Wigan was first connected to the railway on 3 September 1832, when a north-south branch was built from Parkside Junction, Newton-le-Willows, on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. Six years later a new station was built in a slightly different location when a second connection, the North Union Railway, opened between Wigan and Preston on 31 October 1838. With the merger on 16 July 1846 the Liverpool & Manchester, Grand Junction Railway, London & Birmingham Railway and the Manchester & Birmingham Railways into the London & North Western Railway it became possible to run express trains from London Euston through Wigan to Carlisle over the West Coast Main Line, and with the collaboration of the Caledonian Railway to Glasgow Central.
On 2 August 1873 the overnight Euston to Glasgow express derailed at speed on the facing points while passing through the station. 13 people were killed and more than 30 seriously injured. The subsequent Board of Trade inquiry led to the provision of locks on all facing points on passenger lines.
The station was rebuilt in 1971-72 in anticipation of the electrification of the West Coast Main Line inaugurated on 23 July 1973.
A second station, Wigan Wallgate, situated a little over a hundred yards from Wigan North West, handles rail services over the former Lancashire & Yorkshire lines.