Wirral Loop: ‘one industry’ approach to minimise disruption

Source: RTM Aug/Sep 17

Wayne Menzies, head of rail for Merseytravel and chair of the Liverpool City Region’s Major Events Transport Board, discusses the recently completed Wirral Loop replacement work.

January 2017 saw the start of what promised to be one of the most disruptive rail works in recent times for the Liverpool city region – the replacement of the most challenging 1.2km sections of concrete track slab in Merseyrail’s Wirral Line ‘loop’, originally laid in the 1970s, as well as 1km of conventional ballasted track on the bed under the River Mersey.

On top of this, engineers carried out numerous maintenance, including the repair of broken sleepers and work to realign track. This meant an unprecedented six-week closure of the line cross-river, as part of a broader six months’ worth of works.

However, the work, part of a £340m investment in the city region’s railways by the end of 2019, was essential to ensure that the network remains reliable and safe and to help get the Merseyrail network ready for new trains from 2020. 

Completed in June, the programme – its operations, mitigation and associated communications – is being heralded as a success, with lessons learned feeding into plans for major upgrade works to Liverpool Lime Street in the autumn. 

The challenges 

In deciding the approach, numerous challenges were identified and addressed. For example: 

  • The work causing significant disruption for travellers, with the Merseyrail network one of only three ways of crossing the River Mersey between Wirral and Liverpool. The only other options being the Mersey road tunnels and the Mersey Ferries. The Merseyrail network carries 37,000 people cross-river every weekday
  • Keeping the Liverpool city region moving to avoid the wider transport network becoming gridlocked through people jumping in their cars
  • Selling the benefits of the work when passengers won’t notice any significant difference to their journeys once the work is complete
  • Securing the support and confidence of city region stakeholders, including business and leisure, in the mitigation 

A bespoke Liverpool City Region demand modelling-led approach to disruption was taken through a ‘one industry’ approach by Network Rail, Merseytravel and Merseyrail. It ensured an operational and associated communications and marketing strategy that balanced the need to get essential and complex work done with the need to keep people moving and the city region ‘open for business’. 

We worked collaboratively from the outset to shape the programme and minimise the length of the works, ensuring that the operational plan was such that trains could run between Liverpool and Wirral at key times to support the visitor and leisure economies – Grand National and Bank Holiday weekends. 

We also ensured there was a bespoke city region disruption travel offer, rather than an off-the-shelf approach e.g. ensuring that replacement buses were high-specification, with wi-fi and USB charging points, contrary to people’s low expectations of replacement buses. These were made possible through Merseytravel’s formal partnership with Arriva and Stagecoach through the ‘Bus Alliance’. A specially configured ‘Bike Bus’ was also introduced following cyclist feedback. 

Rail replacement bus edit

A strategic industry communications group was established, working to one approach and plan. The travel offer was based on scientific demand forecasting and joined-up, consistent travel advice and information based on the principles of Travel Demand Management used during the Olympics – encouraging a spread of usage across all available public transport modes (replacement buses, commercial buses and Mersey Ferries), including key advice to employers whose deliveries and customers/service users may be affected. 

Stakeholders were involved, including MPs, starting seven months before the work to get their understanding and suggestions. This included a Parliamentary briefing, 40 individual and group briefings and six-monthly forums, as well as special interest group forums such as cyclists and those with accessibility needs. 

There were early and continuous communications and eye-catching marketing to raise awareness and understanding amongst stakeholders and passengers, with bespoke media briefings three months in advance of the works, on-site visits led by Network Rail and passenger-pleasing giveaways from Merseyrail including hand warmers, bacon sandwiches and sweets. 

Track renewal was a staple item of the city region’s Major Events Transport Board, and a Joint Agency Group (JAG) was set up to ensure understanding of the impacts and strategic co-ordination between such organisations as local authorities, Merseyside Police, transport operators and key leisure/tourism businesses.

There was also the set-up of a Transport Co-ordination Centre (TCC) involving key transport players, so any issues on the transport network could be dealt with ‘live’ and in a co-ordinated way to keep the Liverpool city region moving. 


In the run-up to the works, we were very keen to measure the impact the campaign activity was having in terms of awareness and intended travel behaviour. 

As part of this, two key passenger studies were done. One was carried out independently by the passenger watchdog Transport Focus (immediately before the works) in December 2016. The other was carried out three months into the works in March by Merseytravel. 

The results showed excellent levels of engagement from customers in the campaign: 

  • 84% of customers being aware of the works in advance. Pleasingly for the teams, 80% of customers felt that they had enough information to make informed choices about their journey
  • 66% of customers surveyed had planned ahead and altered their journey pattern – a key element of the campaign
  • No ‘travel chaos’ headlines as feared, with in-depth media briefings resulting in a Liverpool Echo front page ‘We’ll keep Liverpool Moving’ headline
  • Few formal complaints – 127 across the six weeks of full closure which, if considered against the number of passenger journeys, not even including weekends, gives a percentage of complaints against passenger journeys of 0.0001%
  • Little negative social media sentiment, with 85% of the social media mentions positive or neutral. One video ahead of the works generated 9.6k views on Network Rail’s Facebook page.

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