Franchising Dead?

RAIL magazine (15 January) reports a DfT spokesperson saying the suggestion of splitting Northern was not something the Government had considered. This contradicts items in several news media last month: “The Government is preparing to scythe one of Britain’s biggest rail networks in two as part of a potential re-nationalisation of train services across the North of England. Northern rail would be separated into two franchises – North West and North East – under plans prepared by Whitehall officials, senior industry sources said” (the Telegraph online, 25/12/10). So has there been a U-turn, or just media confusion? We should know the short-term future for Northern by the end of this month with a promised announcement by Grant Shapps. Could the break-up come later under proposals by the Williams Rail Review, still to be unveiled? A White Paper is expected soon. There is a widespread view that franchising is not working. Other train operators including TransPennine Express, South Western Railway and West Midlands Trains are also in trouble with issues to do with performance, finance or both.
HADRAG’s letter to Shapps reflects the submission we made to Williams a year ago. We pointed out the folly of service planning: Northern and TPE each with their own train planners proposing services over the same or closely linked routes, bidding to Network Rail whose own train planning officers remote in Milton Keynes decide the timetable. No wonder its so difficult to implement no-brainer ideas like extra stops at Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd. Devolution, and putting fragmented operations back together must be more important than geographical boundaries.
The rail-wheel interface is a precision machine. Does it not seem crazy that its two parts are run by different organisations?

HADRAG open meeting for rail users and campaigners: 1 February

class-195-sowerby-bridge-jsw

Our picture of a new Northern train on a Blackpool-York service nearing Halifax is a little bit of good news. For a time these trains stopped at Mytholmroyd and Sowerby Bridge but since December 2019 on weekdays they no longer do. It’s a kick in the teeth for two stations that need a better service not a worse one. Delays and cancellations were terrible over the autumn-winter period. And we still get overcrowding when the new trains don’t have enough carriages.

HADRAG is to hold an open meeting in Sowerby Bridge on Saturday, February 1st. Richard Crabtree, rail development manager at West Yorkshire Combined Authority has agreed to be our speaker. We’ll set out our priorities, issues and ideas, and Richard will give a WYCA officer’s perspective. It’s about how we can press for enhancements we thought were franchise commitments to be delivered. More follows (and in our newsletter, RAIL VIEWS):…

The railway collectively (Northern train company + Network Rail track operator) refuses to fix obvious flaws in the timetable like a 2-hour gap in trains back from Manchester at night. Mytholmroyd has no to trains to Manchester on Sundays. (We persuaded Northern that Sunday Manchester needed to call at Sowerby Bridge, but apparently Network Rail refused to let them stop at Mytholmroyd as well.) Yet Sowerby Bridge serves a population as big as Hebden Bridge and Todmorden combined, and Mytholmroyd is about to get a big new car park. How about some big new services?

Northern’s franchise is effectively bankrupt, performance has been abysmal and committed new services have not been delivered. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps seems to agree with regional leaders like Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham that this cannot go on. Arriva Rail North will (in some sense) be “stripped of the franchise” (announcements promised by end of January), meaning either takeover by a government-owned company, or a management contract awarded to Arriva itself.

Extra Calder Valley services linking to south Manchester and the Airport, should have been introduced in the current timetable but are on hold.

Further down the Valley the Brighouse (and Elland) line is desperate for a better service. Brighouse now has just one service an hour to Leeds and Manchester plus an hourly Bradford-Huddersfield shuttle. The need for two trains/hr on both routes is surely a no-brainer.

We say failure of the franchise must not mean letting the railway collectively off the hook. A lot of Northern’s problems stem from late delivery of Network Rail infrastructure projects and, crucially, failure at the Department of Transport to approve capacity works in Manchester – works that should have been completed by 2019. Transport for the North is calling again for those works to be approved. So are we: HADRAG has also written (again) to the Secretary of State. More in our latest newsletter, Halifax and Calder Valley Rail Views.

We say that whoever is running the trains must be tasked producing a timetable that works, and using imaginative solutions to give our line its fair share of benefits. —JSW

Brighouse Pacers dodge axe

With delayed introduction of new trains, the hated Pacers, 1980s bus bodies on a rail wagon, have a short stay of execution. Routes still blessed with these heritage vehicles include the Bradford-Brighouse-Huddersfield shuttle, until spring 2020. “Enjoy” them while you can! Meanwhile, the Leeds-Brighouse-Manchester-Wigan route, now denied modern Class 170 “Turbostars” (our loss is Bridlington-Sheffield’s gain) will soldier on with 3-car “158+sprinter” combo units, meaning poorer acceleration and lower maximum speed, as well as poorer design than a 170 for getting people on and off in quick time.

