After the May 2018 omnishambles!

It started badly. It got better. But it’s still not good enough. Following the May 2018 train timetable omnishambles, where are we going with service improvement and development on the Calder Valley Line?



180HBG Zeke
Grand Central to the rescue? First day of the May timetable saw a new morning commuter train at 0702 from Hebden Bridge to Leeds. Northern hire in a 5-carriage Grand Central unit for this service, which should also now return at teatime, 1725 from Leeds back to Hebden Bridge. Not just an “extra”, it ought to be seen as a vital part of the commuting timetable, particularly when “short formations” cause gross overcrowding on other trains. Sadly, reliability of this train has been poor, with frequent cancellations during October and the train sometimes just running Halifax-Leeds instead of through from/to Hebden Bridge.
(Updated October 2018)

Read our early Autumn update below. But first a quick summary of HADRAG activity over a hectic summer, with links to documents. Since our June AGM, HADRAG has:


  • contributed to inquiries into the timetable chaos by the Office of Road and Rail (ORR) and the House of Commons transport committee. See also submission to the select committee
  • raised a shopping list of Northern issues at a drop-in session with Northern’s regional director and colleagues. In October we shall be discussing our aspirations for service development with officers at West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA).
  • strongly supported Elland station plans in the recent public engagement by WYCA/Calderdale and made suggestions. See our response Elland response July 2018. HADRAG will be holding its next committee meeting in Elland on Saturday 15th July (10.00 at the Cartwheel youth centre) and we’d be happy to meet anyone interested in the station. (This replaces the 10 September committee meeting.)
  • participated in the Transport Focus/Rail Delivery Group “Easier Fares” consultation (see Fares consultation HADRAG response ).

And we strongly welcome Calderdale Council’s cabinet level decision, aligned with the Electric Railway Charter, to lobby MPs, Government and Network Rail to bring forward Calder Valley Line electrification. See also the council’s report.

Remember Monday 21 May? There were a few hours during which we thought the new timetable was not going too badly. There was “good news” at Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd with the York-Blackpool trains calling every hour, fulfilling a long-standing aspiration of HADRAG. Except that the York-Blackpool trains were only running from Leeds to Preston. Calder Valley trains that had been running through to Manchester Oxford Road via the new Ordsall Chord had gone back to terminating at Victoria. So instead of getting through trains to Manchester Airport and Chester originally panned for December 2017 (yes, nearly a year ago now) our line went back to a worse service than we’d had under the old franchise. At least Brighouse now has an hourly service to Wigan and Southport, useful the for the few that want to make that journey. Although – surprise, surprise! – we hear that Southport and Wigan would much rather have an hourly service to Manchester Airport. Wouldn’t we all? (But we are having to wait a little longer.)

The immediate impression of the new timetable was that it simply did not work. People were turning up at the station, looking at the screen, wondering how late they’d be for work or whether they’d get home before the kids’ bedtime. The chaos went on for two weeks. Northern introduced a temporary timetable (i.e. temporary service cuts) mainly hitting the North West, to deal with shortages of trains, shortages of train crews. The cuts seemed to hit existing services (such as the Manchester-Todmorden-Blackburn route) not just the proposed enhancements. Thankfully service quality improved. Reliability and punctuality are back to historic levels, the service is usable (despite regular strike days – another story). And we want people to use it.

But that does not mean it is good enough. The term omnishambles seems to cover it. What had gone wrong? It seems the railway realised around Christmas that electrification of the Manchester-Bolton-Preston line (principal contractor Carillion – remember them?) through Bolton was not going to be complete in time to introduce electric services in May. This means the “cascade” of diesel trains needed to bring in enhancements on other routes could not happen. So Northern (we understand) prudently requested a delay to the whole May timetable change across the North. This was refused by Network Rail, it seems because other train operators (TransPennine Express et al) wanted to go ahead with their planned enhancements. Leaving Northern in a mess. The service had to change in May to fit in with other operators, but the enhancements could not be introduced. So the timetable had to be replanned over a couple of months, a process that might normally be expected to take a couple of years. Then there was a delay handing back the Preston-Blackpool line after an Autumn-Spring blockade to complete electrification. A six-month limit was breached meaning drivers had to re-learn the route. (Given the tendency of infrastructure projects to overrun, should jot this have been anticipated?) It meant only limited services could be operated on the Blackpool line, and continuing shortages of train crew hitting other services.

Before May, Northern had told us the York-Blackpool service would be restored as soon as enough trains were available. This sounded hopeful. But now now the expected timetable recast in December 2018 has been postponed (perhaps wisely) until at least May next year, and Northern seem to be unable to tell us whether there is a chance of earlier improvement.

