Sowerby Bridge: reasonable, achievable demands!

Many of the trains that do not stop at Sowerby Bridge have the same timing Hebden Bridge to Halifax as ones that do stop. The non-stoppers often have a couple of minutes “performance allowance” in the schedule. In theory most if not all could all stop, but don’t because of “performance risk”. This service has to hit time slots over complex junctions at Preston, Leeds and York, so the train operator wants some slack in the timings to meet punctuality targets. We understand that. But in our report we also say the new timetable to be introduced at the end of 2017 could and should be designed so that all the Blackpool-York expresses do serve Sowerby Bridge. This has been half-promised in the past and it’s time to deliver. We also think a few more of these trains could serve Mytholmroyd.

By 2019 there will be an extra train every hour on weekdays between Bradford and Manchester—through to the Airport. We say this should also serve Sowerby Bridge.

These reasonable, achievable proposals would double daytime service frequency at Sowerby Bridge during the week, responding to clear latent demand. ORR figures show passengers at Sowerby Bridge increased by 115% between 2006/7 and 2014/15, beating all other Calder Valley Line stations apart from Brighouse.

A better class of cast-off!

These ScotRail “TurboStar” Class 170 diesel trains built around 15 years ago are a lot more modern than most of what currently runs on the Calder Valley Line.  We hear that they could be taking over Leeds-Brighouse-Manchester-Southport services (along with the Harrogate Line) in a couple of year’s time, displaced by Scotland’s electrification programme. So is this another case of Northern England having to make do with cast-offs, this time from further north rather than down south?

Such a view would be unfair. Arriva promises that, whilst acquiring 281 brand-new carriages, they will refurbish all older units as new. This means modernising, complete with free wi-fi and compliant access, not just any 1999-2005 vintage Turbostars, but also our ancient Class 150s that in their present state really are a step back into the grim
1980s. (That such transformation is possible has been demonstrated by South West Trains with its 30-year old Class 455 electrics.) Our guess is that”150s”will still be running Leeds-Halifax-Huddersfield services in five years time but there is every reason to hope they will look and feel much more like modern trains. They will keep one current advantage
doors part way along the carriage to facilitate quicker boarding and alighting at busy times compared with later”super sprinter”and “express”types. The 170s also have the doors advantage, plus higher power that HADRAG hopes will help improve journey times on the Brighouse-Manchester route.

Of course the really good news for all Calderdale stations apartfrom Brighouse-is that most trains via Bradford and Halifax will become Northern Connect services employing brand new”Civity”Class 195 trains being built in Spain”as we speak”, to quote Northern boss Alex Hynes. We expect the 195s to have all mod cons including tables, leg room and a decent view out of the window!

Enhancements Confirmed

Network Rail has confirmed projects to enable Calder Valley service improvements are programmed for completion over the next three years:

  • Calder Valley (West) already started, due for completion by the end of this year — track renewals, bridge strengthening and signalling work for higher line speed and capacity.
  • Calder Valley (East), on site next March, for commissioning Dec’18 — various track work Hebden Bridge-Bradford for higher line speed. Increased capacity linked to Huddersfield-Bradford resignalling (which we understand goes right up to Hebden Bridge).
  • Bradford Mill Lane Junction capacity — new crossovers to enable more parallel moves and increased services Halifax- Bradford-Leeds. Also due to be commissioned Dec’18.

Down At The Station

The new franchise under Arriva promises a quiet revolution on stations across the North with a return of human railway resources to halts that have been unstaffed for years. Many stations will be branded “Northern Connect” after the new network of express trains serving them. Northern Connect stations should have staff presence from 06.00 till 22.00 every day, plus catering facilities and that 21st Century necessity free wi-fi. It has been pointed out by at least one HADRAG member that “catering facilities” could in some cases just mean a vending machine – cynical or what?

Four Calderdale stations will be Northern Connect. Three of them already have catering. Halifax already has its “Cafexpress” café-shop, Hebden Bridge its “Coffee Station” and Sowerby Bridge of course the justly famous Jubilee Refreshment Rooms. Todmorden did have a vending machine for a time.

