Wheel and Rail as One Machine

Earlier in the Autumn Northern Trains did an online stakeholder survey. One question asked for our longer-term vision for the company. Here, edited for this newsletter, is what we put.

Working together and integration

Northern needs to work with local authorities (e.g. Calderdale), the combined authorities (e.g. WYCA) and Transport for the North. And all train operating companies need to work together cooperatively to rebuild a better railway, integrated with Network Rail. One railway, wheel and rail as one machine.

We hope this will be brought about by the long-awaited outcome of the Williams Rail Review. For the passenger, examples of useful integration would include:

  • combined timetable displays and booklets on lines where more than one TOC operates, so that the would-be passenger can see the whole service at a glance.
  • simple fares, integrated with other modes, aimed at encouraging “walk-up” travel and an end the confusion caused by different operators having different fares.
  • strong regional/local branding encouraging the idea that this is “our railway”, not a system dictated either by the London-centric DfT or by an organisation with profit as priority.

Sociable transport – and no more sardine cans!

As we emerge from Covid 19, “sardine-can commuting” should become history. Crowded commuter trains were always unhealthy.

  • It seems likely that city-working will be decreased permanently, as working at home reduces the need to go into the office every day. This should be an opportunity rather than a threat. Rail must be repurposed to build a much wider market serving the whole community. The whole community supports rail and other forms of transport through taxation. Our trains should provide for as wide a range of journeys as possible, providing an attractive alternative. Human beings will always wish to travel, for work, leisure and human interaction, for sport, the arts and culture, for personal business as well as for work and commerce.
  • When we are over Covid19, the climate emergency will still be there, and we shall need a zero-carbon transport system – including electrified railways – that also improves the local environment and cuts road congestion promoting physical and mental health. Let us promote and rebrand public transport as “sociable transport” building on the benefits of travelling together (rather than in the isolation of a private vehicle). In a sense all railways should be community railways.
  • Local transport links to rail stations need to be improved – buses and active transport options with direct traffic-free access
  • In the more usual and specific sense of community rail we look forward to the formation of a Calder Valley community rail partnership.

A timetable that works must be top priority for the train operator.

Punctual, reliable, frequent, and repeating each hour so people can turn up and go.

  • An end to irritating variations and unpredictability. (An example of this is that in the present timetable four of the supposedly “fast” Calder Valley services Leeds 0712, 1112, 2112 and 2212 to Manchester have significant apparently additional time because of they follow freight services. Aspects of the timetabling process that lead to this need to be reconsidered.)
  • The pandemic has shown on the Calder Valley line that a reliable service can be operated in a situation where passengers are fewer. The challenge now is to regain passenger numbers: hopefully with a spreading of demand to avoid a return to overcrowding, whilst maintaining excellent performance.
  • The earliest opportunity possible must be taken to improve the service at stations such as Sowerby Bridge (see 4.2 below).

Service enhancements.

Beyond the basic reliable timetable we expect progress with the key promises made by the now-superseded Northern franchise, and further new services widening the usefulness of rail:

Cross-city services. 

For the Calder Valley Line we want to see a regular service to the south side of Manchester serving the stations at Deansgate, Oxford Road, Piccadilly and (possibly) the Airport. This would recreate and build upon the limited and short-lived Calder Valley to Man Oxford Rd service that operated Dec’2017-May-2018 (billed as a stepping-stone). That would open up connectivity for people in Bradford, Calderdale and Rochdale districts to work, education and leisure, as well as longer-distance connections. Northern and the Calder Valley line need to get a fair deal alongside other operators and other Northern routes. Whilst waiting for major capacity enhancements we need the best use to be made of the existing network including the new and underused Ordsall chord in Manchester. This must be done in a fair way that does not prioritise long-distance services to Manchester Airport over those for example from the Calder Valley where there is demand for travel to the south side of Manchester.

Better deal for more of our Calder Valley line stations. 

