People are so used to being on the “Cinderella Line” that if you tell them brand new trains are coming they tend not to believe it. But Northern’s promise when Arriva secured the franchise (late 2015) was new stock for Calder Valley services via Bradford to Manchester and on to the Airport, Chester and Liverpool, plus the established York-Blackpool service. All these services would be branded “Northern Connect”, the franchise’s new regional express product, by December 2019. We sincerely hope all of this happens though our priority (and we believe Northern’s) is a service that works for existing users. It seems new kit can not be expected to work out of the box. The new “Class 195” diesels from Spain are being tested and de-snagged as we write but fingers crossed we might see some of them on CVL trains to Manchester and Chester before the summer solstice. Meanwhile we already have the Leeds-Brighouse-Manchesters going through to Southport. This service was promised modern “Class 170s” from Scotland. The 170s are already familiar on the Harrogate line and are good trains to travel on, a step up from the Class 158s and a giant leap from the crummy “150s” that still make our line look like a 1980s throwback. But apparently there was a “gauging problem” meaning the 170s don’t quite fit on the Calder Valley Line. Though we also hear that work has been done to make sure TransPennine Express new trains do fit. Latest we hear is the 170s will be used (instead) on Hull-Sheffield Northern Connect services. So either the Calder Valley line will see even more of the new trains (come on, let’s be optimistic), or else have to soldier on with 1980s “sprinter” and “express” stock for some time. Oh, and by the way, the hated Pacers, still very much around, really will be going, but the longer it takes to commission the new trains, the longer the old will stay in service.
When it comes to investing public money you can’t “just do it”. Every project must jump a course of hoops. Elland station’s Outline Business Case is due to be signed off at West Yorkshire Combined Authority as we write this. Detailed plans should now be developed and Full Business Case (FBC) is due by the end of next year, allowing work to start in 2021. That puts station opening in Spring 2022. We have some concerns about how the project might be affected by the TransPennine Route Upgrade. TRU is the
Huddersfield Line electrification and capacity project, a “CP6” scheme, meaning Network Rail’s 2019-24 control period. Work on TRU will mean blockades — weekends and probably some longer periods — of the line through Huddersfield, in turn meaning diversion of TransPennine Express trains via our Calder Valley line through Brighouse and Elland. We really hope this will not mean Network Rail saying “We can’t stop trains at Elland because we need to run too many diverted services along the route”. CP6 begins in a few weeks but, lacking a communicative fly on the wall at Network Rail HQ, it is still not clear what work will be scheduled when. If the works run till 2024 could it mean a two-year delay for Elland? Surely that must not be acceptable. We have waited long enough for a station originally envisaged as part of Brighouse line reopening nearly 20 years ago. But what if there were another possibility? With major works to put up electrification structures, and – we very much hope -add extra tracks, Huddersfield station could be temporarily closed for significant periods. So could Elland be a convenient alternative railhead for Huddersfield passengers? And so could there be a good argument for bringing the Elland project forward and opening the station sooner rather than later? HADRAG has asked the questions; we shall press for answers.
HOW SHOULD our railways be run in the future? As a campaigning rail users’ group embracing a range of views, HADRAG does not take a view on whether our national rail system should continue with largely privatised, private enterprise train operation, or whether there should be some form of social ownership or renationalisation. What many of us do think is that the present system is crazy, not necessarily because of who owns it, but because of fragmentation. We desperately need one railway that works for passengers and to provide an attractive, modern, reliable alternative to congested roads, supporting good growth and protecting the environment, locally and globally.
Last May we had a timetable change that was a complete mess. That must never happen again. In the North of England we have two main train operators, Northern and TransPennine Express. They run across a system operated by Network Rail, the government-owned track operator. Network Rail decides the final timetable, from a remote train planning office in Milton Keynes. Northern and TPE both have their own train planners and must bid, to some degree in mutual competition, for slots in the Network Rail plan. So that is three separate bodies of train planning expertise planning what rail users are surely entitled to see as one train service. Who cares who runs the trains (or owns it – a wholly separate matter in the fragmented railway)? We just want a timetable that is strategically planned by a regional guiding mind to meet the needs of commuters and more occasional travellers, and delivers enhancements that will make train travel more attractive, more usable.
The Williams Review is looking at the whole organisation of our railways with a view to feeding in to a government white paper this autumn. It’s a tight deadline. HADRAG responded to the “initial listening phase earlier this year, but anyone can put forward views – on franchising, the public-private debate or other issues by the end of May. See the summary of our initial response below, and our full paper here.
Meanwhile, HADRAG’s latest newsletter Halifax and Calder Valley Rail Views sets out our latest thoughts on timetable issues, and we have an update on the Electric Railway Charter with the argument swinging back from “gapped” electrification towards the need for strategic routes like the Calder Valley (as well as the Huddersfield Line “TransPennine” route) to be fully electric. – JSW
Here’s HADRAG’s summary from our response to Williams:
“There should not be a conflict between the interest of passengers and taxpayers. Taxpayers benefit from the existence of a modern and effective rail network through its ability to reduce congestion, taking people to work and delivery goods. Railways directly reduce the number of vehicles on the roads. Government financial support for rail should be seen not as subsidy but as social payment for a public service with wide social, economic and environmental benefits. Because of that, the possibilities of rail travel should be made attractive to as great a percentage of the population as possible.
Priorities should be:
To re-integrate a railway that is fragmented in its structure. Removal of fragmentation to put functions under one roof can reduce costs and promote effective, agile decision making. Train-operation and system operation (including timetable planning) need to be unified. For example, in the North of England a single company should be responsible for internal services, planning service patterns, devising the timetable and delivery of the service. The present system for example of separate train-planning establishments within Northern and TransPennine Express TOCs and centrally within Network Rail does not make sense.
Devolved structures to promote effective and prompt decisions as close as possible to the point of service delivery, responsive to passengers’ needs. Regional “track+train” operating companies may be in the private sector or may be socially or cooperatively owned. (HADRAG maintains a neutral position on the political question of private versus public ownership.)
Expansion of the rail network with a fares system that encourages increasing use for an increasing range of purposes – culture, leisure and community as well as work and business.”
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.