Staffing until 2200 will mean extended hours for all of these stations compared with what they have now. Of the four designated stations only Sowerby Bridge does not already have a booking office but its platforms are usually staffed at peak times by the now familiar revenue protection staff in their hi-viz jackets. Indeed we wonder whether the new staffing will be not so much people sitting in offices as roaming the platforms giving help and advice as well as selling tickets. We are also likely to see a lot more ticket vending machines (TVMs) and maybe “virtual ticket offices” a bit like the “smart wall” recently installed on the concourse at Harrogate.

Brighouse and Mytholmroyd will not be Northern Connect Stations, even though it seems from what we can deduce about service patterns that Mytholmroyd at least will have some Northern Connect services. Both will, however, have rail staff around for part of the day. We shall see whether they also get TVMs. The question arises what form of accommodation will be provided for staff. A traditional booking office may be inappropriate where stations have several entrances and platforms are connected by indirect pedestrian routes using nearby roads. Again there seems to be a logic favouring roaming staff – but they still need a base, shelter and restroom. One “size” is unlikely to fit all. At Sowerby Bridge, could railway staff make use of the Jubilee’s excellent refreshment and restroom facilities?

Sowerby Bridge is complicated by having two entrances, though in a different way to Mytholmroyd. Neither station has a single convenient place for a ticket office. Brighouse has four entrances. But it does have the wonderful Station Café, not quite on the station but just a minute round the corner in Gooder Lane, and already in a positive relationship with that other Arriva brand, Grand Central.

The lack of direct pedestrian links across the line also arises with the new car park at Mytholmroyd, which is planned and hopefully should be ready in 2017. Returning commuters from Leeds who have parked next to the eastbound platform will have a long walk round in the evening back to their cars – they already do but it will be even further! Locations like Hebden Bridge, Sowerby Bridge and even Halifax will always be more physically convenient for park and ride – but their car parks are often full!

The big new car park at Mytholmroyd may make more people ask whether their station should actually be served by more trains. That will not be easy to achieve given the need to strike a balance between serving the village community and providing a attractively frequent and fast inter-urban service.

Back in the physical here and now (rather than the speculative future) a recent innovation at Halifax aims to improve safety for ever-increasing crowds. Signs have gone up exhorting people to keep left on the stairway between footbridge and platforms which should mean less bumping into each other. It’s still easy to not notice and go the wrong way if you are running for a train of course. A central handrail might be a further help.

We continue to ask for progress on HADRAG’s oft-repeated suggestion to reduce crowding on the narrowest part of the platform near the automatic sliding doors. Polite signs and yellow hatching on the floor would encourage passengers to move along, improving safety, aiding door operation and promoting faster boarding and alighting when the train comes in.

Performance and Infrastructure Worries

The next November 2015 downpour is about to start as the Manchester-Leeds train heads towards Mytholmroyd. Recent weather, rail conditions, floods and landslips played havoc with our service recently, not helped by a timetable that is barely fit for purpose. Our trains have miniscule turn-round times at Manchester and Leeds so if a train is delayed going one way it has little chance of setting off back on time. Arriva say they have tough targets and will design a robust timetable. But not even German efficiency can instantly improve the British weather in a grimly changing climate.

Our line needs infrastructure upgrades to cope with more trains including freight. The scene in the picture was once four-track, a place where fast trains could pass slower ones. Before restoration of loops is even considered Network Rail has to complete linespeed and capacity improvements all the way from Manchester to Bradford. These improvements are needed to support the faster and more frequent service planned by 2019. The DfT has promised us that work will start on the ground in January 2016. But this is the “west” work around Rochdale. The Hendy Review of Network Rail projects is now out, but it is still unclear whether Hebden Bridge-Bradford capacity and linespeed, and capacity improvements at Bradford will be sorted by the end of “CP5”, the 2014-19 control period. It is also rumoured that construction of extra through platforms at Manchester Piccadilly – on the route to be used by our Manchester Airport services – will be delayed into CP6 (2019-24).

