Forced into a corner by late running electrification projects and other systemic failures causing shortages of trains (and crews), last May’s Northern timetable change put promised improvements on hold. Even as a cut-down version of the original plan, May 2018 proved unworkable in operation with unprecedented disruption, delays and unreliability. The December’18 changes brought little improvement but further damaged the service for some Calder Valley line passengers compounding frustration and anger. Here’s our timetable review based on some of the comments HADRAG has submitted to the train operators. Northern has promised us a reply, which we are getting ready to chase in the new year.
A YEAR ago, this blog celebrated opening of the Ordsall Chord – a new railway linking north and south Manchester. For the first time, trains from Yorkshire could run through “Man Vic” and turn left to serve Manchester’s Piccadilly and Airport stations, for points near and far beyond. And the first trains over the Ordsall Chord in December 2017 were Calder Valley services, Leeds-Man Vic trains extended just about hourly outside the peaks across the city just to Deansgate and Oxford Road stations, both stations well placed to serve city employment areas, higher education and attractions.
Sounds like a dream? This was to be a stepping stone to an hourly service from Calder Valley stations to Manchester Airport which should have happened last May. Instead, last spring’s 11th-hour replanning of the May 2018 timetable not only postponed the Airport trains but actually cut the Oxford Road service back to the traditional Victoria terminus. So anyone who’d made use, over five months, of a convenient link to the south side of the city found that link broken. At the same time our well-established and successful service to Blackpool, started by British Rail in the 1980s, was for the most part truncated to Preston. The cuts/truncations are expected to be restored and the Airport service introduced, but when this will happen still has to be confirmed. Hopefully this coming May? But given what feels like unprecedentedly bad reliability and punctuality since May 2018, we say top priority for the Northern train company (“by Arriva”) and system operator Network Rail must be to produce a timetable for the Calder Valley Line that not only works day-to-day, but also repairs damage done to service patterns last May. Said damage included the following (read on further for more detail):
- Poor clockface patterns, including inconvenient gaps that appeared in commuter services at stations such as Sowerby Bridge.
- The “Brighouse overtaking issue” meaning what should be a useful two Leeds-BGH trains an hour is effectively little if any better than hourly.
- Gaps in evening services for Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd.
The December 2018 changes, supposedly only minor to avoid a repetition of the May omnishambles, in the event significantly altered Calder Valley cross-Leeds services and the Huddersfield-Halifax-Bradford-Leeds timings. There are some positives but also more damage in the form of broken links and a new farce on the Brighouse line:
Calderdale/Bradford-east Leeds/York: December saw restoration of Preston-Leeds services through to York (but not yet to Blackpool). These now run fast Leeds-York, as well as serving Mytholmroyd and Sowerby Bridge giving what should be an express-quality link between the Pennine core and east-coast/west-coast main lines. HADRAG welcomed that when it appeared in the franchise specification. We did not expect the established through link between the Calder Valley line and local stations east of Leeds going through to Selby would be cut. But that is what has now happened. With Leeds-York/Selby stoppers running as separate services, anyone commuting from, say, Selby or Garforth to Bradford or Calderdale now has to change at Leeds – meaning increased journey time and walking a fair percentage of the length and/or breadth of Leeds station.
Northern say the services have been separated to improve service performance. We can understand that. But regular passengers are suffering serious inconvenience, not to mention the economic consequences. The effect on performance remains to be seen, since on the face of it more trains will be needed with the Preston-Yorks running fast and more trains needed for the separate east Leeds stoppers. HADRAG has suggested that the units needed to do this might be better deployed to provide much need extra capacity on the Calder Valley Line and perhaps restore the Blackpool link (at least off-peak).
Incidentally Northern has an incentive to run fast Leeds-York that may have more to do with potential profits than service quality. Under the system of sharing revenue between different operators over a given route, by running its own fast service Northern will automatically get a bigger cut of total revenue for the city-city (Leeds-York) flow. This has been referred to as an ORCATS raid (google it, e.g.).
