Summer Update: Part 1 – helping Northern to get the May 2018 timetable right

GC BDI Sept16
Northern currently uses a 5-carriage Grand Central train, like this one at Bradford, to provide an extra morning commuter train from Halifax to Leeds. It’s looking like this train, the 0728 from Halifax (lovingly known to some commuters as the Halifax Pullman!) could disappear at the May 2018 timetable change. The hope is that the train company will have enough extra carriages by next May to compensate for this loss. The fear is there will be a gap of more than 20 minutes in the Halifax-Leeds timetable at a key time for commuters, and even worse overcrowding than at present on other trains. HADRAG wants this train to stay in Northern’s timetable at least until all the new rolling stock – currently being built in Spain – is in service, probably by 2020.

HADRAG, you may have gathered, has not been idle over the summer. (And summer’s not over yet.) We were pleased to be included in the consultation by Arriva Rail North (aka our Northern train operating company) on proposals for the May 2018 timetable change. May’18 will be the first big timetable recast under the 9-year franchise that started in April last year and should bring serious upgrades to the service on our Calder Valley Line (CVL) including regular trains via the soon-to-be-completed Ordsall Chord to Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Airport (18 months earlier than expected), as well trains to Chester. Other pleasant surprises, including regular Blackpool-York trains (our popular Roses Rail Link) serving Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd. There are also less palatable and perhaps unintended consequences such as the same two local stations, if a circulated draft timetable is to be believed, losing services to Manchester on Sundays. And, having digested a graphic service pattern displayed by Northern regional director at HADRAG’s AGM, we have fears for service levels at local stations when the next big change takes place in December 2019.

The question is: Can the enhancements be introduced without damaging the service for existing users, not least regular Calderdale commuters who work in Leeds or Manchester, and people who use the Brighouse line for example to travel between upper Calderdale and Huddersfield?

We hope so, but the circulated draft timetable suggests that the train company may be struggling. Read on…

HADRAG worked with Hebden Bridge and Todmorden-based colleagues in the Upper Calder Valley Renaissance Sustainable Transport Group (UCVRSTG) to produce a detailed joint response to Northern’s timetable consultation. There are certainly things to welcome (some unexpected) but we have identified a list of serious concerns about the effect on service patterns and connectivity for existing passengers. In this we believe we are in good company. As a statutory consultee, the county transport body West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA), representing the five district authorities, submitted its own detailed comments and was reported as expressing fears the service pattern between Leeds and Halifax would be markedly worse than the present timetable.

Anxious to be positive, we welcome headline developments proposed by Northern for the Calder Valley line in May next year:

  • Bradford, Halifax and Hebden Bridge and Todmorden will have direct trains to Manchester Airport. These trains are expected to operate hourly, 7-days a week, via the Ordsall Curve, the new line due to be completed later this year that will allow trains from the Calder Valley as well as from the TransPennine route via Huddersfield to continue beyond Manchester Victoria and turn left to access Oxford Road and Piccadilly stations and continue to the Airport.
  • The other CVL Manchester train each hour will continue to Warrington Bank Quay and Chester. This will maintain a Warrington-Leeds link (withdrawn by TransPennine Express), and open up the possibility of connections from our area for Cheshire, Staffordshire, the West Midlands and Wales.
  • Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd will be served by the hourly York-Halifax-Blackpool semi-fast trains (what we still call the “Roses Rail Link”), increasing train frequency at these two stations from 2 to 3 trains/hour to Leeds and from 1 to 2 trains/hr to Halifax and Bradford. But there are big problems with the proposed Sunday service, and fears that what is given in May 2018 may be taken away in December 2019. 
  • The “Roses” trains will also run fast Leeds-York (with one stop, at Church Fenton). On the face of it this ought to speed-up Calderdale-York journeys, but the benefit is partly neutralised by extended dwell times in Leeds stations (which may or may not improve reliability).

