The Manchester Airport Western Link is the name for the 3.5 mile connection between Manchester Airport rail station and Mobberley on the Mid Cheshire Line, which was proposed by British Rail in the early 1990s before privatisation. This was part of the original Manchester Airport rail link project. Only the eastern part (Heald Green to Manchester Airport) was built owing to economies in the run-up to privatisation, but provision was made at Manchester Airport station for future completion of the Western Link, and Manchester Airport agreed to protect the necessary route across their land – which they still do.
This map explains the Western Link:
Click here to view the map in detail
This is the last Cheshire County Council rail map from 2007 – still an accurate map of Network Rail routes – on which we have shown the proposed route of the Western Link (dashed). This highlights the number of lines that the Western Link could connect to, via the Mid Cheshire Line.
The link provides a shorter and more direct route between Mid Cheshire and Manchester Piccadilly, via the airport, 6 miles shorter than the present route via Stockport. Because the Mid Cheshire Line is well connected to other lines, many places could benefit from this. In particular, it would provide a far shorter route from Chester and North Wales to the airport. It would be a remarkable 21 miles shorter than the present route from Chester which is via Warrington Bank Quay and the Castlefield corridor. Today’s journey time of 84 minutes from Chester to the airport on the TfW through service could be cut to about 40 minutes via the Mid Cheshire Line and the Western Link.
For stations from Mobberley westwards, this would provide a much faster route to central Manchester. In fact the distance from Mobberley to Piccadilly via the Western Link is the same as it was on the previous, now Metrolink, route via Sale. If we assume that passenger traffic on the Mid Cheshire Line returns to the growth rates we saw up to 2016 (when disruption caused by strikes started), and that the opening of the new link would generate more traffic and cause some other services to be diverted over the Mid Cheshire Line (e.g. Manchester to North Wales trains), we could easily imagine stations such as Knutsford meriting four trains per hour by the time the link is opened. The current thinking is that half of these would take the new link and the other half take the Altrincham route.
The link has benefits for Greater Manchester too. By transferring Mid Cheshire trains to a new route, capacity would be freed up at Stockport. Manchester Airport station would become a through station with some existing services extending westward to Cheshire and into Wales, which would increase its operational capacity. Diverting some or all Mid Cheshire trains away from the existing Altrincham-Stockport railway would free up capacity there, allowing TfGM to realise its ambitions for trams or tram-trains on that line.
Rail planners and consultants are well aware of the proposed link but it lacks a major sponsor. We believe this is because the proposed route crosses the boundary between two transport authorities – Greater Manchester and Cheshire East – meaning that the benefits are split between two boroughs (and beyond), and neither has taken the lead. The Western Link is included in Transport for the North’s (TfN’s) ‘long list’ of potential rail interventions.
Some proposed train services on the Western Link were analysed in 2020 as part of the ‘Middlewich and Mid Cheshire Rail Re-opening Study’, commissioned by Cheshire & Warrington LEP at the request of former Secretary of State Chris Grayling. This Strategic Outline Case for the Middlewich line re-opening is now with the DfT for consideration. The Western Link is addressed there because it is complementary to the Middlewich re-opening proposal. Taken together with the Middlewich line, it provides an alternative route from Crewe to Manchester, via the Airport, that helps relieve capacity constraints between Sandbach and Wilmslow and at Stockport. The authors of the report recommended that a feasibility study be commissioned into the Western Link by the LEP, and the DfT has been asked to contribute to funding it.
No duplication with HS2
There has been confusion between HS2 and the Western Link with some commentators saying that the HS2 station at Manchester Airport will make the Western Link unnecessary. This is a misunderstanding. HS2 is a north-south railway whereas the Western Link is an east-west one. The places that would benefit from the Western Link are not served by HS2 – they serve different markets. Fortunately, the HS2 proposals do not impede or obstruct the route of the Western Link in any way.
No duplication with Northern Powerhouse Rail
In contrast to HS2, NPR is an east-west railway. However, like HS2, it does not serve any of the towns that would benefit from the Western Link. The route of NPR is far from settled and there have been no proposals as far as we know to run any NPR services to Chester or Wales. The Western Link, being only 3.5 miles long, could be built in a fraction of the time that it will take to plan and build NPR and could quickly bring benefits to Wales, Cheshire and Greater Manchester.
Welsh interest in the Western Link
In 2008, the Welsh Affairs Committee of the House of Commons questioned Manchester Airport representatives about access to the airport from North Wales (report here http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmselect/cmwelaf/memo/ucprovision/m12702.htm ). In response, Manchester Airport’s representative acknowledged the Western Link and said that the Airport was committed to protect its route. They re-committed to this in 2015. Transport for Wales has recently expressed continuing interest in the Western Link idea.
Peter Hendy’s Union Connectivity Study
The recent report by Peter Hendy (at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/union-connectivity-review-interim-report ) acknowledges the Western Link idea and its potential benefit in providing economic links between the towns of north-east Wales and north-west England as well as Manchester Airport. There are many cross-border economic links with many people crossing the England-Wales border for work. The report argues that these links should be improved and running train services to Manchester Airport and Manchester via the Western Link is one of the ideas proposed. At the time of writing the report is with the government for consideration.
At MCRUA, we are grateful for all support for the Western Link. We campaign to keep it in the public eye and get it built.
** The information on this page was last updated on 19 May 2021.