With a philosophy of spreading the benefits of rail travel to the whole community, the service needs to be improved at stations including Sowerby Bridge, which potentially serves a population equal to that of Hebden Bridge and Todmorden combined but has much less frequent trains. All Calder Valley trains need to stop at Sowerby Bridge including the faster Manchester services and the York-Blackpools (which did for a time up to Dec’2019). Mytholmroyd, with a big new car park, also needs more trains.

Elland-Brighouse corridor. 

Brighouse serves a similar catchment to Sowerby Bridge but has what amounts to no more than an hourly service to each main destination. On the same section of line, a new station at Elland is being developed and is expected to open by the end of 2022. The Elland-Brighouse line is served by two routes Bradford-Huddersfield and Manchester-Todmorden-Dewsbury-Leeds; opening Elland will strengthen the case for both of these hourly services to be increased to half-hourly, including good connections between upper Calderdale and Huddersfield.

Wider aspirations around our area include the following which might be linked:

  • Increased frequency on the popular the Blackpool/Preston-Calderdale-York route (and restoration of stops at Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd). If a second service is introduced each hour it could be routed via Elland and Brighouse.
  • Regional hourly service over the direct route to York via Brighouse, Wakefield Kirkgate and Castleford, providing a long-desired alternative to travel via Leeds. As mentioned, it is not all about the big cities!

Decarbonisation means electrification of the Calder Valley line!

We hope Northern will press the Government to go ahead with a rolling programme of rail electrification, including the full Calder Valley Line as recommended by the Northern Electrification Task Force report of March 2015 (“Northern Sparks”) and now by Network Rail’s Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy.

Our long-term vision is a modern, zero-carbon railway serving the whole community, first choice travel mode for an increased range of purposes.

What if they have to cut services?

Controversy alert. How much will commuting be permanently cut after Covid? Conversations and back-of-envelope estimates suggest… what?… 30%?… 50%? Is that a threat to our railways or is it an opportunity?

Should we welcome working and conferencing from home as reducing the need for planet-damaging travel and improving work-life balance? Maybe up to a point. All who meet on “Zoom”, plus teachers and students struggling to engage in distance learning, vital NHS and other key workers including rail staff, know you just need to meet physically. And in the arts and music human interaction sparks creativity – surely a growing part of a future green economy.

As we decarbonise, travel becomes less damaging. More walking and cycling, plus electric trains, trams, cars and buses. Railways will be vital in a green economy supporting human creativity and wider wellbeing, through “sociable” transport serving the whole community. Here are seven suggested principles for discussion:

  • Crowded trains were never healthy. So no going back to sardine-can commuting. Let’s spread demand across the day making load factors more even. Social distancing is with us for some time.
  • If frequencies have to be cut, let it be just that. No line closures.
  • And no cuts in track capacity. Might some big projects be delayed

favouring regional enhancements? “Northern Sparks” electrification is essential. But what about HS2 and NPR?

  • No cuts on minimal service lines like Leeds-Lancaster/Carlisle, the Whitby line – or our Brighouse line. The principle of half-hourly minimum service on urban routes remains sound. The Calder Valley has more than that and needs it.
  • If some peak services are reduced, released rolling stock must improve reliability, open up off-peak travel for more people and maybe avoid some capacity investment.
  • London may be most affected by more working from home. So no making so-called “loss-making” lines up North suffer most. Remember levelling up! Let it be fair, North with South, and Calder Valley with Trans-Pennine.
  • To get traffic off roads onto rail, let’s have deep integration with reregulated buses, trams and active travel routes. Make sociable transport competitive against cars for more complex journeys that are not focussed on city centres. Many people never use the train, so there’s a huge potential market to be tapped.

It stretches credibility to demand trains run nearly empty in a nominally rich nation where we seem to struggle to feed all of our children or look after older people.

Let us have trains that carry comfortable loads of people with services designed to be useful to more and more. It’s not all about the big cities.

Discuss! 

Header Image: “195125 at Sowerby Bridge” flickr photo by Aaron 56125 https://flickr.com/photos/aaronsrailwayphots/50164627971 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license