BUT: Despite the headline improvements, we can only agree with reported WYCA comments that the proposed timetable could lead to a “markedly worse” service between Leeds and Calderdale. Serious concerns identified by HADRAG and UCVRSTG include:

  • Uneven “clockface pattern” of services, effectively damaging service frequency.
    • We say the train company needs to rethink the proposed timetable that shows, for example, a 4 trains/hour Leeds-Halifax pattern at xx08, 19, 42 and 49 past the hour – intervals of 11, 23, 7 and 20 minutes, a mockery of the ideal even 15-minute frequency. The train at xx19 actually catches up with the preceding xx08 (which is the Brighouse and Huddersfield train calling at Low Moor) and these two trains are planned to be within 6 minutes of each other at Halifax?
    • Hebden Bridge departures for Leeds are shown as xx14, 28, 42, 50 followed by 24 minute gap before the next xx14.
    • Under the same heading the xx08 service from Leeds to Huddersfield via Bradford and Brighouse is actually overtaken by the xx22 Leeds-Brighouse-Manchester train, effectively making Leeds-Brighouse frequency just one useful train per hour.
  • Disappointing Sunday services:
    • No direct Sunday service Mytholmroyd and Sowerby Bridge to Manchester (Sunday trains at these two valley stations are planned to go to Blackpool instead). Connections at Hebden Brige are not, shall we say, particularly attractive.
    • Lack of plans for Sunday service Leeds-Brighouse-upper Calderdale-Manchester, which we say overlooks potential for weekend work and leisure travel. Sunday service plans for Brighouse appear to be no more than an hourly service on the Leeds-Halifax-Huddersfield route, which is at least better than the present 2-hourly.
  • Early morning trains
    • An existing popular early Brighouse-Leeds direct train at 0702 is missing from the draft timetable which implies users of this service would have to go the long way round via Bradford. Surely this must be a mistake. We hope so.
    • Proposed loss of the popular extra Halifax-Leeds morning commuter train that leaves at 0728 and uses a 5-carriage intercity train unit supplied by sister Arriva company Grand Central. By proposed loss we mean it is not shown in the draft May’18 timetable, leaving a gap in the proposed Halifax-Leeds service between 0718 and 0741. That’s a 23 minute service interval at the busiest time of the day (what price quarter-hourly?). We fear this will lead to even worse morning overcrowding than is seen now. Obviously, the train company is planning for additional rolling stock to be available by May 2018.  But we fear withdrawal of this popular train which uses the best rolling stock currently in use on Northern could lead to poorer comfort standards and even worse overcrowding than is seen on many trains now. The groups want the “Halifax Pullman” – as we call this intercity-style Halifax-Leeds train – to be retained at least until all of the new rolling stock is in service. (And HADRAG has already expressed concern as to whether all the new carriages on order will be enough.)
  • Extended journey times on some routes. Good news that the Monday-Saturday Leeds-Brighouse-Manchester service is to run fast Rochdale to Manchester is negated by a proposed six-minute increase in journey time Brighouse-Sowerby Bridge. Brighouse-Huddersfield journey time is shown as 19 minutes – which just seems ridiculous. We can’t see any reason for this in terms of pathing into Huddersfield. So maybe it’s a mistake. Again, let’s hope so.
  • Loss of late evening trains from Manchester to intermediate stations such as Walsden, Mytholmroyd and Sowerby Bridge in the draft timetable. This seems to be another unintended consequence. We think they might be able to sort it out.
  • Loss of upper Calderdale to Huddersfield connections at Brighouse. This is a particular concern of HADRAG’s upper valley colleagues, and we agree with them! We say that there is significant latent demand for direct services between upper valley stations and Huddersfield for work and educational purposes, but the proposed timetable changes will actually discourage such travel by rail.
  • Continuing lack of direct trains Littleborough/Walsden-Bradford/Halifax

We want to meet the train planners!

We duly submitted our detailed joint response to the train company’s stakeholder consultation in a 21-page paper earlier this summer. HADRAG and UCVRSTG are now seeking a further meeting with senior Northern managers to press our case. We are awaiting a response to this request.  

Anyone who has followed HADRAG over the years knows that we do not seek to find fault unreasonably, to complain unduly, or to carp; rather we support positive initiatives by the rail businesses and transport agencies to improve services, whilst putting forward our own ideas. In that spirit we have, with our colleagues further up the valley, submitted constructive criticisms in the hope that we can help Northern to develop a good timetable for May 2018 by pointing out some serious issues for existing rail users.

