Thursday, 31 December 2015

THE WORLD'S MOST UNSUCCESSFUL GENTLEMAN'S DRINKING CLUB - HOW MRLC BEGAN...


by Dave Roberts

For me it all began in the early 1990s with a photograph and short paragraph in RAIL magazine announcing that the section of the Sandbach-Northwich branch line between Middlewich and Northwich was to be closed to all traffic, leaving only the section from Sandbach Junction to Middlewich, including the Middlewich loop, open to cater for dwindling traffic from British Salt and Hay's Chemicals.

The news, as can be imagined, caused more than a small pang of regret.
I had grown up with this railway, having lived across the road from it in King Street from 1959 to 1983.
I was old enough to have travelled on 'The Dodger' during its last year of operation, and had spent hours in the signal box, along with many other local youngsters and listened to the tales of, among others, signalman David Myles (in later years to become a drinking partner in the Kings Arms).


Middlewich signal box and the closed station in 1963. Photo: J.H. Priestley/Subterranea Britannica


'Jock' Myles was a legendary figure.
As another of his followers, railway writer Alan Wilkinson, has said, he found the actual running of trains more of a nuisance and an inconvenience than anything else and would have preferred to concentrate on his hobbies - betting on the horses (the signal box radio, an early transister model, was permanently tuned to racing commentaries) and drinking in the nearby Boar's Head Hotel where, local legend had it, he was a member of the domino team.
One of our favourite Jock stories told of the time when the driver and fireman of a goods train from Crewe found themselves held at a red signal in Brooks Lane for an inordinate length of time.
Telephone calls to the signal box were unanswered ( this was, of course, many years before mobile phones and 'cab to shore radio') and so the fireman took a stroll down the track to the Boar's Head to hoist Jock away from a game of dominoes.
Whether the story is true or not - most likely not, of course - the fact that we used to believe it is an indication of 'Jock's' status as a local celebrity.



A coal train enters the Middlewich Loop, 3rd July 1964. Was this the one Jock Myles was rumoured to have held up while he played dominoes? Photo: Alan Wilkinson

The Middlewich line was very busy in the 1960s and 70s, even though the passenger service had ended at the end of 1959 and goods services at the station itself been withdrawn in 1967 (coincidentally a hundred years after the line opened). 
My childhood years in King Street were lived to the accompaniment of clanking and hissing steam locomotives (slowly merging, as the sixties gave way to the seventies, into the throbbing and high-pitched whistling of diesels) and the clattering of shunting in the goods yard across the road.

Like many people in Middlewich I had always hoped that one day passenger trains might return to the line and our town get back its station (a hope which, it seems almost incredible to recall, could as recently as the early 1990s, easily gain you a reputation as 'a dreamer', a 'hopeless romantic' or even a 'nutcase') and so British Rail's 'death sentence' on the Middlewich-Northwich section of line, to be followed, no doubt, soon afterwards by the inevitable closure of the rest of the line as the salt and chemical traffic disappeared was a bitter blow.

I decided to do some investigating and found that just beyond the River Dane aqueduct in King Street a 'Limit Of Shunt' sign had been had been placed across the track, indicating that no more trains would be passing that way.
It didn't make sense. What would happen to the passenger trains diverted along the line when the Crewe-Chester line was closed (a use for the line still cited frequently today as evidence of the line's suitability for passenger trains)?
Could this vital section of railway really be gone forever?

The answer wasn't long in coming.
 A few days later where once there had been a 'Limit Of Shunt' sign an inter-city train (in 'full regalia' as I reported at the time) could be seen making its stately way along the supposedly 'closed' section of line heading for Northwich.


Inter-City HST 'in full regalia'. The one I saw on the Middlewich line wasn't travelling quite as fast as this one. Photo: Mark George Photography

So what had happened to the closure?
It was, apparently, all down to internal politics within British Rail.
At that time the various sectors of the 'business' were responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the network's infrastructure.
In the case of the Middlewich line, the Railfreight sector had clashed with the Inter-City sector over who should pay for the line; toys had been thrown out of prams and a major hissy-fit had resulted in the closure of part of the line for about three days.

