and Class 175 Coradia trains were used on some journeys on this line. Class 175s have not been used on services on this line since Northern Rail took over and the small fleet of Manchester-based Class 158s, which were used on the line until 2005, were transferred to Leeds to work services in the Yorkshire and North East areas. Class 175 Coradia trains occasionally travel along the line if engineering work is taking place on the Chester to Manchester via Warrington line.
Goods trains continue to use the line. The primary source of traffic for many years was limestone from quarries near Buxton, Derbyshire, to Brunner Mond’s works at Winnington. This decreased sharply in 2014 when the works was closed by Tata Chemicals Europe. Since then, the majority of freight runs to and from the ICI plant and refuse incinerator at Folly Lane near Runcorn to destinations in and around Manchester (including one on the route itself at Northenden) using the Greenbank to Hartford spur line to enter or leave the route. Some limestone traffic from Buxton to the former ICI terminal near Lostock Gralam (serving Tata's other chemical plant in the area) continues to run.