Leeds-Halifax-Huddersfield, and latest Brighouse Line farce: As a result of the cross-Leeds changes, and Leeds-Halifax-Brighouse-Huddersfield trains no longer coming through from York (as they did May-Dec’18), Northern seemed to realise it had a train coming into Leeds from Huddersfield via Bradford and waiting nearly an hour in Leeds station before setting off back – a glaring inefficiency. So just few days before the December timetable started, they saw the light and retimed Huddersfield-Halifax-Leeds trains 10 minutes earlier. This meant some good news. The Halifax-Leeds “clockface” pattern is greatly improved. now roughly 00, 11, 23 and 43 minutes past the hour – not quite even quarter-hourly but much better than what would have been a 26-minute gap then four trains in just over half an hour. It also means better connections for Low Moor off the train from Manchester and improved journey time Huddersfield-Halifax/Bradford.
But the effect on journey time in the opposite direction is a farce and a disaster. Trains from Halifax towards Huddersfield are now not only booked to wait 4 minutes in Brighouse station, but also stand for 5 minutes at Bradley Wood Junction waiting for the retimed train coming the other way off the single-track Bradley curve. OK this does not sound outrageous unless you are stuck on the train wondering when it is going to start moving, but trains Halifax-Huddersfield now take a perfectly ridiculous 34 minutes, compared with 20 minutes in the opposite direction, frustratingly inconvenient for regular travellers between Bradford and Huddersfield.
Other problems include loss of connections upper Calderdale-Huddersfield and the “Brighouse overtaking issue”. Journeys such as Sowerby Bridge-Huddersfield have been largely impracticable by rail since the May 2018 changes; previously convenient connections at Brighouse/Halifax no longer exist. On the Leeds-Brighouse corridor the franchise train service specification or TSR says there should be two trains an hour, one via Bradford, one direct via Dewsbury. But the way this has been interpreted the Leeds-Brighouse-Southport train at 20 past the hour overtakes the previous one at 07 via Bradford; it is no longer quite so bad in the opposite direction, but the upshot is that a specified service of two trains per hour is effectively little or no better than hourly. How can this be allowed?
The Brighouse line problems seem to illustrate the need for a total rethink of the Calder Valley line timetable. It seems obvious that Northern and Network Rail train planners need to work together to sort this out. (Maybe they should actually work in the same office?!) In the longer term we hope more tracks through Mirfield and into Huddersfield will enable better timetabling. But whatever the present constraints the current timetable surely can simply not be acceptable. Among Calder Valley Line stations Brighouse has shown the biggest increase in passenger footfall over ten years. Sadly by failing to design a decent timetable that operates reliably the railway appears to risk throwing this away. Dare we hope for improvement this May?
Mytholmroyd and Sowerby Bridge now benefit from all Preston-York trains stopping but still suffer a poorly-spaced service overall. The fast to Manchester closely follows the stopper and catches it up. A half-hour gap at Sowerby Bridge between 0724 and 0753 for commuters to Leeds is a notable annoyance that was previously filled by a train at about 0745. In the evening non-stop running between Hebden Bridge and Halifax means a 2-hour gap in services back from Manchester, whilst last train back from Bradford is now half an hour earlier than before May. We raised this with Northern seven months ago. It looked easy to solve simply by inserting the additional stops in late night services when it is surely more important to get people home than meet journey time targets. But we await any improvement. Apparently Network Rail won’t agree to even minor changes – despite approving the significant alterations described above with decidedly mixed consequences for Calder Valley Line users.
It is still not clear what is planned in terms of service frequency at these stations from the big December 2019 timetable change. Sowerby Bridge station serves a potential catchment area equal in population terms to that of Hebden Bridge and Todmorden combined.
HADRAG wrote to the managing director of Northern, David Brown before the December timetable change with our detailed report setting out our Concerns, aspirations and priorities. We have had an acknowledgement promising a reply, and we shall be chasing that up in the new year. We hear rumours of a consultation on the May 2019 timetable but await detail (or indeed an invitation to participate).
We want the franchise promises to go ahead with services to Manchester Airport and also to Chester and Liverpool, but say this must surely be done in a way that does not damage the train timetable for existing users. Restoring damage already done (including the collapse in reliability and punctuality) must be a top priority.
We also want the promised extra train every hour between Bradford and Manchester from the end of 2019. It’s not just about another so-called “fast” service but also a better deal for intermediate stations – Mytholmroyd and Low Moor as well as that sizeable town and southwest Halifax railhead, Sowerby Bridge.
And then there is Brighouse. And Elland. Potential massive development area in lower Calderdale. Wanted: much better train service.