Then, of course, not for the first (or last) time, the importance of that short piece of line had been realised and a compromise had been reached.

Suppose - just suppose- it hadn't and the Northwich section had remained closed? As I've hinted above the rest of the line would  surely have closed shortly afterwards due to dwindling salt and chemical traffic and the task of re-opening the line to passengers would have been made infinitely more difficult.

As if it isn't difficult enough, I hear you cry!

This close shave sparked a renewed interest in our local railway line, and I wondered again if there might be some mileage in a campaign to bring back passenger trains and re-open the station.

The idea had been mooted twice before (to my knowledge).
Shortly after closure, in the early sixties, none other than Signalman Myles had put the idea to the then British Railways, and received very short shrift.

A decade later County Councillor Dorothy Roberts tried again, but, again, with little success.

Quite simply, the time wasn't right. And wouldn't be for another twenty years.

Contrary to popular belief, the Middlewich Rail Link Campaign was never 'my' campaign.
I didn't start it and wasn't even its chairman for a few years after I first got involved.

In 1992, before it was possible for most of us to find out anything we wanted via the internet, information was hard to come by but, eventually, I heard about the Mid Cheshire Rail Users Association (MCRUA), the body which looks after the interests of passengers on the Manchester-Chester (via Northwich) line.

One of the aspirations which MCRUA had for the local railway network was the re-opening of the Middlewich line to passengers, the establishment of a regular Manchester-Crewe service on the line and the re-opening of the station at Middlewich.

As well as giving our town its railway service back, this would also provide passengers using stations east of Northwich with a direct service to Crewe without the need to travel via Manchester or Chester.
This point, although considered almost incidental at the time, has been the catalyst for the revived campaign, under its new name of the Mid-Cheshire Rail Link Campaign.

A tie-up with MCRUA seemed an obvious way to push forward the idea of re-opening Middlewich station to passengers, and I phoned Andrew MacFarlane, who was the Association's chairman at that time. Andrew invited me to a meeting at the Lion & Railway Hotel, close to Northwich station (now,like so many pubs, given over to 'apartments').
The Lion & Railway, Northwich, close to Northwich railway station, the scene of my first MCRUA meeting in 1992, reached by push-bike. Since the pub's conversion to 'apartments' the Lion & Railway sign (the hanging one, that is) has been retained, but whether by accident or design is not clear. Photo: Creative Commons

Incredible as it may sound I travelled to that meeting not by car or bus (and, of course, certainly not by train) but on my trusty old pushbike.
Once there I learned all about MCRUA and its support for the idea of passenger trains on the Middlewich line. Before I could stop myself I had volunteered my services as representative 'on the ground' here in Middlewich of what would, eventually, become the Middlewich Rail Link Campaign.

Reaction to the idea of a re-opening campaign here in the town was mixed.
The vast majority of people were, and of course still are, very much in favour. There were, though, a few dissenters and, human nature being what it is, those are the people whose views stick in the mind.

One local councillor, who it is kindest not to name, said, 'it's ridiculous. Everybody has a car these days!' - as neat an example of missing the whole point as you'll ever find. The very fact that 'everyone has a car these days' is what has led to the need (and the ever-increasing demand) for rail services.

From others came the usual, dispiriting, 'you're wasting your time!' - the traditional cry heard in Middlewich every time someone comes up with a good idea, and originating usually from those who do nothing most days of their lives except themselves waste time.

But my favourite of all the 'anti' comments - and, in truth, when you consider that the original MRLC Campaign ran for 23 years, there have only been a handful - was reported to me by someone who was listening to a group of distinguished railway 'experts' in the Kings Arms one day.
According to these transport gurus I was 'an idiot' who ought to have known that the Middlewich branch line had been closed, and the line lifted, 'years ago'. 
Which must have made the going a bit difficult for all those freight and diverted
passenger trains which have been using the line for allthese years.

I've been saying for almost twenty-five years now that if someone can come up with a reason - a good reason - why the Middlewich line should not re-open to passengers, I'd listen. 
No one has.