The works at our end of the CVL are vital if the franchise is to deliver what is promised. We hope to have a further update in our next newsletter.

Unsere Deutsche Bahn!

Our German railway! Because whatever a Northern train looks like in April 2016 or December 2019, it will likely say something like “Part of Arriva – a DB company”. You might possibly have seen that on our nice Grand Central trains that take us to London in such a (usually) trouble-free way. GC is another Arriva operation. And Arriva is a commercial subsidiary of (DB), the German state-owned railway. So pretty well all trains through Halifax and Brighouse will soon be part of “Our German railway”.

DB, through Arriva, is well established in UK passenger transport, mainly as a result of a series of takeovers. Rail franchises include Arriva Trains Wales and the less overtly branded Cross Country. Then there’s Chiltern Railways, who operate quality services out of London Marylebone to Oxford, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, and run what are surely the best-refurbished Mk 3 coaches. The London Overground concession is an equal partnership of Arriva and MTR Corporation (the latter 76% owned by the Hong Kong Government). Let’s not forget either the Tyne & Wear Metro, or Alliance Rail, younger open-access sibling of Grand Central. Arriva also operate numerous services in 13 other countries across mainland Europe (though interestingly not in Germany itself), so none can say that our new train operator is without experience. Arriva’s UK company HQ is in Sunderland. By the way if you see “DB Schenker” on the side of a red locomotive pulling a freight or engineering train, that’s another offshoot of the very same Deutsche Bahn!

Before the German takeover Arriva Trains North (ATN) ran our trains until the birth of Northern Rail in 2004. ATN had taken over the original north-east franchisee MTL; they refreshed image and marketing but ran into problems with staff and train shortages, and industrial disputes. DB didn’t buy Arriva until 2010; so the new company could be very different. Swerving political comment about foreign state ownership of privatised UK rail operations, we must wait and see whether there will be closer cooperation between corporate cousins Arriva Rail North and Grand Central. Currently Halifax and Brighouse enjoy cheap advance-purchase tickets on GC. Through Advance fares from other Northern stations via Grand Central to London could encourage more people from up the valley to connect with GC for London. Station facilities are already pretty well shared, it would appear.

Header image attribution: flickr photo by 47843 Vulcan shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Great news for most – better needed for Brighouse and Sowerby Bridge!

Under two new franchises across the North of England £1.2 billion will be invested in trains, stations and smart ticketing. In total there will be 500 brand new carriages designed for 100mph running on Northern and 125 mph on TransPennine Express (TPE). 40,000 extra seats at peak times are planned to tackle overcrowding.

TPE operates services via Huddersfield, Sheffield, long distance trains linking North East, Yorkshire & Humber, Manchester Airport, Liverpool and Scotland.  Under the new franchise TPE will also cover local stops on the Leeds-Huddersfield-Manchester Line. TPE has been operated by First Group in partnership with French company Keolis for a decade. The new franchise will be First in its own right. Regular travellers on the Huddersfield line know about overcrowding and problems with First TPE’s 3-car trains which although modern and pleasant when there is space, have needed more coaches for years. TPE’s new trains will be longer and go faster and they plan to run to Edinburgh via the East Coast Main Line. First group beat off bids from its former partner Keolis with the Go-Ahead group, and from Stagecoach.

The Northern franchise has been won by German-owned Arriva Rail North (see also our back page piece), seeing off rivals Abellio (Dutch railways – who own 50% of the outgoing Northern Rail) and Govia (another partnership of Go-Ahead + Keolis).

