Northern Meeting: Capacity, Service patterns

HADRAG takes up issues with Northern. No quick fix for overcrowding but a glimmer of hope the first lot of new trains could be followed by more. We keep up pressure on serious timetable issues for Halifax and Calder Valley Line stations whilst train planners wrestle with the May 2018 timetable.

Last Autumn HADRAG wrote to the new managing director of Northern (Arriva Rail North) with a familiar catalogue of issues. Commuting capacity—can anything be done short term to relieve some of the outrageous overcrowding? Service patterns—our concerns about the May 2018 plan and what happens in 2019, particularly for Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd. Hopes for a better deal on the Brighouse line (and Elland station). And issues about retailing and information—stations and booking offices, and the poor quality timetable booklets. In January a group from HADRAG met Northern at their office. It was a good meeting with mutual respect. We were listened to as equals.

We started with the bad news. Bolton line electrification is (further) delayed because of the sort of problems you only find when you start digging. So there’s a delay to the “cascade” of diesel trains to other services. Northern’s train planners are working to figure our how much of the May 2018 timetable plan can actually be delivered on 20/05/18 and which enhancements will have to be postponed, perhaps till December. (Remember May’18 was originally supposed to be December 2017!) For our line the May 2018 plan includes extension services to Southport (the Brighouse “valley bottom” service), Chester and Manchester Airport with earlier morning and later night trains at least for some stations. They expect to tell us in early March what they can actually deliver in May, and what will be postponed until maybe Autumn.

Questioning the Wisdom

On capacity and overcrowding we had questioned the wisdom of the refurbishment programme when the shortage of carriages is so obvious. But refurbishment is part of the franchise agreement and committed. (We can all draw our own conclusions about unwanted consequences of franchising.) It seems we can shout as loud as we like that current sardine-can conditions are unacceptable but there does not seem to be any sign of a quick fix to relieve conditions before new trains start arriving or our line. The new trains are now being built in Spain.  The glimmer of hope is that further orders could follow and more reasonably modern trains from other operators could be cascaded to Northern. Meanwhile, expect an improvement on the Leeds-Brighouse-Manchester-Southport service which should get refurbished “Turbostars” (Class 170) in less than a year’s time. Northern will receive about 16 of these trains from Scotland starting in a few weeks. The first of them are expected to be deployed on Harrogate services, perhaps in May.

There does seem to be an acceptance that the franchise capacity promise, a 37% increase by 2020, may not be enough. Many Calder Valley Line commuters would argue their train is already 100% overcrowded, with some trains leaving passengers behind at stations such as New Pudsey and Castleton that are near the end of the route. And we’ve seen it happen at Halifax.

For the train companies and the DfT, capacity includes standing room. But let’s be reasonable. You might not mind standing from New Pudsey to Leeds if there is a bearable amount of space. But if you are travelling from Halifax to Leeds or Manchester it’s reasonable to expect a seat and a fair share of elbow room. If you can’t be sure whether you’ll be able to get on the train, and when you do everyone is crammed nose-to-nose, that surely, ought to be unacceptable.

Serious Concerns

Earlier in February we saw details on Open Train Times and Real Time Trains websites of provisional May 2018 timings. We knew this was subject to change, as explained, because of the Bolton line issue. But what we saw gave us continuing serious concerns about aspects of the proposed Calder Valley timetable pattern. Along with other groups, we first raised these in response to a consultation last summer.

We strongly welcome the positives. If all goes to plan we get, if not in May by the end of the year, hourly services to Manchester Airport and Chester. Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd will be served by the York-Blackpool trains all day, seven days a week. Brighouse-Manchester gets better timings with fast running  Rochdale-Manchester. There are new early morning and late night services, with an earlier first train from Brighouse at 0632 direct to Leeds. (But this also means users of the present 0702 will have to get up earlier!) All good news but…

Northern timings from 20th May have now disappeared from view online. We understand the timetable will now appear around 8th March.1  We hope issues we have pressed on Northern again since we met them will be addressed:

  • Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd Manchester service.
  • “Missing trains” that were in the draft timetable that did not appear in the recent online version—hopefully accidental omissions that will be restored. Our concern is for Low Moor and Halifax-Manchester commuters.
  • Whether the 0728 Halifax-Leeds “extra”, the 5-car Grand Central train, will continue. Its omission would leave a serious gap in the proposed peak Halifax-Leeds service.
  • Clockface patterns, not least from Halifax towards Leeds. If we have 4 trains/hour it’s reasonable to expect reasonably even spacing, though we accept that precise quarter-hourly is impossible.

We have asked Northern to address all of these points. We believe the red line should be no loss of connectivity or worsening of service for any station. For example in the evenings and on Sundays end-to-end journey time is surely less important than ensuring that all intermediate stations retain a decent service, whilst maintaining frequency of commuter trains should be sacrosanct.

Other concerns include:

  • Connections upper Calderdale stations-Huddersfield at Brighouse/Halifax.
  • Leeds-Brighouse service pattern if the train via Bradford is overtaken by the train via Dewsbury.
  • Need for Sunday service Leeds-Brighouse-upper Calderdale-Manchester.
  • Extended journey times Bradford-Brighouse-Huddersfield due to difficult “pathing” with extended dwell times. Surely, we have said to Northern, some better solution is available?
  • Calder Valley-Manchester Airport trains planned not to call at Deansgate station in Manchester, even though the present trains to Oxford Road do so.

We understand Northern’s train planners face a massive challenge. But the price of welcome new destinations such as Manchester Piccadilly/Airport and Chester should not be loss of decent local connectivity at sensible timetable intervals. If some of the May changes are to be delayed by circumstances outside Northern’s control maybe there is a chance to come up with something better later in the year.  —JSW

 

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