Making the Case for Better Train Services and More Stations

In May this year in Brighouse HADRAG held possibly its best-ever Annual General Meeting, with speaker David Hoggarth, Director of Rail North and over 30 people in attendance, part of our campaign to get a better train service deal for stations like Brighouse and Sowerby Bridge.

Over summer we updated our paper on development aspirations for the Calder Valley Line, and in October we held an “open committee meeting” in Halifax where the train operator Northern’s regional stakeholder manager John O’Grady gave a presentation to HADRAG members and friends about the company’s franchise promises. John has a background  in journalism having worked as a young reporter on the Brighouse Echo. He still lives in Brighouse so if any Northern employee understands the needs of our line and its users John should! He spoke entertainingly and answered questions with honesty and good humour.

Peak-hour overcrowding on Calderdale-Leeds commuter trains was hottest topic at the Halifax meeting. People who pay the top-rate peak fare are understandably angry when not only can they not get a seat but the train is so crowded that passengers stand nose-to nose, with passengers sometimes left behind at places like New Pudsey. It is equally irksome when a high quality modern train that is about to form an extra service from Bradford to Leeds passes empty through Halifax as you wait for your 25 to 30-year old two-car unit that you know is going to be crammed (see our front page story). Northern  promise to look again at these issues. The situation is not of their making and using the Grand Central train is a good tactic to provide relief. If only it could help Calderdale commuters! The new franchisee knows that we are looking forward to the benefits of brand new rolling stock, more services and new destinations by 2019. But they also know there is anger now about a railway that is victim of its own success.

HADRAG is also continuing to press on what might be termed medium term strategic issues, firstly in the hope that Northern under franchisee Arriva will deliver a better train timetable for more Calder Valley Line stations—not just the so-called principal stops—and secondly for a vision for the second half of the franchise when we hope more services could be developed via the Elland/Brighouse rail corridor.

To recap, we say a long-standing half-promise that all York-Blackpool trains should call at Sowerby Bridge should be redeemed at the next key timetable change which is December 2017.  At the same time we hope the Leeds-Brighouse-Todmorden-Manchester service can be speeded up by making it semi-fast at least west of Todmorden. The aim, with improved rolling stock, should be 50 minutes Brighouse-Manchester Vic. Yes, we hear the argument that you can go from Brighouse to Manchester Piccadilly via Huddersfield in not much more than that time but it means changing trains (and platforms) at Huddersfield and not everybody wants to go to Piccadilly! We also think the “valley bottom service” should run on Sundays—and West Yorkshire Combined Authority agrees with us.

It would also be good if Northern could design its timetable to get a second train each hour stopping at the new Low Moor station (see panel, previous page). Next opportunity after 2017 could be the 2019 timetable with an enhanced “TSR” or minimum Train Service Requirement which means Northern has to run 3 trains/hour between Bradford and Manchester, one of which has to go to Manchester Airport, one to Chester and one to Liverpool. All of these three trains will be Northern Connect services, which means regional express, but existing stops in upper Calderdale and Rochdale district will still have to be covered by the three trains combined.

So when is an express not an express? When it has to meet the TSR for intermediate stations! What HADRAG is saying is we are going to have this new service that is going to use a brand new line round Manchester (the Ordsall Chord) to get to Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Airport. Why not maximise the benefits of this investment by spreading the new connectivity to as many CVL stations as possible? It does not have to be the Airport train that achieves the headline timing (say 52 minutes) Bradford-Victoria; in fact it makes most sense if the fastest Calder Valley service is the one that goes to Chester, the longest distance. So we say the Airport-Bradford train should serve Sowerby Bridge. And perhaps it should  also serve the new station at Low Moor where there is park & ride and business as well as commuting potential. This means the Airport train must go to Leeds, not just to Bradford, related to another yet-to-be-answered question: how many trains per hour, Halifax-Leeds? The TSR says four (minimum), but the promise at the franchise announcement last December seemed to be five.

And our “Cinderella station”, Mytholmroyd, is about to get a new car park. The village has 2 trains/hr to Leeds and Manchester but misses the 2/hr it had for a time to Halifax and Bradford. Could Northern’s 2019 timetable come to the rescue?

There is an expectation of further service development beyond 2019. With housing and business growth in the lower valley,  Elland station a near certainty, and potential of a fast route to Leeds as well as Huddersfield, Wakefield and beyond, the Brighouse rail corridor is ripe to develop. Don’t forget Brighouse station usage grew by 342% between 2007 and 2015. Along with Sowerby Bridge, the town of Brighouse can justify demanding a lot more from its railway. –JSW

 

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Good news update! Quality commuter train to start from Halifax in bid to relieve overcrowding

 

UPDATE DECEMBER 2016: Good news of relief for at least some Calderdale-Leeds commuters, thanks to efforts by train operator Northern working with sister company Grand Central.  Halifax is to get an extra weekday morning train to Bradford and Leeds when new timetables start on Monday December 12th. The new Northern service will be formed of a 5-carriage Grand Central train that already comes empty through Halifax to form the 0744 Bradford-Leeds service that has run since July (see our original newsletter story below).

