When shall we travel again? – late spring update

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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, HADRAG’s Stephen Waring, in this blog reflecting a personal view plus an idea where HADRAG might be going in these strange times. There is a dystopian nightmare, but as campaigners we hold out hope of a better, greener society connected by active and public transport. See also our associated Electric Railway Charter website

WHEN SHALL we travel on the train again?

When (asks HADRAG Chair Stephen Waring) 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 at the end of May (as we update this blog), with the coronavirus lockdown (ambiguously?) easing, near-empty trains still run for essential journeys only. Workers are urged to go back, but work from home if the can – which many essential workers can not. 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. This feels like a somewhat dirty exit in terms of what we should be doing to protect local environments and fight global heating. 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. Thanks are due to rail staff at all levels who keep these services going for essential workers, The intention is safety, preventing infection, and where we are now is the right thing to do. But…

Early in May polling suggested UK citizens feared early easing of lockdown. Looking ahead, 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. What if there is no vaccine?

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

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New Northern train equipped for social distancing. This can not be permanent.

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

As Calder Valley Line commuters remember only too well from pre-lockdown, 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.

The nightmare… and the hope…

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 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.

The hope is that a better world is possible… and that people realise it must be done…

We are optimists about green reconstruction, post-Covid

As campaigners for clean transport (some of us have been doing this since 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?). The climate emergency will still be there, more and more pressing. Post-Covid reconstruction must, surely, 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. Even if every car is electric, and every electron in the grid system has been mobilised by renewable energy, we need to clear our roads and streets so people can move sustainably, sociably, using active and public transport, and where communities thrive.

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 communities that focus on their local train stations. 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 just 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 – universities, 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. All trains should stop at Sowerby Bridge. HADRAG held a successful public meeting here on February 1st, and we had an excellent discussion wit rail manager from West Yorkhire Combined Authority, Richard Cravtreee. Sowerby Bridge station serves a population equalling that of Hebden Bridge and Todmorden combined – you could call this the Upper Valley Equivalence Criterion. And of course the Brighouse Line needs a much better service, especially as we expect the opening of Elland station in a couple of years’ time. Each of Elland and Brighouse also meets the Upper Valley Criterion – they should have as good a service as Hebden Bridge and Tod.  Then there is Mytholmroyd, a village station, bit one that should soon get a large new station car park. Could MYT offer some relief to HBD?  Where we are now, with doubt over the future role of city living and working, can we reasonably demand the franchise promise of three trains an hour 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 have also now responded (29 May) 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 scheme 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?
  • Other enhancements that could make our service better including passing loops to get freight trains out of the way of our services, and possible station improvements including, just maybe, a third platform at Halifax to enable future timetable development.
  • And a bit of extra capacity at city terminals could enable new services over existing but under-used routes. We are thinking of a west-east service from East Lancs, through Calderdale, Wakefield and Castleford to York, via an existing freight and diversionary avoiding Leeds. The lines are there and in use, and there is space for an extra bay platform at York station. More in our response to the NIC

Whatever the future of country-town commuting or city-city business travel, our ideas 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

Reforming rail: come to our Annual Meeting!

 

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Manchester Leeds train glides through greenery into Halifax. The Calder Valley Line is a scenic route, so why shouldn’t commuting be a pleasure? We want rail to be first transport choice for more and more people. All are welcome at our annual meeting on June 1st. Come and tell us how you think the railway could be made better.

COME AND TELL US what you think! Rail users in Halifax and along the Calder Valley Line hold their Annual Meeting in Halifax on Saturday morning 1 June 2019 (details below). Theme will be reforming rail in the north – making our railway better. For HADRAG the most urgent needs are a better deal for commuters, and a better deal for stations like Sowerby Bridge and Brighouse that serve sizeable towns but are the “Cinderella stops” on our line. As a new timetable starts (20 May) early morning commuters from Brighouse and Halifax and Bradford and Leeds face a cut in service. We want the present flawed timetable replaced by a fit-for-purpose service ready for when the new station opens at Elland hopefully by 2021. And wearing our Electric Railway Charter hats we want to see progress towards a truly modern and sustainable Calder Valley Line.

The meeting on June 1st is open to all rail users and others interested in developing better train services through our part the Pennines as a stimulus to quality travel, good growth and a clean environment, and starts at 1015, at the Carlton Centre, Harrison Rd, Halifax HX1 2AD. Doors open from about 0945 with light refreshments available before the speeches start.

