When shall we travel again?

 

Copley Via 195
Copley viaduct, on the Bradford arm of our Calder Valley Line, geographical focus for HADRAG. The new Northern train, amid Covid-19 lockdown, may have no more than half a dozen passengers aboard. If the “Northern Sparks” promise of 2015’s electrification task force had been respected by government this train could have been electric. We keep up the campaign, says Stephen Waring, Chair of HADRAG, in this blog reflecting a personal view plus an idea where HADRAG might be going in these strange times, 

<<WHEN SHALL we travel on the train again? When shall we go to Manchester or Leeds for work, for the shops, for the art gallery or theatre, for a good night out where we dance and hug? When shall we hop on our Calder Valley train, avoid the dismal A646, and take a turn (on foot or wheels) along the canal bank, stagger up the hill to Stoodley Pike, visit friends, sing in a choir or sit in an audience, or just occupy a café?

The Calder Valley line is a wonderful community asset. But in mid-May (as we write), with the coronavirus lockdown barely and ambiguously eased, near-empty trains run for essential journeys only. Workers are urged to go back, but enclosed space makes public transport vehicles a potential arena for infection. Walk, or cycle, says the government – sustainable ideals. Or use the car – the opposite. What if you don’t have a car or morally object to using it? Train companies are being paid by the government to run trains whilst discouraging people from using them, a policy that sounds crazy but has logic where we are now. The intention is safety, preventing infection, and we cannot knock it.

Early in May polling suggested UK citizens feared early easing of lockdown. Friends for whom rail travel would always be first choice vow not to go on a train until they can get vaccinated. Immunity hopes rise, there’s talk of massive factories manufacturing vaccine, but as yet there is no guarantee.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies think-tank has advocated peak fare increases to discourage passengers. Staggered work times could help to ease the lockdown, with social distancing onboard commuter trains. Which means trains carrying a tenth of normal passenger loadings. Clearly that cannot go on indefinitely.

Public transport must either come back, supported as a public need, or die.

As Calder Valley Line commuters know only too well, those early morning and teatime trains used to be disgracefully overcrowded. Rail commuting was not a choice, but a punishment for city working. Already, people were learning to work from home. Going into the office maybe just once a week could turn the rush-hour into history.

With or without an anti-coronavirus vaccine, there’s a dystopian nightmare here. People travel – only when they have to – singly or in permitted police-enforced groups, in driverless automatic pods centrally controlled to maximise road capacity (note: “road”). People meet on-line, but must log-in their immunity passports to meet physically. There are no passenger trains, buses or trams. But rail freight has replaced thousands of HGVs, and distributes food and hardware via thousands of robotic vans. The good news in this science-fiction world is that both the freight trains and the driverless road vehicles are powered by zero-carbon electricity. The bad news – it is simply not human as we understand the term. An ideal, but not one we’d want.

Science fiction, yes… maybe.

The worry is public transport really may not recover. The “right” to car travel, in bigger and bigger vehicles, it would seem, still largely powered as now directly or indirectly by fossil fuels, will be reasserted. We feel safe in in our sealed 4-wheeled travelling cage. The quieter roads and cleaner air we enjoyed during the early weeks of lockdown may be but a footnote in the narrative of environmental catastrophe.

We are optimists about green reconstruction, post-Covid

But as campaigners for clean transport that cuts congestion, protects the environment, and fights global heating, we are optimists. Our assumption must be that this coronavirus will be dealt with (dare we hope with lessons learnt for the future?). When that has happened the climate emergency will still be there, more and more pressing. Post-Covid reconstruction must be about green, good growth, not about reseeding the old disasters. We shall need people using public transport for more and more different types of journey, cutting congestion locally and fighting local and global disaster.

We must recognise likely changes in the nature of travel. If city-based work is decimated, where does this leave high speed rail (HS2, NPR etc…) that links only the biggest cities and a few regional hubs? Is there an opportunity to better serve our communities? People need to travel, to explore, to get together, to be creative, to enjoy active leisure. Social interaction must again become possible. Should not transport be about promoting quality of life, not just work for work’s sake? Trains, trams and buses really can enable this. And enable environmental excellence.

Electric trains can be spacious and comfortable for passengers. With a more flexible approach to work they can enable a new commuting that is a comfortable, relaxing start and finish to the day, not a sardine-canned, unhygienic ordeal. Low-pollution, energy-efficient, ideal for routes with lots of stations, electrics can run on zero-carbon energy.