Of course there have been one or two people who have opposed the re-opening for their own reasons.
People, for example, who live alongside the track and fear that increased rail traffic will mean increased noise and vibration.
We have argued that small, lightweight, passenger trains will cause little, if any, extra noise and vibration and pointed out that all railway lines are used as and when required and the Middlewich line could at any time be used for frequent heavy freights as it was in the past.
There would be nothing that anyone could do about it.
The ultimate solution, of course, as we've also repeatedly pointed out, is not to live near a railway line.

Soon the regular monthly meetings held at the Boar's Head came under the umbrella of MCRUA's Middlewich & West Cheshire Committee (the West Cheshire line is the now-lifted link from Mouldsworth on the Mid-Cheshire line to Helsby which, along 
with the Middlewich line and the now also-defunct Sandbach-Alsager line, once formed an important route for oil trains from Ellesmere Port to Stoke.
It has been one of our functions to keep a 'watching brief' on the West-Cheshire line to ensure that the track-bed is kept clear for possible re-use some enlightened day in the future.

These early Middlewich meetings were originally chaired by then MCRUA Chairman Andrew MacFarlane, who continued the tradition of using push-bikes by cycling to Middlewich from Northwich Station once in a while, having travelled from Altrincham by train.

The Middlewich and West-Cheshire Committee did sterling work in keeping the idea of re-opening the line before the public and, slowly but surely, we began to win the doubters over.

Naturally, one of our first ideas was to involve what was still British Rail at the time and to ask them to send representatives to talk to us.
Amazingly, they accepted and two 'network development' bods came down from Manchester to talk to me at a hastily-arranged site meeting on Middlewich Station Bridge in Holmes Chapel Road.

Also present were Peter Cox (MRLC Deputy Chairman) and the then-ubiquitous Norman Macklin, son of Middlewich's last station-master.

The whole meeting can best be described as a farce, and went something like this:

1st BR BOD: So where does this line go to?*
ME: Haven't you looked at a map?
2nd BR BOD: No.
ME: Well it goes to Northwich in that direction (pointing north) and Sandbach (gesturing actross the road) in that direction.
1st BR BOD: And what's at Northwich? Are there spring-loaded points?
ME: (puzzled) Not as far as I know.
2nd BR BOD: When did the line close?
ME: It didn't. It's still open for freight.
2nd BR BOD: (surprised) Really!

...and so on.

*Of course, the reply to 1st BR BOD'S first question should have been, 'it doesn't go anywhere, it just lies there,' but I decided against it.

There were, as can be imagined, frequent interjections from Norman Macklin.
As can also be imagined, they didn't really get us any further forward.
But wouldn't you have thought that, before coming out to look at our line, these BR 'network developers' might have taken the trouble to read something about it, find out  something about its history and/or potential. At the very least least look at a map?

Sadly, this has been our experience with representatives of the railway industry throughout (until, it has to be said,very recently). 
They all seemed to know little and care less.

Around the same time as this odd encounter a local developer told me that he had been approached by British Rail suggesting that the Middlewich line should be turned into a road to serve one of his new estates in Holmes Chapel Road.
With 'friends' like that, who needs enemies?

Soon the Middlewich Committee, which was never really a 'committee' in the true sense of the word, had become the Middlewich Rail Link Campaign with me as Chairman and Peter Cox as Vice-Chairman and we settled in for the long-haul, winning hearts and minds and trying in vain to get the then transport authority, the Cheshire County Council, to do something about at least starting the ball rolling.




The CCC would send a representative down to Middlewich once a year to explain how the Council were 'supporting' the re-opening of the Middlewich line. 
And the more we asked them to define 'supporting' the more evasive they got.

Significantly, the CCC would not do for Middlewich what they had done for the campaign to re-open Beeston Castle & Tarporley Station - i.e. commission a feasibility study. 
The reason why was obvious to us; the Beeston scheme (as someone at the CCC will have known full well) was proved to be a non-starter.
But had the County had a different result from a Middlewich study - which it most certainly would - it would have meant actually doing something about our scheme rather than just talking about it.