Guest speaker will be Prof Paul Salveson, community rail pioneer, and now chair of the Rail Reform Group. Retired from the railway “establishment”, Paul provides an independent voice and interesting ideas about how a truly Northern-based railway could serve the cities, towns and smaller communities across the central belt of the North from west to east centred once the territory of the “Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway”. The Rail Reform Group, a body of respected former railway professionals, proposes a “railway for the common good”, bringing together functions that are at present fragmented, to create a railway shackled neither by top-down nationalisation, nor by a need to put profit before passengers. The RRG has submitted its ideas for a new “L&Y” to the Williams Rail Review. See also Paul’s piece in the Yorkshire Post earlier this year.

Williams was commissioned by government to look at how rail could work better following the May 2018 timetable shambles. The review is still open until 31 May to receive ideas and evidence from any member of the public – so readers of this blog may still have a little time to send in views online. HADRAG submitted comments early on.

We want a truly modern, sustainable transport system that provides commuters with a good deal, encouraging people off congested roads – polluted and polluting – and plays the maximum role in tackling the climate emergency.

Writing on 19 May 2019, we hope last year’s timetable shambles is not about to be repeated.  HADRAG made this argument: Trans Pennine Express and Northern operate nearly all local and regional trains across the North of England. Each of these companies has its own team of train planners. Each must each bid for timetable slots to nationalised Network Rail, with its own train planning office in Milton Keynes (where knowledge of the needs of Brighouse or Sowerby Bridge may be limited). Three organisations, three timetabling offices, to plan a single network of services. Would it not be better to have one organisation, whether publicly or privately owned, planning service patterns and delivering a timetable that works across our northern sub-nation?

We hope Williams hears what we and others are saying about creating a railway that is integrated, devolved and puts passengers first, a railway that is simple to use with fares that are not seen as extortionate, and flexibility that will attract people from their cars. Williams talks about balancing the needs of taxpayers and passengers. But are not passengers themselves taxpayers, and is not the railway a massive public asset that should be providing an increasingly attractive public service with non-user benefits? Trains – passenger and freight – can reduce the volume of cars and lorries on the roads. Should we not reject the term “subsidy”?  We do not talk about “subsidies” for other public services such as the NHS, the police or indeed the programme of road building that we continue to see. We need investment in the North that matches that in London and the South East.

Transport seems likely always to require social payments, especially if it is to provide a comprehensive service promoting high quality growth and wider values of environmental protection and social inclusion. Perhaps the best way to get the best value for taxpayers is to develop a railway that turns more taxpayers into passengers. – JSW

Annual General Meeting: 02 June

With a shortage of trains due to delayed electrification, Northern has been forced to postpone some improvements including Calder Valley services to Manchester Airport and Chester. Some aspects of the new — but temporary — timetable are better than we feared. “Clockface patterns” are not ideal, there are issues about journey times and evening patterns, but Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd will be served by Preston/Blackpool trains, and keep their present Manchester frequency. For the future the concern is that when the promised new services eventually come in, existing local users could still lose out.

We’ve been given to understand that, as a “Northern Connect” station, Sowerby Bridge could be served by all (?) trains with the new express brand. We are keen for this to be confirmed. Brighouse, and in the future Elland, cry out for better services on a line with obvious suppressed demand.

Meanwhile, Calder Valley Line passengers tell us that overcrowding and delays have got worse under the new franchise.

All rail users are welcome at HADRAG’s annual meeting On Saturday morning, 2 June 2018 at St Paul’s Church, Tower Hill, Sowerby Bridge, HX6 2EQ (10 min walk from station). Doors open 10.00; speeches and discussion 10.20 till 11.45 (all
business done by 12.30)

SPEAKER: Adam Timewell, Commercial Franchise Manager, Rail North Partnership — responsible for overseeing Arriva on the Northern train operating franchise. As always, come along and have your say!