Performance plummets as new trains enter service

NORTHERN’s new Class 195s entered CV line service on 21 October, nine trains planned to cover nine “diagrams” meaning almost all Leeds-Manchester/ Chester services. Maybe this was over-ambitious. What about extras for peak-hour strengthening, as the new trains can not be coupled on to the old ones? The expectation was new trains on our line would be at least three cars but on the first day a post on the HADRAG Facebook page reported the 1719 Manchester-Leeds, usually a 3-car “158”, had been just a 2 car “195”, with people standing all the way to Hebden Bridge. A 195 has no more seats than an equivalent 158. Standing space should be more comfortable, but if peak-hour strengthening does not happen people are going to be very cross.

Performance took a dive in late October— too many delays and cancellations, how much directly due to the new trains not entirely clear, but there were door problems and other issues. That said, the 195s seem reasonably well designed with a light ambience, a good number of tables (if you can get to one) to work at or look out of the window, and wide vestibules for quick boarding and alighting. 3-pin sockets tucked between seats annoyingly lack USB points, so you have to carry charger as well as cable. We are told this could be rectified in later units. Litter bins are not easy to find and look rather small. And just one toilet for three carriage is no easy fix.

What do we want the Calder Valley Line service to do?

Northern can not deliver franchise commitments because of external factors. Without serious capacity works through Oxford Rd and Piccadilly stations Manchester’s new Ordsall Chord can apparently not take even one Calder Valley service per hour in addition to the twice-hourly TransPennines that link Tyne and Tees with Manchester Airport. (No, it’s not fair.) Northern, running out of money, will surely be under different ownership or a different contract soon. HADRAG says local councils, West Yorkshire Combined Authority and Transport for the North should demand promises be kept by any new regime. Our map hints at possibilities for lines that should be seen as a crossroads of the Pennine rail network. We need:

Sowerby Bridge, Brighouse and (soon) Elland, significant towns, to have as good a service as stations further up the valley that have traditionally been favoured with the “fast” trains.

For work and leisure, trains to the south side of Manchester. Could Bradford-Huddersfield trains be linked with a service to Manchester Piccadilly? Could one TransPennine Express per hour to the Airport run via the Calder Valley instead of via Huddersfield? (Could this also enable a better Huddersfield-Manchester local service?)

The promised extra service every hour, Calder Valley-Manchester, to help local stations and fill gaps such as the missing Littleborough-Halifax/Bradford daytime service.

Brighouse and Elland to have two trains/hr direct to Leeds, with fast journey time also benefitting upper Calderdale stations. And two trains an hour on the Bradford-Huddersfield line providing good upper valley-Huddersfield connections (and possibly a direct service in the future).

Better Sunday services on all routes reflecting leisure and work demand. Leeds-Brighouse-Manchester should be 7-days a week as should cross-Manchester links. —JSW

Stripped of Franchise?

WE HAVE IT on good authority Arriva Rail North (aka Northern by Arriva) is indeed in trouble. Running, it seems, out of money. The year-long conductors’ dispute took its toll. So too have external factors preventing the company from delivering promises including additional services on our line.

Something big, we hear, will have to give by next Spring. Rather than being “stripped of the franchise” Arriva could be granted a “direct award”, effectively a management contract to deliver specified outputs. Or the “Operator of Last Resort” could take over —
effectively nationalisation. The latter might bring in new blood (personified as veteran rail operators) at board level. But let’s just be careful what we wish for. Whoever runs the company, public or private, will need new resources from government to deliver the franchise ambitions of 2016. Or it could just be an excuse to rein in aspirations and make cuts.

New Trains Down Our Way

YES, that’s a brand new train taking the curve into Halifax, snapped from Shaw Lane bridge in July. That was a trial run, but now the “Class 195s” are in service on Manchester and Chester trains, and expected on the Blackpool route in December.

Entry to service was not without hitch. We hope causes of recent delays and cancellations across Calder Valley services (not just the new trains) will be quickly resolved.

We also trust there will be enough extra carriages to relieve overcrowding. The benefits of a new modern will be lost on passengers who are still crammed like sardines.

And we’ve asked for the new trains on the Leeds-Manchester -Wigan service that goes through Brighouse. This route was promised modern (albeit second hand) Turbostar trains from Scotland but these have gone to the Bridlington-Sheffield route instead. It’s not good enough for the Brighouse line to struggle on with older sprinter-type trains when higher performance units would be better suited to a pattern of frequent stops.

Timetable development is a major issue. The railway collectively finds itself unable to keep promises such as extra trains on our line including ones to the south side of Manchester. Instead of bringing comprehensive improvements the December timetable looks like a kick in the teeth for Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd station users who lose most of their trains to York and Blackpool. Northern have made changes to repair some of the damage, but we fight on for a better deal for the whole line.

Read our recent paper with reasonable demands for improvement and realistic ideas for implementation at this link.

With the future of the train company in doubt, we are pressing West Yorkshire Combined Authority (Metro) and Transport for the North to come up with a strategy to provide the comprehensive, modern, reliable Calder Valley line service that the Northern franchise was supposed to deliver.