Runcorn grew as a result of its situation at the lowest crossing point on the River Mersey. A rail bridge and vehicle ferry were the only means of crossing until 1898, when the Transporter Bridge was opened. In the 1960s the Runcorn-Widnes Bridge was built, at around the same time Runcorn was designated a "New Town" and grew to its present population of about 60,000 as an overspill for Liverpool. Therefore the residents of the new town/overspill area have a 'Liverpool' heritage which is in contrast to those in the original town. It was designed primarily on the assumption that residents would own cars, but a system of busways was also provided, on which only buses are permitted to run. It has never been a tourist destination but has a number of interesting features including the medieval Halton Castle, an arts centre called The Brindley and Norton Priory.
The town is suitably placed between the North West's two main international airports, Liverpool John Lennon Airport and Manchester International Airport. Both are easily accessible via the road and rail networks.
Runcorn has two rail stations.
Runcorn station, operated by Virgin Trains, is situated in western Runcorn, near the Old Town and Runcorn-Widnes Bridge. The station was refurbished in 2010 and boasts a small-shop, two waiting rooms (one on each side of the station, which has two platforms, one of which is raised), two elevators and a first class lounge. It is one of the major stops on the West Coast Mainline, serving as the penultimate or antipenultimate stop before Liverpool Lime Street, depending on the service; services to Liverpool are operated alternately by Virgin Trains and London Midland. London Midland services stop at Liverpool South Parkway, whereas Virgin services head straight for Liverpool Lime Street, a journey which takes around 20 minutes. Virgin Trains offer one train per hour to Liverpool Lime Street and London Euston. London Midland offer two trains per hour to Liverpool Lime Street (calling at Liverpool South Parkway) and Birmingham New Street. This gives three trains per hour in each direction. Platform 1 services come from Liverpool Lime Street and head for Birmingham New Street or London Euston stations. Platform 2 services come from London Euston and Birmingham New Street and head for Liverpool Lime Street.
Runcorn East station, operated by Arriva Trains Wales and situated between the Norton and Murdishaw housing estates, is on the regional route between Chester and Manchester. It is a very small station and is often unmanned, although a ticket office is open during the mornings Monday to Saturday, and ticket machines have recently been installed. It is also has two platforms. Platform 1 services come from Llandudno in north Wales, and/or Chester. The service is bound for Manchester Piccadilly. Runcorn East to Manchester Piccadilly is a journey which takes around 45 minutes. Runcorn East to Chester takes 20 minutes, and Runcorn East to Llandudno takes an hour and thirty minutes. Occasional services continue to Bangor or Holyhead. Platform 2 services offer the opposite journeys.
Runcorn benefits considerably from a highly developed transportation network. To the south of the town runs the M56, the M6 runs to the east and the M62 runs to the north across the banks of the River Mersey and neighbouring town of Widnes.
The town also benefits from a high-speed, efficient dual carriageway system of road networks which function very much as a mini-motorway system, separated from the main road system by a series of slip roads and junctions. Each suburb/estate of the town has its own junction. The town can be easily passed through in minutes thanks to the road network. The network is so well designed that traffic congestion is unheard of; however congestion is a major issue on the Runcorn-Widnes Bridge, which suffers from heavy congestion at peak times. Congestion is unavoidable during peak travel times as it is the only crossing point between the Mersey Tunnels in Liverpool and Warrington further upstream. Both crossings are at least 30 minutes away making the use of them impractical.
The proposed Mersey Gateway, a second bridge, is due to ease the congestion situation. However, it has been in the pipeline for nearly a decade but has yet to materialise in any finalised form.
Runcorn, as a new town, was designed with a purpose in mind. Although uniquely Runcorn served as the hotbed for many experiments, one of the main ones was focused on the creation and maintainence of a distinct network of roads separate from those available for use by the general motoring public and sanctioned exclusively for the use of public transport (excluding both public and private hire taxis) and the emergency services. Every suburb/estate is served by at least one stop on the network. Although the network is less prominent in the older sections of Runcorn that existed prior to the construction of the new town, they are still served.
On the main ring section of the network to the east of the town, encompassing the main area of new town redevelopment there is a frequent service run by Arriva North West & Wales on Routes 1 & 2, a circular service. Other services that frequently use the eastern section of the network include the 110 (Arriva) to Widnes and Warrington, the X1 (Arriva) to Liverpool, the X30 (Arriva) to Chester and the 62 (Halton Transport) to Widnes and Warrington.