Concerns and aspirations

Northern Rail’s local stakeholder manager John O’Grady was well-received by HADRAG members, friends and regular rail users at our October “open committee meeting”. It’s clear that John, who lives in Brighouse, has our local line at heart and after presenting Arriva’s vision for the Northern trains franchise between now and 2019 and beyond, he responded with humour and honesty to our questions.  …more below:

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Not so much a case of who owns whom, but who’s hiring out what to which sister company, this is surely a good example of useful cooperation between Arriva Rail North (Northern Railway train-operating franchisee) and Arriva-owned intercity operator Grand Central. The GC train on the right, decidedly posh by local commuting standards, is shortly to depart as the 0744 Northern service from Bradford to Leeds, an extra train that’s expected to run at least until December. It provides some relief following a rolling stock shortage forced on Northern when carriages on loan from TransPennine Express had to be returned. The timetabling solution means a halving of capacity on two morning Calder Valley-Leeds trains. Of course a train starting at Bradford provides limited benefit for Calderdale-Leeds commuters. So we continue to observe some pretty unpleasant overcrowding on trains such as the 0636 from Manchester (0734 Halifax)  to Leeds, which is currently 2-car Northern “bog standard” rather than 5-car GC “posh”. Now wouldn’t it be good if the posh train started further up the Calder Valley Line?

HADRAG is continuing to engage with Northern about both strategic aspirations and short-term concerns. Whilst we look forward to promised developments, and make our case about how we’d like the promised improved train services to take shape, the topic causing most heat right now is undoubtedly overcrowding on Calder Valley Line commuter services.

Rolling stock grab

In short, and clearly not of its own making, Northern has had a shortage of trains since early summer. In a rolling stock grab by the South of good trains from the North, the TransPennine Express franchise lost its “Class 170” units to Chiltern Railways where they will be used to increase capacity on the lines from London’s Marylebone station to Oxford, Warwickshire and Birmingham. This in turn meant Northern had to return to TPE carriages it was using on services in the North-west that it had newly taken over when the two North of England franchises changed hands in April. (Stay with us here!) This meant a shortage of carriages for our train operator and a problem for their train planners to solve. The solution was not good news for our line. From July 9th two Calderdale-Leeds commuter trains previously booked for four carriages were cut back to 2-car trains. Clearly this equates, in round numbers, to a halving of capacity on those two services, the 0720 and 0734 from Halifax to Leeds (respectively starting from Huddersfield and Manchester).  At the same time, and providing relief for some, Northern did a deal with sister Arriva company Grand Central to hire in one of the five-car trains used on Bradford-Halifax-London services. The pleasant, modern unit therefore now does a trip from Bradford Interchange (0743) to Leeds for Northern before forming the mid-morning GC service to London King’s Cross.

Intolerable overcrowding

This sounds great for Bradford-Leeds commuters who happen to be setting off at that time but has demonstrably done little to help people from Calderdale who have suffered intolerable overcrowding in recent months not just on the 0720 and 0734 from Halifax but also on the Preston-York train that calls Halifax at 0749. We believe the Blackpool-York trains should normally be at least 3-car units but sometimes – all too frequently in fact – only a 2-car set is provided.

All of this is causing anger. As one of HADRAG’s regular commuter members emailed us from the 0749: “Now at Bradford and packed . We are leaving people behind. A woman near me is quite irate. Only positive thing is that by luck and being in the right place I managed to get a seat when somebody got off. Many others have not been so fortunate and are standing up to Leeds.”

HADRAG is concerned that in this situation people are going to start looking at alternative ways of getting to work as the railway’s reputation is damaged.

Why can’t the GC train pick up at Calderdale stations?

What is particularly frustrating for commuters at Halifax and Brighouse is that the Grand Central train comes through our two stations empty on its way from the depot near Wakefield in order to work the new “extra” 0743 Bradford-Leeds. What everyone asks is why can’t this train pick up at Halifax?

And actually HADRAG asked for this when we were first told about the situation back in the spring. We suggested that either the GC unit might form an extra service from Brighouse/Halifax to Leeds or form the Huddersfield-Halifax(0720)-Leeds train or it might even take over the Manchester-Leeds train (Halifax 0734), releasing a Northern unit to strengthen another train. We know this is not as straightforward as it may sound. You have to get the other company’s unit to the right place, the driver has to be passed to work the route, and the new train has to have a “path” in the timetable that fits sensibly and reliably between other services. If the Northern service worked by a GC train were to start at, say Brighouse or Halifax then a Grand Central guard would have to be taxied to whichever of those stations. But that surely can not be such a big problem? Suffice to add that the train planners have not (so far) found a way of implementing any version of HADRAG’s suggestion – sensible though it surely seems! So the 0743 smart 5-car train from Bradford runs with seats to spare whilst 2-car units bringing commuters from Lancashire, upper Calderdale, Brighouse and Halifax are packed to the point of absolute misery and leave people behind on the platform when more can not physically be taken.