MRLC, working with CEC and other bodies later commissioned  no less than two feasibility studies - the Chapman Report and the Railway Consultancy Report which both gave a resounding YES to the proposals.

Incidentally, it is heartening to see that information from these reports is, at last, set to be used as the basis for serious consideration of the re-opening scheme under the auspices of the new Mid-Cheshire Rail Link Campaign.

And so the MRLC years rolled by.
Winston Lea gets a job as a temporary road sign...not really, of course. Winston is proudly displaying the old LNWR signal box sign which MRLC rescued from exile in  Uttoxeter. To the left is MRLC Vice-Chairman Peter Cox. The scene is Middlewich Station Bridge, which has since been re-modelled. Photo: MRLC


We successfully managed to keep the idea of a new station and a passenger service for Middlewich alive. One of our best moves was to enlist the aid of Congleton MP Fiona Bruce, who presented our petition to Parliament and has never missed an opportunity to bring up the scheme with the powers-that-be both at Cheshire East and Westminster.


Fiona Bruce in Parliament   Photo: Catholic Herald/BBC

Incidentally, those who glibly assert that Fiona Bruce 'wouldn't know where Middlewich is' and all the rest of it, might like to note that she has attended many MRLC meetings here in the town since being elected and has always shown a keen and intelligent interest in our proposals, and done everything within her power to make sure they become reality. Please note that this is simply a statement of fact - we do not get involved in politics, local or otherwise, and never have.

With the demise of the old CCC and the creation of Cheshire East Council we turned our attention to this new body and began lobbying for this much-needed service for Middlewich and, of course, for Cheshire and the North-West generally.

Cheshire East has always made it clear that it considers the best hope for a new passenger service for Middlewich is as a feeder service for the proposed new HS2 hub station at Crewe.


Photo: Cheshire East Council

The council also has big, though as yet undefined, plans for railfreight facilities near Middlewich which, if they come to fruition, will change the face of what they have taken to calling the 'Middlewich Rail Corridor' beyond recognition.

This is an oft-told story and I don't propose to tell it again.

Suffice it to say that when the Middlewich Rail Link Campaign decided that pressure should be put on Cheshire East to consider the Middlewich scheme on its own merits
rather than as a adjunct to HS2, and to revitalise the campaign, I decided to bow out as Chairman.

The revitalised campaign would, in effect, be a new campaign, with the focus on the wider benefits the re-opening would bring to communities across Cheshire as well as to Middlewich, and I felt that, after twenty-three years, I would have little to contribute.

What was needed was a new chairman, capable of talking with people at Network Rail, Cheshire East and all the other parties involved on equal terms, and the welcome appointment of Stephen Dent, ex-Assistant Town Clerk and a man with vast experience in local government and administration means that the newly-renamed Mid-Cheshire Rail Link Campaign has just the man for the job.
Mid-Cheshire Rail Link Campaign Chairman Stephen Dent and Secretary Samantha Moss  Photo: Mid-Cheshire Rail Link Campaign


Local councillor Samantha Moss has enthusiastically taken up the role of Secretary to the new campaign, while Peter Cox remains as Vice-chairman.

The relaunch of the campaign has also seen a much-needed influx of 'new-blood' with new members taking on  the vital administrative roles the campaign needs, most maintaining a high profile, but  some preferring to stay slightly disconcertingly in the shadows.

The 'new' campaign has been kind enough to offer me the role of Honorary President, which I was  honoured to accept.

I hope the Middlewich Rail Link Campaign has laid the foundation for the ultimate success of the Mid-Cheshire Rail Link Campaign and it goes without saying that I will do everything I can to help achieve that success. 

On this last day of 2015 I wish everyone involved the very best for the New Year and hope that 2016 brings the progress that everyone's hard work deserves.

Many thanks to the many people who have been involved with MRLC over the years. They are, to employ a well-worn cliché, too many to mention...

As far as I'm concerned, MRLC only failed in one regard. 

Someone once described our meetings as 'little more than a Gentleman's Drinking Club'.