The extra train will start from Halifax at 0728 arriving in Leeds soon after 0805. It should give people a welcome and attractive alternative to the overcrowded 0720 and 0734.These two services (respectively the 0659 from Huddersfield via Brighouse and the 0636 from Manchester via upper Calderdale) were both cut from four carriages to two last summer when Northern had to replan its rolling stock deployment in the wake of a rolling stock “grab” involving three train operating companies. As we understand it decent trains that had been operated by TransPennine Express were reallocated southwards so Chiltern Railway could expand services. This meant some equally decent trains on loan from TPE to Northern in the north-west had to go back to TPE. Which left Northern short. As soon as we heard they were going to run the Grand Central train on a Bradford-Leeds service, HADRAG started pressing Northern to start the service further back along Calder Valley Line. So it’s good news that the proposal, after a period of industry consultation (it seems these things are never a formality), looks to have borne fruit.

Given that Northern’s loss seems to be Chiltern’s gain, we are not sure what the fall-out would be if people on the latter operator’s new service from Oxford to Marylebone had to endure the conditions of our lines Leeds and Manchester commuters.

The new Halifax-Leeds train which will have free wifi, extra legroom and – top-tip! – a first class coach at no extra cost! Although the train starts at Halifax, passengers from Brighouse and upper Calderdale will also benefit indirectly with less crammed conditions on their trains. Hopefully a few people may also transfer from the 0749 from Halifax, a Blackpool-York service that has seen some sardine-can conditions that are surely unacceptable.

We’re under no illusion that this is a complete solution, and nor, we trust, are train operators Northern who are in a seemingly impossible position for peak capacity until new rolling stock arrives. Running as it already does from Bradford, the GC train has built up quite a following is and is fairly full by Bramley; but getting on at Halifax at 0728 you’ll have first choice for a seat. Advertised arrival time in Leeds is 0807 (Tuesday-Friday) but 5 minutes later on Mondays when our train has to cede a path to a freight train going through Leeds. The service is expected to run at least until December 2017.

We could really do with some even more imaginative thinking to help commuters on other crammed services including the aforementioned 0749 from Halifax. Local train operating franchisee Northern (Arriva Rail North Ltd) and the open-access operator Grand Central, who are operate the new train on Northern’s behalf, are of course sister companies under the German-owned (but North East England based) Arriva group. The GC “Class 180” unit that works the extra service to Leeds then operates the mid-morning Grand Central service from Bradford, Halifax and Brighouse to London.

Original story from Autumn 2016 Halifax & District RAIL VIEWS (October): 

Bradford Interchange, weekday morning, about 0740. At platform 1 (left), the 0752 Grand Central (GC) train to London (calling Halifax and Brighouse on the way). Meanwhile on P2 lucky commuters board another GC “Class 180” with its intercity seats, plenteous toilets, free wi-fi, and “operated by Northern” window stickers. This is the 0744 extra train to Leeds, and Northern hires the roomy 5-car “180” (which goes to London later in the morning) from its “sister” Arriva company. It’s a tactic that responds to a rolling stock shortage and peak-hour overcrowding that’s marred the first six months of the new Northern (Arriva Rail North) train operating franchise.

In July the TransPennine Express franchise lost some good modern trains down south to Chiltern under the Department for Transport’s “let the market decide” rolling stock policy. Northern had to return some other nice carriages that it was using on  services in the North West back to TPE, requiring to major train replanning to cope.

On our line the two Leeds commuter trains at 0720 and 0734 from Halifax have been cut from four carriages to two. The 0734 now sees intolerable crush-loading between Bradford and Leeds, as does the following 0749 from Halifax, a Blackpool-York train which should be 3-car (but sometimes is only two). Here’s one of many comments from a HADRAG regular on the 0749:

“Three carriages but horrendous today. Stood up all way to Leeds… 22 standing in my carriage from Halifax… everybody managed to get on at Bradford but we were then full… counted 80 on platform at New Pudsey and very few managed to squeeze on… one bloke running along [platform] desperate. Late at Leeds due to time it takes to get people on and persuade others to give up trying and stand clear of the doors.”