The two main bus operators in Halton are Halton Transport and Arriva North West & Wales. Halton Transport is one of the last few Municipal transport corporations that are owned by the local council and continue to make money. There are also a variety of smaller operators who run usually one or two minor routes that would otherwise be uneconomical for the larger companies to run. The town is also home to two of the country's largest coach companies, Selwyns and Anthony's Travel. They are both national carriers but are based in Runcorn.
Halton Transport tends to serve the older areas of Runcorn to the west better than Arriva while Arriva tends to serve the eastern sections more comprehensively than Halton Transport. The town is unique as it has two main bus stations. Runcorn Old Town primarily serves the outgoing traffic whilst Halton Lea shopping centre mainly serves internal traffic, although it also plays a large role in transporting some of the population to the outgoing services.
The town has two canal systems. The Manchester Ship Canal runs between the town and the River Mersey and is not open to non-commercial traffic. The Bridgewater Canal, a much smaller canal, is open to public use and is used by many canal boats. There are two canal boat docks in Runcorn. Waterloo Junction is the main dock and is situated at the western end of the Bridgewater Canal where the canal system was filled in during the construction of the Runcorn-Widnes Bridge. The second dock is a privately owned ship yard located further west upstream and can be accessed by road via Halton Road.
Runcorn has numerous attractions although they are not always immediately obvious. The main attractions the town offers are Norton Priory and the ruins of the civil war scarred Halton Castle.
Norton Priory has a visitor centre based around the ruined priory, and a Victorian walled garden.
Alternative attractions also include Halton Lea shopping centre, the first American-style mall to open anywhere in the UK; the many buildings and locations used in popular TV series such as Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, Drop Dead Gorgeous and Merseybeat. For those interested in town planning, the whole town is a treasure trove of Radburn design, 1960's architecture and social mis-construction.
The Runcorn-Widnes Bridge, which is the largest steel arch bridge in Europe, is also an attraction although it is not currently possible for tourists to walk across its top arch as you can on the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia, which was designed by the same architect and looks very similar.
The town also plays host to the largest free fireworks show in the North West, and boasts a successful arts centre, the Brindley, in the middle of the Old Town opposite the bus station.
Runcorn's shopping facilities are of a poor quality and not worthy of travelling from far away unless you intend to visit Halton Lea as a tourist attraction.
Entertainment-wise though, Halton Borough Council has been unable to coerce the majority of companies over to Widnes. Runcorn plays host to Halton's only multiplex cinema, Cineworld, in Trident Park (beside Halton Lea).
Runcorn's nightlife is extremely poor, although it is improving. After decades of under-investment and a reputation (that was often well deserved) that any night in Runcorn would involve yourself in at least one fight, the town is seeing a lift in fortunes. The town is improving gradually with higher class bars and pubs opening over the next few years but until a nightclub opens unfettered, Runcorn will continue to have a poor nightlife.
The new Brindley Theatre is an excellent venue for musicals, plays, concerts and comedy.
Runcorn has several education facilities across all education types. The town also has a large share of Catholic run schools, far higher than the national average.
The town has four high schools. The Grange Comprehensive, The Heath High School, Ormiston Bolingbroke Academy (formerly Halton High) and the Roman Catholic St Chad's Catholic High School. St Chad's and The Heath are specialist schools, Language and Technology respectively. They are also, respectively, the best-achieving schools in Runcorn.
The town also has a large higher education college, Riverside College, formed from the amalgamation of Runcorn and Widnes Sixth Form College and Halton College. The college, which has strong links with several universities in the region and with the ability to award it's own degrees, is tipped as a prime candidate for becoming a university college within the next 10 years. However it has a poor reputation, with the last Ofsted report rating the college's teaching and results as 'Inadequate', equivalent to one star and a decline from the previous 'Satisfactory' result, which it received prior to its amalgamation.
Although the town's heritage was based on industry, the majority of Runcorn's residents now work in the service sector. There is still a strong influence from industry although it is severely diminished from several decades ago.
The town is host to several multinationals and PLCs, such as Ineos Chlor whose factory uses over 1% of the total electricity produced in the UK per year; MFI, ASDA, Tesco and several others.
The town also has a large contingent of local and national government workers. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was based in Runcorn when it was the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE).
Runcorn is generally safe during the day, though you should avoid back alleys and side streets in the Old Town. At night, the Old Town and Grangeway are risky. The Windmill Hill and Grangeway estates have bad reputations, Also the Castlefields estate is a very troubled area, and not great in some parts to walk through at night, very unadvisable even, although the housing has improved. More affluent and safe areas include Weston Village, Halton Village, the Norton area and Sandymoor. The Murdishaw, Brookvale and Palacefields estates used to have bad reputations, but they have become much safer in the last decade or so and are generally trouble-free.