“Four in 44” is great news. But sardine-can commuters need more now

New trains, faster journeys, more seats, more often: “Four in 44” — four broad objectives in 44 months from the start of the Arriva Rail North franchise last April, taking us to December 2019. On the Calder Valley Line we are promised a good share of the new trains (which could start to appear next year); and of the faster services, branded Northern Connect (including all Leeds/Bradford-Manchester and York-Blackpools); and of the more often. New destinations will include Chester, Liverpool and Manchester Airport, with an extra train every hour between Bradford and Manchester.

The more seats promise is globally a 37% increase in peak capacity for “31,000 extra customers”. That, we repeat, is by 2019, by which time most of the new trains will be delivered. There will also be lots  of units “cascaded” from other train operating companies (TOCs), all of which are to be refurbished to be good as new—which means even better than “partially refurbished” Class 158 train that has been running on our line over recent months, and which Northern admits is work in progress. The cascaded trains will include modern Class 170s from Scotland (promised for the Harrogate and Leeds-Brighouse-Manchester lines) as well as more 30-year old Class 150s. We are excited by the prospect of a “good as new” Class 150.

All the above we knew already. But we do have some simmering worries, to be voiced in more detail in our New Year message to Northern managing director Alex Hynes. In summary.

Worry One. We need more capacity now!

A 37% increase for 31000 “extra” passengers in three years time sounds great unless you are one of thousands of existing Calder Valley Line commuters who, right now, daily endure trains that seem more like 100% overcrowded. People who depend on the train to access employment pay the highest fares to travel on peak-hour trains, but often seem to get the worst service, as they find themselves packed like canned sardines in trains so full that sometimes passengers are left behind.

Northern actually had rolling stock taken off it last summer in a knock-on effect when TransPennine Express lost decent Class 170 trains to Chiltern Railways. One consequence was halving of capacity on two morning Calderdale-Leeds trains. Northern worked with sister Arriva company Grand Central to get a 5-car train running an extra Bradford-Leeds train. That (after some nagging by HADRAG) has now been extended to start at Halifax. We are grateful to Northern for this initiative and their positive response to or suggestion.

But we know, and they know, that a lot more is needed to help with intolerable overcrowding on other trains.

gc-at-bradford-interchange-jsw
The 0744 Northern service from Bradford to Leeds began last July, operated by a Grand Central intercity train, here seen alongside the 0752 to London. It used to come empty through Halifax causing annoyance to Leeds-bound commuters on the station who couldn’t get on! HADRAG pressed for the new service to serve Calderdale. Arriva Rail North agreed with us but with industry consultations seemingly non-optional for even the simplest, most obviously beneficial changes, it took until December to get the train starting from Halifax at 0728. Northern and Grand Central are both, of course, Arriva-owned companies. Good result! More needed!

Worry Two. Even if we can bear to wait until 2019, how is 37% more capacity going to be enough?

We understand the Arriva Rail North has an option to order more of the new trains —diesels and electrics— that are being built by CAF in Spain.

It is be hoped that when the current order for 281 vehicles is complete, more will be built! …

Worry Three. Delays to the rolling stock cascade affecting planned improvements

Last November, Network Rail issued a media statement announcing that certain improvements to Northern and TPE services scheduled for December 2017 would be “phased”, which of course means “delayed” (though some regional media interpreted the story as good news). We struggled to get clarification on this. It seems projects like the Ordsall Curve —critical to North of England service development— are OK. But late-running infrastructure projects elsewhere, like Great Western Electrification, mean the cascade of rolling stock to Northern could be held up. An email sent out by Northern in the North West suggested December 2017 improvements could be delayed until May’18.

It is not yet clear whether this will affect introduction of the CVL Chester service or Sunday Bradford-Manchester Airport trains, both of which were planned for December 2017.

Worry Four. Refurbishment means pain before gain as trains go out of service for the work to be done. Can’t we draft in more trains to cover?

Northern is still working out what the “good as new” refurbished trains will look like. When the programme is under way, covering everything apart from Pacers (which have to go), it will mean more trains out if service for the work to be done. Which will temporarily reduce capacity even more.

Some have suggested Northern’s rolling stock problems could be addressed by drafting in rakes of locomotives and coaches. Other TOCs have done this and Northern is doing it on the Cumbrian Coast route using old Class 37 diesel locos and rakes of Mk 2 coaches. But that sort of train could not keep up to “sprinter” timings on the CVL, and we hear there have been reliability problems on the Cumbrian Coast. However there may be sets of coaches available if suitable modern traction can be found to pull them. In particular the former “Wessex Electrics”, later Gatwick Express trains of Class 442 are lying idle in want of a new use. Two other Arriva companies have already expressed interest. Alliance Rail wants some for a proposed open access Southampton-London service, whilst Arriva Trains Wales is reportedly proposing to run them with diesel haulage as crowd-busters. There are 24 of these trains, not brand new but decent modern 5-car units that would be much better than a 2-car “150” or Pacer. So how about some for Northern? Modifications would be required; is cost a barrier for a franchise that is otherwise promising so much?

Worry Five. Will innovative rolling stock solutions work?

With delays expected to diesel train cascades, rolling stockleasing company Porterbrook announced with Northern and Rail North just before Christmas that it intends to fit some Class 319 electrics with diesel-generator modules and put in service with Northern by Spring next year. Northern has been using pure-electric 319s for a couple of years on newly electrified lines in the North-West. As “bi-modes” they could be used more widely across the North. Like the Vivarail Class 230 “D-train” which uses former London Underground D78 trains, it is thought the “Class 319 Flex” would have automotive diesel alternator modules installed under the carriages. On 30 December one of the power modules on Vivarail’s “230” prototype caught fire whilst on trial near Coventry. Public trials of the “230” are therefore postponed pending an investigation report. Of course the 230 and the 319 Flex are not the same train and we may be worrying unduly. But don’t blame us for being concerned.

Worry Six. Service development. The Northern Connect promise is excellent, but what about our “Cinderella stations”?

This was HADRAG’s big strategic issue for 2016 and we are not giving up. Latest station usage estimates (next page) confirm the increase in Brighouse and Sowerby Bridge passengers over ten years. Sowerby Bridge is earmarked a Northern Connect station (meaning all-day staffing), but it is still not clear whether there will be any significant increase in trains stopping. Brighouse is to get a modest increase in Sunday trains and earlier first trains during the week, but what else we are not sure. We await detailed plans for service stopping patterns 2017- 2019 with great interest.

The Train Service Requirement commits Northern to a 55 minute Bradford-Manchester semi-fast journey time by 2019. We say this could include a Sowerby Bridge stop giving the station an “express” as well as “stoppers”. And we have of course been saying for years that all the York-Blackpools should serve Sowerby Bridge.

We still hope the Brighouse-Manchester trains may be speeded up with a semi-fast pattern.

Beyond 2020, we hope Arriva will commit to the 4 trains/hour Bradford-Manchester that is West Yorkshire Combined Authority’s aspiration, as well as more trains through Brighouse and fast Brighouse-Leeds journeys.

Northern knows we are their supporters, not naturally complainers. We trust them to deliver. We look forward to good  news. —JSW

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