The 2019 threat

HADRAG and UCVRSTG’s response contains a “SWOT analysis” – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats – of Northern’s timetable proposals.

We have a further issue about what we know about plans for the next big timetable change in December 2019. At HADRAG’s 2017 annual general meeting in May, our guest speaker Paul Barnfield, Northern’s regional director, gave a presentation which included graphics showing service patterns for 2018 and 2019. Good news, as expected, is that the December 2019 graphic showed 3 trains/hour Bradford-Manchester. The bad news was that all three of these trains were shown as running non-stop Halifax-Hebden Bridge, reducing the Manchester service at Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd from twice-hourly to just one train per hour. This is surely not acceptable.

There also appears currently to be no proposal to improve service frequency at the new Low Moor station. Low Moor needs a Manchester service to stop each hour as well as the Leeds-Halifax-Huddersfield trains.

And we think the benefits of the investment in the new Ordsall Chord line crossing Manchester should be spread as widely as possible with stations like Sowerby Bridge being served by trains to Manchester Airport. HADRAG believes the catchment area for Sowerby Bridge station is at least as great in population terms as Hebden Bridge and Todmorden combined. Yet Sowerby Bridge at present has about half the service level of the two upper valley stations.

The same is true, in terms of potential catchment, of Brighouse, and of the planned new station at Elland. HADRAG will continue to press the case for further improvement at Sowerby Bridge, from December 2019, with the May 2018 timetable as absolute baseline minimum service level. Beyond 2019 we want a better deal for the Brighouse corridor including Elland. Remember a potential non-stop Brighouse-Leeds journey time of under 20 minutes makes this potentially the fastest route from upper Calderdale to Leeds. Then there is the need for better connectivity between upper valley stations and Huddersfield, a journey that is positively discouraged by the May 2018 proposals as they currently stand.

In a news release to local and regional media, Stephen Waring, Chair of HADRAG commented:

“We know Northern want to improve our services under the franchise agreement. We have put forward constructive criticisms on what is currently proposed. We want passengers to be able to welcome the May 2018 timetable when it is finalised not greet it with a storm of protest. We are delighted that our present York-Halifax-Blackpool semi-fast trains linking towns across the North are going to be stopping at Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd. That’s something HADRAG has called for over many years.  

 “But we are disappointed with aspects of the proposals that make the service less attractive for existing users, let alone attract new passengers. We are not alone in criticising the proposals because we know the county’s official transport body, West Yorkshire Combined Authority has said the Leeds-Calderdale service could be markedly worse. 

“We are glad about the extra trains stopping at Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd, but we have seen information shared by Northern that suggests service frequency at these stations could actually be cut again in December 2019 when many of our trains become “Northern Connect” expresses. This would surely not be acceptable.

 “We are hoping to meet Northern again to find out firstly how they hope to improve on the May 2018 proposals which as they stand are simply not good enough. Secondly, we hope they can assure us about future developments, not least to improve services on the Brighouse line ready for opening of Elland station, hopefully by 2022. Brighouse still gets a poor deal; more is needed.”

For the upper valley, Nina Smith, Chair of UCVRSTG commented:

 “Whilst we warmly welcome the new trains to the Airport, Chester and Southport, and a later train to Sowerby Bridge, Mytholmroyd and Hebden Bridge from Leeds, we are very concerned about the uneven pattern of trains from Leeds and Manchester to the upper valley stations, which will mean people who just miss a train could have to wait nearly half an hour for the next one.

 “We are also concerned that the opportunity presented by a major timetable recast has not been used to provide good interchange in both directions for people travelling between the upper valley stations and Huddersfield. This is a growing commuter flow, especially with staff and students for Huddersfield University, and our longer term goal is for a direct upper valley to Huddersfield service.

 “Finally, we were hoping that the May 2108 timetable would include early morning Sunday trains to Leeds and Manchester. Sundays are now as important for rail travellers as other days.” 

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