Well, I don't know about you, but I'd regard any Gentleman's Drinking Club which only met for an hour  every two months  to be a bit of a damp squib.

It's no Middlewich Beer Festival, that's for sure!




Dave Roberts
Queen Street
Middlewich
New Years Eve 2015

© Salt Town Productions 2015

This was the final entry in the now-archived MRLC site and also appeared on The Middlewich Diary

THE FIGHT CONTINUES WITH

THE MID-CHESHIRE RAIL LINK CAMPAIGN (FACEBOOK LINK)

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

A NEW CHAIRMAN, A NEW NAME - AND A NEW PURPOSE!

Mid-Cheshire Rail Link Campaign secretary Samantha Moss and Stephen Dent, Chairman of the campaign (Photo: Mid-Cheshire Rail Link Campaign)
At the November meeting of the Middlewich Rail Link Campaign, held at the Wych Centre, Middlewich, Stephen Dent was elected chairman of the renamed Mid-Cheshire Rail Link Campaign.

Here's a report on the change of name and the election of a new chairman, from our friends at the



1992-2015

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

NOTICE OF MEETING - NOVEMBER 2015


This was the notice of meeting for the last meeting under the Middlewich Rail Link Campaign heading. The meeting was actually held at the Wych Centre, as the Boar's Head was unavailable due to refurbishment work. This has been left here as a historical record.

CAMPAIGN UPDATE LATE AUGUST 2015

The latest meeting of the MRLC Group took place on the 28th July at the Boar's Head in Kinderton Street when a well-attended meeting heard latest developments on the campaign and discussed, among other topics, the visit of steam loco 60009 Union Of South Africa to Sandbach on the 23rd and 24th of July.

Dave Roberts (Group Chairman) told the meeting that although this famous loco had not visited Middlewich and Northwich as originally planned its appearance at Sandbach had generated great interest locally and had helped forge links between MRLC and the Friends Of Sandbach Station (FOSS) who had picked up news of the visit through our own publicity.

Diverted Virgin Services between London Euston and Chester/Holyhead used the Middlewich line on the 1st and 2nd August: Some members of the group were hoping to travel on one of the diverted trains over the weekend and would use the opportunity to talk to passengers, raising awareness of our  campaign. We were also planning to place our yellow campaign banner, at a strategic point on the lineside so that passengers on the diverted trains would be aware of the campaign and of the possibilities for new journeys that the re-opening would provide.
Photo: Mid-Cheshire Rail Link Campaign


MRLC is hoping that a working party can be arranged to 'clean-up' the immediate environs of the proposed station site so that interested members of the public who want to see for themselves the possibilities of the scheme would be able to enjoy a more pleasant environment,particularly around the underpass taking the public footpath from Brooks Lane to Mid Point 18. We're also looking to re-organise our structure and  looking for a volunteer secretary, treasurer and publicity officer. In addition, we're hoping to form various task groups to organise different aspects of the campaign. MRLC is in the process of applying for grant funding to pay for various campaign running expenses, such as publicity leaflets etc. If you're interested in getting involved in our campaign, please get in touch. Our contact details can be found at the end of this report.

Also at the July meeting we discussed The West Cheshire Line, which runs from Mouldsworth to Helsby. Part of our remit is to keep an eye on this now-lifted line  The trackbed is protected from development so that the line can be re-instated in future if necessary.



First published 1st September 2015
Re-published 9th October 2015
and 25th November 2015








Saturday, 1 August 2015

MIDDLEWICH - KEY TO THE NORTHERN POWERHOUSE?



'One immensely effective way in which the impact of the Northern Powerhouse could be widely realised would be the reopening of Middlewich railway station to passengers—a campaign that thousands of residents of Middlewich have supported for many years.

That would open up rail access directly from Crewe, right through Cheshire and into Manchester, and relieve pressure on the M6.

It also has the support of many surrounding constituency MPs.

I urge Ministers to look into that and to revert back to me with their considerations.'