And there are other serious defects in the timetable affecting local passengers. These include the following, all of which we believe need dealing with urgently:

  • Poor clockface patterns. Examples include 4 trains an hour Halifax to Leeds but nothing like even quarter-hourly. 2 trains/hr Sowerby Bridge but the fast closely follows the stopper and catches it up. Also “Brighouse overtaking issue” – see below.
  • Increased journey times on some services.
  • Inconvenient morning peak gaps for example from Sowerby Bridge to Leeds in the morning.
  • Evening gaps at Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd. 2-hours between evening trains from Manchester. Last train back from Bradford to these stations significantly earlier than in old timetable. This despite late evening trains running through the two stations non-stop, a problem which it would appear could easily be solved. Why wait till next May or even December?
  • “Brighouse overtaking issue”. The Leeds-Bradford-Brighouse train is overtaken in both directions by the direct service via Dewsbury. This in effect reduces Leeds-Brighouse frequency from 2 trains/hr to 1 train/hr. This may confirm with the letter but surely not the spirit of the franchise service specification. We can see this might need longer to put right, but December 2019 seems a reasonable demand given this is the date when (last we heard) Northern must have all its service enhancements in place and will be the second of two major changes next year.

There seems to be a systemic problem. All the train companies including Northern and TransPennine Express who operate almost all internal trains across the North have their own train planning offices. They must bid for slots in the timetable to Network Rail who have their own train planners centrally – but for us remotely – based in Milton Keynes. So that’s three separate organisations planning the timetable across the North. Northern as “stopping train” operator is last in the pecking order and TransPennine gets priority for its trains from the North East to Manchester Airport going through Manchester Victoria, round the new curve and in via Oxford Road and Piccadilly. So Calder Valley trains and scores of other routes used by huge numbers of daily commuters must fit round a minority “inter-city” operation. Surely a better system is possible? How about a single, devolved and integrated joint train planning team for the North, setting out a strategic service pattern to meet commitments and building an optimised timetable that works fairly for all?

HADRAG’s priorities and aspirations

Early in July we were able to present Northern with a short “Issues” paper outlining our concerns and setting out our aspirations – including better services over the Sowerby Bridge-Elland-Brighouse corridor. We are developing this into a list of priorities that we hope to discuss with WYCA early in October. In short:

  • we expect the promised franchise enhancements to be introduced by December 2019. Commitments include the Airport and Chester trains plus an extra train each hour between Bradford and Manchester and trains to Liverpool. All these plus the York-Blackpools will be branded Northern Connect as regional express services, and will be due to get the brand-new trains that are now starting to arrive from Spain.
  • We really hope Northern will use the increase in Calder Valley frequency to improve the service at stations such as Sowerby Bridge, Mytholmroyd and Low Moor. It is still not clear what the level of service will be at Sowerby Bridge (and Mytholmroyd) by the end of 2019. We want the enhancements to be introduced without further damaging the service for existing passengers. And damage already done needs to be repaired.
  • Beyond 2019 and looking toward opening of the new station at Elland hopefully by 2022, we want to see a better service over the Halifax/Sowerby bridge-Elland-Brighouse corridor. We have already made that point in our response to the recent consultation on Elland station. Fast running Brighouse-Leeds could bring that journey down to 20 minutes or less. New services could be introduced for example linking upper Calderdale with Huddersfield and Halifax with Wakefield and York or Sheffield. We hope that capacity enhancements in the Huddersfield-Mirfield area will be part of the Network Rail’s TransPennine Route Upgrade which is expected to start next spring.

AGM: The May timetable chaos meant Adam Timewell, commercial franchise manager at Rail North Partnership (Transport for the North + Department for Transport) was unable to attend HADRAG’s AGM on June 2nd. Two weeks in, he was fully occupied dealing with fallout. We were really grateful to WYCA Transport Committee Cllr Daniel Sutherland and to WYCA rail development officer Richard Crabtree for attending at short notice and responding to a HADRAG presentation. Adam promised to talk to us later in the year and we intend to take up that offer.

Electric Railway Charter

The campaign gathers pace for electrification of the Calder Valley Line, top-ranked scheme of the Northern Electrification Task Force in its 2015 “Northern Sparks” report. Calderdale Council’s cabinet meeting in early September agreed to mount an intensified lobbying campaign to bring our line forward. The council’s position is aligned with the Electric Railway Charter, launched in Halifax in May. Along with HADRAG the Charter founder groups are Bradford Rail Users Group, Upper Calder Valley Renaissance Sustainable Transport Group, and STORM (Support the Oldham-Rochdale-Manchester rail line), supported by the Yorkshire and North West Branches of national pressure group Railfuture.

We intend to keep building support for the Charter and will be contacting all MPs and local authorities along the Calder Valley Line.

The Autumn edition HADRAG’s newsletter Rail Views will appear later in September.

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