Halifax and Calder Valley Benefits

Arriva is to invest £400 million in more than 280 brand-new carriages formed as 98 trains, a mix of 2, 3 and 4-car units. About 43 trains will be electrics for Airedale, Wharefdale, Leeds-Doncaster and Manchester-Glossop and so on. And 55 will be diesels. In total this is significantly more than the 120 new carriages (maybe about 50 trains in total) demanded by the Invitation to Tender (ITT). Remember the ITT was the Department for Transport (DfT)’s franchise specification. The diesels will be modern 100 mph intercity-style units for use on a new network of express services – Northern Connect – that will include the majority of trains on the Calder Valley Line. Clearly Arriva has agreed with HADRAG that our line is well overdue an injection of new rolling stock.

Northern Connect is perhaps best defined as a network of regular, inter-city standard fast or at least semi-fast services. New service patterns to be introduced over the next four years will give increased frequency on the core Leeds-Bradford-Manchester route. Most CVL services will continue beyond Manchester Victoria to other North West destinations:

  • As required by the ITT, Leeds-CVL-Chester fast/semi-fast trains should – will – start by December 2017;
  • Also in the ITT, Calder Valley-Manchester Airport trains (fast/semi-fast) are due by Dec’2019 when an additional Bradford-Manchester train will increase from will run each hour;
  • Extras planned by Arriva include through services between our line and Liverpool (probably fast/semi-fast) and also Southport via Wigan (probably a stopper).

Stopping patterns are not yet completely clear, but all of the above except for the Southport will become Northern Connect routes, operated by the new trains, by 2019. The aim is a best time of 50 minutes Bradford-Manchester. It can’t all happen overnight on 1 April 2016!

Our popular York-Blackpool service will also become Northern Connect, with new trains.

Adding in the Brighouse Line gives, by 2019, 5 trains/hour between upper Calderdale and Leeds, and also 5 trains/hour between Halifax and Leeds. There will be earlier trains on the Halifax-Huddersfield Line through Brighouse. More evening services are promised: let’s hope they run late enough for people to enjoy a reasonably civilised night out in either Leeds or Manchester. There are questions still to be answered here. Could there for example be night time trains to/from Manchester Airport as there are already on the TPE Huddersfield Line? It looks like the answer to that, for now, is no.

The Chester service will run on Sundays and Bradford-Manchester Sunday frequency will increase from hourly at present to half-hourly.

Sowerby Bridge Also Needs More Trains

We also think Sowerby Bridge needs an increase in its present service. This is a well-used station where passengers are frustrated by trains that go through fast. The recently enlarged car-park is often full by 07.30 (just like at Brighouse). The station serves not just Sowerby Bridge town but the large urban area of south-west Halifax plus the leafy Ryburn Valley. Copley Valley housing and business development will generate new demand. We are asking Arriva for more trains to stop, including:

  • all York-Blackpool trains;
  • the additional Bradford-Manchester trains each hour that are to be introduced in 2019.

The above would almost double the number of trains. We hope we are pushing at an open door because it Sowerby Bridge to be one of four Calderdale stations to be designated “Northern Connect” – see our Down at the Station feature.

Elland Station

Site of Elland Station (SJW)

We have reminded Arriva not to forget about Elland. Their timetable must include allowance for trains to stop. Also somebody needs to find the £10M or so needed for construction. At least from this view of the Lowfields site it looks like the station may already have a café!

Fares and Subsides — Should We Worry?

The Government boasts that the new franchise does more for less. They think the present level of subsidy to Northern Rail is excessive – something we could argue with given the amount of DfT support given, for example, to Transport for London. So Arriva are expected to reduce the amount of subsidy required to top up fares income, cover costs (and, since they are a private company, make a profit). That may be a good deal for “the taxpayer” and the Government’s fiscal plans but what about passengers who pay fares (as well as taxes)? It is clear that with new trains, longer trains, more frequent services and lots more staff on stations Arriva Trains North is going to have bigger outgoings than Northern Rail did.

So won’t fares have to go up? Apparently not, says the government. The additional costs are expected to be covered by growth in traffic. It sounds like something rail campaigners were saying years ago. Provide a decent service, encourage more passengers, and the improvements will pay for themselves.

But there are lots of questions still to be answered.

Header image attribution:  flickr photo by tj.blackwell shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license