We are keeping up pressure on Northern. As we say, it’s not entirely their fault. Everyone concerned just hopes that a solution can be found in the next few months and we don’t have to wait for the new rolling stock promised in 2018-19.

Strategic aspirations

In terms of strategic aspirations HADRAG also continues to press for a good deal from the new Arriva franchise going beyond the promise for principal stations to be served by “Northern Connect” trains to York, Blackpool, Liverpool, Chester and Manchester Airport. We look forward to the brand new trains before 2020. But there are still unanswered questions about service patterns. The franchise announcement last December mentioned an extra train every hour between Halifax and Leeds by 2019 but we have so far been unable to get anyone to confirm whether or not this is to happen.

We still say the benefits of new connectivity across the region should be spread to more of the communities along our line. Our fastest growing Calder Valley Line (CVL) stations seem to be offered uncertain benefits. Passenger numbers at Brighouse station increased 342% between 2006/7 and 20014/15 but Brighouse seems to be promised little more than its existing service (footfall figures from Office of Road and Rail http://orr.gov.uk/statistics/published-stats/station-usage-estimates). The figure for Sowerby Bridge is 115% but although it’s to be designated a “Northern Connect” station we still don’t know how many trains are planned to stop there when major timetable upgrades come along in 2017 and 2019. We do know that would-be users of Sowerby Bridge station tire of seeing trains go flying through non-stop. The new station at Low Moor is expected to open in a few months time with just one local train an hour on the Leeds-Bradford-Huddersfield service, and surely will need more, including an hourly service to Manchester. We could also make a case for at better deal at Mytholmroyd where work is starting on a big new station car park.

New trains and faster more frequent services are something to look forward to over the next four years – more than just jam tomorrow. Meanwhile, down-to-earth issues that occupy us, on top of the major concern about current overcrowding, include:

  • fares – good to see some reductions in off-peak fares – but do the ticket vending machines (TVMs) make it easy for you always to buy the cheapest ticket?
  • station staffing. Northern Connect stations are being promised staffing from early morning to late at night, with “partial” staffing at places like Brighouse and Mytholmroyd. (And yes, Brighouse is a big town!) Meanwhile, let’s support our traditional booking offices at Halifax, Hebden Bridge and Todmorden where staff can still provide help that’s difficult to find on the “TVM” or on-line.
  • MCards at train stations. The new smartcard replaced the old paper MetroCard at the beginning of September. You can top up your MCard with weekly and monthly zonal travel tickets like the old MetroCard using train station TVMs. But you can’t get your original card (or top it up) at the booking office. Surely the range of services and products available over the counter at stations should be increased, not reduced.

Finally, Halifax station is to get a line of automatic ticket “gates” controlling access to the platform by March 2017. Some of us have decidedly mixed feelings about this, which is all about “revenue protection”. It certainly does not seem to make the railway more welcoming, though the gates will have to have staff in attendance whenever they are in operation. We have always found the revenue protection staff checking tickets at Halifax station to be pleasant and friendly.

 

Welcome to HADRAG’s website!

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What’s a Trans Pennine Express Class 170 train got to do with us? Well, this is one of the North’s better quality trains that’s now gone south to join the fleet of Chiltern Railway. That left TPE short of trains earlier this summer and Northern had to return some carriages to TPE. So then Northern had a rolling stock shortage, and it’s been affecting Calder Valley Line commuters since July.

 

We hope local rail passengers, and members of friends of HADRAG, the Halifax & District Rail Action Group had a great summer. We’ll be back in a day or two with more about HADRAG’s latest campaigns.

We want to push the new train operator Arriva Rail North (aka Northern Railway) to deliver the best possible deal for all “our” stations in the zone around Halifax, Sowerby Bridge and Brighouse, not to mention planning for a future new station at Elland.

If you are back at work and commuting on the train you may be concerned – to put it mildly – about one or two morning trains to Leeds on the Calder Valley Line that have a reduced number of carriages. We’ve seen crush-loading on services such as the 0734 Halifax-Leeds in recent days. It seems the train operator has had some rolling stock purloined.

But there’s good news for some Northern customers as certain off-peak fares have been reduced. So the off-peak return from Halifax to Manchester is now £9.90 (was £11.70). So go on, have a trip on the train!

More to follow soon, but meanwhile, have a look back at our archive of blogs on this site.