The 0744 Bradford-Leeds “GC train” has developed a following. We’ve seen it quite full by Bramley, but with some seats free and a few “optional standees”. It is limited help for Calderdale passengers. Yet GC’s “empty stock” from depot comes non-stop through Brighouse and Halifax. So, HADRAG suggested, why couldn’t the GC train could pick up on its way or even start further up the Calder Valley? These things are never easy with “pathing” issues and the need to taxi a GC conductor to the right place. But if this nice train could be judiciously timed to start at Brighouse, or maybe even Hebden Bridge, it could spread demand between Halifax and Leeds and ease intolerable crowding on the 0734 and 0749. However they do it,  Northern need more carriages for Calderdale commuters now. We can’t wait till 2019! – JSW

Low Moor, opening soon, also needs more trains

A Manchester-bound Calder Valley Line train makes haste past the building site that will be Low Moor station. Work on the right-hand (Bradford-bound) platform has advanced significantly since this July scene and the station should now open by May next year. Construction was delayed by the discovery of underground features that old plans failed to show — a former mineshaft requiring piling and a concrete cap. After that set-back it was considered prudent to carry out additional surveys in case of any more nasty surprises.

In terms of design quality, the latest new halts are a significant advance on earlier examples (of which Bramley and Walsden come to mind). Note lift shaft awaiting its partner and footbridge over the lines. Yes, the latest lifts are considered reliable enough for an unstaffed station! Recently opened Kirkstall Forge (see panel on next page) in the Aire Valley gives some idea of current style, though the roofed footbridge may be a luxury beyond what is to be lavished on Low Moor.

Still-to-be-finished Low Moor already has a keen “Friends” group (FOLMS) that meets regularly.

Like Kirkstall Forge, Low Moor will open with a basic service of just one local train an hour. It will be the Leeds-Bradford-Halifax-Huddersfield trains that stop, plus Grand Central’s London expresses four times a day each way. Situated in a well-populated part of south Bradford with major employers including the BASF chemical works, the station surely deserves better, with obvious park & ride potential. West Yorkshire Combined Authority wants ways explored of providing the half-hourly service that should be the norm. Along with our colleagues in FOLMS, we wait to see whether Northern will stop more trains at Low Moor at the key December 2017 timetable change. Failing that, as HADRAG argues for Sowerby Bridge, the 2019 timetable could be a good time to get more trains stopping, when an extra train every hour from Bradford to Manchester will link through to the Manchester International Airport.

Farewell, faithful timetable!

Under the new Northern franchise responsibility for producing timetable booklets “passes to the franchisee”. So, from this December timetable, the familiar West Yorkshire Metro A6-size booklets for “Calder Valley Line” and other routes will be replaced by Northern booklets. The all-county combined volume will, we understand, be no more. Avoiding duplication is one thing. But we say Northern needs to improve significantly on its current booklets. At present the company shows York-Blackpool and Leeds-Manchester trains in separate tables, and some local Northern trains on our line are not shown in any Northern booklet at all—that includes  more than half the trains serving Brighouse! Metro officers at West Yorkshire Combined Authority have been working with Northern “to ensure local rail passenger needs are maintained”. The booklet for any route must surely include all operators’ services, meaning Grand Central and the rest as well as Northern itself. We have expressed our concerns with both Northern and WYCA, and await the new booklets with nervous interest. The all-county timetable will be greatly missed by those who travel widely about West Yorkshire. We might even be prepared to pay a cover price for a wider regional volume. How about it?

 

Support Your Local Booking Office

Paper MetroCards in West Yorkshire are now fully replaced by the smartcards. You can top up your MCard with weekly or monthly travel, based on the MetroCard zonal system, at rail station ticket vending machines (TVMs) across the county. But you have to get your original MCard from a Metro travel centre or Payzone outlet (Payzone charges a fee for the card). It’s a shame the full range of Metro tickets is not available at train stations. We’ve asked why—maybe we just have to wait for a technology update?  Surely Northern should expand rather than cut the range of retail services. On Merseyside there are station ticket offices that are also shops selling food and travel goods. We welcome news that our train company is to increase station staffing, but await details of how this will work — probably “roaming” staff rather than behind a glass screen. All well and good but surely traditional office or modern “shop-style” retailing of tickets and other travel products remains vital at key stations. Counter staff can serve in a way not easily delivered either by TVMs or by roaming colleagues with hand-held devices.

And, we might ask, is it always easy enough to get the correct fare from the machine? We found Manchester fares on the TVM at Bradford Interchange defaulted to the “any permitted route” prices, valid via Leeds, asking a startling £22.70 for an off-peak day return instead of the £12.10 for the direct route via Hebden Bridge. Finding the cheaper fare involved delving further into options on the machine. Booking office staff can also have the resources to help with complex journeys that can be difficult with on-line booking if you don’t know with the system.

Good new on fares is that quite a lot of off-peak prices went down in September. For example Halifax-Manchester off-peak day return via Hebden Bridge is now £9.90 (previously £11.70).

But off-peak day returns within Greater Manchester all went up!

 

Header Image: flickr photo by Tim Green aka atoach https://flickr.com/photos/atoach/3994240224 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

 

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.