Direct trains to Crewe, Manchester and Birmingham – and stations in Middlewich and Gadbrook Park serving 140,000 passengers a year each.
Those are the lofty ambitions that experts believe could be achieved on the Northwich to Sandbach rail link by 2033.
Meanwhile, services to Knutsford and Altrincham could run on the line by 2027.
The forecasts have been published by consultancy firm WSP in a feasibility study which shows the options for bringing passenger trains back to Middlewich that would provide value for money.
The work will now be taken forward for a ‘strategic outline’ business case to present to the Department for Transport – and Stephen Dent, from the Mid Cheshire Rail Link campaign, believes it gives the cause a strong chance of success.
“It is certainly progress,” he said.
“Obviously there is a lot of work that had been done already which probably makes that business case quite easy to prepare, so hopefully that will be available in the next couple of months.
“It is quite clear that the case has been proved. It makes sense they would like it to be opened –140,000 passengers a year is a lot better than most stations in the north west for small towns, so we feel the case has been made.
“Then it is just a matter of getting the money together.”
The study suggests that there are two passenger services that could eventually run along the line and provide value for money.
An ‘eastern local’ package with two trains an hour would take trains from Middlewich and Gadbrook Park onto the eastbound Mid Cheshire Line towards Knutsford and Altrincham by 2027 – while the report adds that this service could eventually be combined with the current Manchester to Alderley Edge line, providing greater connectivity in east Cheshire.
Meanwhile, a ‘north and west’ package with two trains an hour would provide Middlewich and Gadbrook Park with a direct link to Birmingham, Crewe, Warrington, Preston and Manchester by 2033.
The report says this would take place in line with the arrival of HS2 Phase 2b – between Crewe and Manchester – which would free up capacity at Crewe.
HS2 is now subject to an independent review that threatens to derail the project – but Stephen believes the Sandbach to Northwich line can be reopened regardless.
He added: “We don’t see that our project would stop because of HS2, but we have a problem getting services into Crewe station at the moment.
“The hub would get rid of that problem. But hopefully, if HS2 2b is abandoned, there will be a lot of money to spend improving what they have got there now at Crewe station.”
Mid Cheshire Rail Link has long been pushing for passenger trains to return to Middlewich for the first time since 1960.
The group’s work has gathered momentum in the past few years – winning support from Chris Grayling MP, the former transport secretary, along with local MPs, Cheshire East and West councils, and the Cheshire and Warrington local enterprise partnership (LEP), which is due to fund the next ‘strategic outline’ business case.
Councillor Andrew Cooper, Labour Cheshire West and Chester Council member for Northwich Leftwich, has worked with the group as a town council representative for several years.
He said: “The study is one more step on the road to getting the long-awaited trains and stations at Gadbrook Park and Middlewich.
“We have been pushing for this for a long time, and this is a really important step forward and it is great to see the LEP has got the funding in place for the next stage.
“I think it is really positive to see it confirmed by an independent body that the value for money estimates were in line with what we were thinking they would be.
“The only slight disappointment is the pre-requisite that in order to get to Crewe it would be dependent on HS2. I was hopeful that the capacity would be there but maybe that is something that can be looked at.”
But Councillor Jonathan Parry, Labour Cheshire East Council member for Middlewich, wants to see more progress made towards the return of passenger trains on the line – and fears the latest report could simply be lip service to campaigners.
He said: “It is something that needs to happen in Middlewich. The town is growing more and more and we need to see a massive improvement in our public transport.
“Our town is very much cut off – we have a limited bus service, our roads are gridlocked and we are without a railway station.
“But we have to look at this realistically – I don’t think a train station is coming any time soon.
“Documents like this get released and then five years down the line you still find you are nowhere closer. You think you are making progress but it turns out to be a lot of lip service and no real action has been taken.
“It’s like the bypass. Until we see a station there, and until we see a working bypass, the campaigns will carry on.”