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.

 

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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.

All systems go for HADRAG’s meeting in Brighouse

It’s all systems go for HADRAG’s annual meeting in Brighouse on Saturday (14 May’16). Our speaker David Hoggarth, Director of Rail North has confirmed. Start time is 13.00 (1pm) at the Central Methodist Church with an update on HADRAG’s campaign to get a better deal for the Calder Valley’s “Cinderella Line” through Brighouse and Elland that links Halifax and Sowerby bridge with Huddersfield and Mirfield, after which we’ll have David’s talk followed by questions and discussion. All actual and would-be rail users welcome! The meeting will conclude the group’s formal AGM business all of which will be done by 15.30 (3.30pm).

Doors open 12.30 for “light refreshments” (probably tea/coffee and biscuits unless somebody decides to bake a cake).

The weather forecast for Saturday morning in Brighouse looks pretty fair. So why not make a day of it? Take a stroll on the canal bank, seek out the open market, and enjoy brunch in one of the town’s cafes before coming along to the meeting.

Better Rail Deal

The unloved”Pacer”at Brighouse will be gone by 2019.  What will replace it? Great news that under the new Arriva franchise most Calderdale stations will see brand new trains on “Northern Connect”services to York, Blackpool, Liverpool, Chester and Manchester Airport. But it looks like Northern Connect will bypass Brighouse. On the plus side,
Leeds-Brighouse-Manchester stopping trains are expected to be extended to Southport and should get millennium-vintage “Turbostar”trains in 2-3 years time. The promise is that everything not new will be refurbished to top modern quality with free wi-fi, and improved access and toilets. Expect 30 year-old”Sprinters”looking like new-it’s not impossible!

HADRAG, the group that fought to get brighouse station reopened 16 years ago has released a report advocating a better deal. Capacity around Huddersfield and Mirfield prevents new operator Arriva from increasing services along the Brighouse line. But HADRAG says the Manchester trains should be speeded up as”semi-fasts”exploiting Turbostar performance. Longer term we want track authority Network Rail to build in extra capacity as it electrifies the Huddersfield line so that more trains can run through Brighouse to Huddersfield, Mirfield and beyond. HADRAG has always said a fast Brighouse-Mirfield-Leeds train could cut journey time from 35 to 20 minutes. And the Brighouse Line timetable must be designed to include stops at planned Elland station.

Sowerby Bridge also has a good case for more trains. HADRAG argues all York-Blackpool”Northern Connects” should stop there, plus the extra Manchester-Bradford trains due to start in 2019. We believe our ideas are sensible and achievable. And we believe Arriva, Rail North and the other “powers that be”are listening to us.

Brighouse by Train

Weekdays, Brighouse has two Northern trains an hour in each direction over two routes. Leeds-Dewsbury-Brighouse- Rochdale-Manchester “valley bottom” trains run daytime till early evening. Brighouse- Manchester takes an hour. Leeds-Brighouse (via Dewsbury calling most stations in between) takes 30-35 minutes. The slower “semi-circular” Leeds-Bradford-Huddersfield service mainly leaves Leeds at 35 minutes past the hour and (after pausing in Halifax) arrives in Brighouse just under an hour later. Train times in our table are a rough guide: check on line at http://www.nationalrail.co.uk. Best printed timetable for Brighouse trains is Metro’s Calder Valley Line booklet.

The valley bottom service is great for a day out along a line of market towns—Dewsbury, Sowerby Bridge, Hebden, Todmorden—as well as Brighouse itself. There are some famously great pubs and cafés close to the stations. West Yorkshire day rover tickets are still excellent value (currently adult £8, bus and rail, family £12) but watch out for the evening peak trap.

The valley service via Brighouse does not run on Sundays—a missed opportunity to promote local leisure journeys HADRAG says. The new franchise is to increase the 2-hourly Sunday service on the Leeds-Halifax-Huddersfield route to a more useful hourly frequency by the end of 2017. HADRAG, of course, says more is needed.

Brighouse is also of course served by open-access train operator Grand Central (another Arriva company) with four trains daily (including Sundays) to London also serving Wakefield Kirkgate, sometimes Pontefract and Doncaster. Wakefield’s Kirkgate station, recently improved, is a good stop-off for the Hepworth Gallery. Grand Central trains accept most normal rail tickets including West Yorkshire MetroCards and Day Rovers (but sadly not the regional South Pennines Day Ranger). Have a good trip!

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!