Fiona Bruce MP, House Of Commons, 13th July 2015

With thanks to Ian Tresman, Andrew Malloy and

MIDDLEWICH RAILWAY STATION FACEBOOK PAGE

This item also appears on

THE MIDDLEWICH DIARY

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

CAMPAIGN UPDATE 28th JULY 2015

60009 Union of South Africa at Sandbach, 24th July 2015  Photo: Nigel Allcock (used with permission)




There have been several meetings of the MRLC Group in recent months.
At the meeting of 28th April discussion largely centred on Cheshire East Leader Michael Jones' plans to develop, along with London & Continental Railways, 'the Middlewich Rail Corridor' as part of plans for an HS2 hub station at Crewe. MRLC Group members felt that the Middlewich scheme should be considered on its own merits, whether or not the proposed High Speed Link was built.
The meeting on the 28th May was concerned chiefly with the future role of MRLC
given that Cheshire East and L & C R plan to develop the 'Middlewich Rail Corridor' with or without HS2. It was suggested that MRLC's  role would be mainly as a pressure group aimed at ensuring that a passenger service on the Middlewich line and a new station were included in any plans. It was felt that, in the continuing absence of any real news on HS2 and Cheshire East's intentions towards the Middlewich line, we should intensify our campaign to make sure that the Middlewich line remained firmly on everyone's agendas. To this end we intend to forge alliances with as many organisations as possible, including the Mid Cheshire Development Board (formerly Weaver Valley Project) the Heritage Railways Association and Saltscape. 
MRLC will also ensure that plans for the line are included in the Neighbourhood Plan which is currently being put together by the Town Council and which would, in turn, feed into Cheshire East's Local Plan. The Middlewich line has great potential for connecting communities across Cheshire with a North-South connection and we intend to make sure that this fact is fully understood by all concerned. Our campaign has always created a lot of interest locally and to ensure that this continues MRLC has placed a full page advert in Go Local,  the  magazine which reaches every house in the town.
We're very grateful to our parent organisation, the Mid Cheshire Rail Users Association, which has funded this advertisement and to Bernice Walmsley of Go Local for her help and support..
At a meeting on the 30th June the MRLC Group decided that MRLC, which is a sub-committee of MCRUA (the Mid Cheshire Rail Users Association) would be re-structured in order to become the Middlewich Rail Link Campaign Group.
In future a Campaign Update will be produced after every meeting and published here on the Group's website.
We intend to forge links with local companies who support our campaign, and ask them to make their support public.
MRLC welcomes the fact that Cllr Simon McGrory recently put forward a motion to Middlewich Town Council asking that it affirm its support for the Campaign and ask Cheshire East to establish the re-opening of the station as an agenda item for the next meeting of the CWLTB (Cheshire & Warrington Local Transport Board). The motion was seconded by Cllr Mike Hunter and unanimously accepted by the council.
In future MRLC Meetings will be held every two months on the last Tuesday of the month.
Thus the next few meetings will be held on: September 29th, November 24th, January 26th 2016 and March 29th 2016.
On the 22nd July an informal meeting was held to discuss the steam tests which no 60009 Union of South Africa was running on the Crewe-Sandbach section of our route. It was originally planned that the loco would run up the Sandbach-Middlewich-Northwich line as part of these tests but news reached us during the meeting that the plans had been changed and, in the event, the loco only travelled as far as Sandbach, where it ran round and went back to Crewe. Then fact that 60009 didn't travel up our line proved irrelevant, as many of the 50-60 people at Sandbach on both days had picked up the information from Friends of Sandbach Station who had, in turn, got the information from our website. We were thus able to generate some useful publicity and create new links with various people from the Sandbach area, including FOSS.
Steam dreams....Union of South Africa  at Platform 3, Sandbach Station 23rd July 2015.  Photo: Alan Rivers (used with permission)

Several Virgin Euston-Holyhead services are being diverted over the Middlewich line this weekend (1st/2nd August) and MRLC Members are looking forward to seeing the line put to passenger carrying use once again.

'....not suitable for passenger trains....?' Two Virgin Voyagers pass in the Middlewich loop, May 2014.
Photo: Greg Mapes. From the North Wales Coast Railway Noticeboard website