So, what is HADRAG doing?

Given the present situation, is this blog no more than a contemplation of deckchair shifting on a public-transport Titanic? It may be an act of faith, but we must make cautiously optimistic assumptions and keep up the campaign.

Northern Rail, the train company, was renationalised on 1 March. (Farewell, Arriva!). However much has happened since then, we are committed to press the new controllers of Northern Trains Ltd for three aims:

  • A timetable that works and delivers a reliable service. Latest update on the new company’s plan suggests a recast performance-based timetable is the official objective for December 2021.
  • Delivery of promises, including trains from Calderdale across Manchester to Oxford Road and Piccadilly stations, probably to the airport. It’s not that we want to encourage lots environmentally damaging air travel. But there are important work and leisure destinations on the southern fringe of Manchester city – university, hospitals, theatres and concert halls, leisure and heritage attractions – all places where people must congregate in the future if people are to fulfil the potential of being human. And of course connections to destinations beyond.
  • Better deal for all our stations. We say all trains should stop at Sowerby Bridge (where HADRAG held a successful public meeting on February 1st) a station that serves a population equalling that of Hebden Bridge and Todmorden combined. And of course a much better deal for the Brighouse Line where we expect the opening of Elland station in a couple of years’ time. Question: given where we are now, with doubt over the future role of city living and working, can we reasonably demand the franchise promise of 3 trains/hr Bradford-Manchester? Or would we be better asking for more trains serving lower Calderdale and the Brighouse and Elland communities and encouraging their development? We must also press these points with Transport for the North, West Yorkshire Combined Authority and Calderdale Council. What should we be asking for?

Let’s put “Northern Sparks” and classic rail capacity ahead of planning high-speed links between cities

We have responded to Network Rail’s latest consultation on TRU, the TransPennine Route upgrade. They asked for views on revised proposals for Huddersfield-Dewsbury 4-tracking, grade separation (flying junction) at Ravensthorpe, and local station rebuilding schemes, before a Transport and Works Act application. We simply state this work is essential and must go ahead without delay, without waiting for some protracted inquiry into how it links with the future Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) scheme. We need the extra tracks through Mirfield and into Huddersfield so more trans can run via the Elland-Brighouse corridor from Calderdale towards Huddersfield, Wakefield, Dewsbury and Leeds. This is about expanding local and regional connectivity to create an attractive alternative to damaging road transport. It cannot wait for high speed proposals that are still decades away, that will only link the big cities (albeit possibly including Bradford), and that may be irrelevant post-Covid.

And we will respond this month to a call for evidence from the National Infrastructure Commission on Rail Needs for the Midlands and North. This follows the February government announcement confirming go-ahead for HS2 Phase 1 (London-Birmingham) and proposal for an integrated rail plan for that big tract of England north of the Trent , coordinating HS2, NPR and other rail proposals. This, surely, is an opportunity to make the point that, notwithstanding the present disease threat, there are long-delayed projects to increase rail capacity in the North of England that simply need to go ahead now. In three headings, these are:

  • “Northern Sparks” – rail electrification across our region, across the Pennines. To state again: the full Calder Valley Line, Leeds to both Preston and Manchester via both Bradford and Brighouse was top-ranked schemes of the Northern Electrification Task Force five, yes five years ago…
  • … that needs to go ahead following full Huddersfield Line electrification, and promised capacity increases under TransPennine Route Upgrade (including four tracks along the Huddersfield-Mirfield-Dewsbury corridor). Another promise for which we have been waiting five years.
  • Manchester capacity. Extra platforms at Manchester Piccadilly allowing more trains including Calder Valley ones round the new Ordsall chord railway were planned – you guessed it – five years ago. We hoped the new government’s first budget might have given this the go ahead. But still we wait. An alternative being mooted could be a new tunnelled railway from the Liverpool and Bolton lines coming in at Ordsall (Salford) under the city to Manchester Piccadilly. Might this be done quicker than a scheme that was shovel-ready years ago?

Whatever the future of country-town commuting or city-city business travel, our three above are projects that we need so that future transport meets community needs, supports human wellbeing, and does not contribute to wreckage of the local and global environment. How bad would it be if post-Covid reassessment of needs killed HS2 or NPR (aka HS3)? If you have a view, tell us.

This is why we keep campaigning.>> – JSW