Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP, Secretary of State for Transport,
Great Minster House, 33 Horseferry Road, LONDON SW1P 4DR
14 January 2020
Dear Secretary of State,
Northern railways and the Calder Valley Line – towards solutions
HADRAG is a campaigning rail users’ group, a supportive, positive and respected “critical friend” of the railway. We seek a modern, sustainable railway that more and more people want to use.
Failure of the railway collectively to deliver either day-to-day service reliability or promised enhancements is a desperate disappointment. We welcome your recent statements. We understand that you have a process in place to resolve the Northern franchise issues. From a passenger viewpoint, we wholeheartedly agree that action is needed. Thank you in anticipation for considering the following.
We were concerned by reports of a proposal to split Northern (Arriva Rail North) into two separate east and west companies:
- Such a suggestion poses more questions for our Calder Valley Line than for on any other Northern-operated route. Four cross-boundary services per hour penetrate deep into east and west Pennine territories. Yorkshire commuters travel regularly into Manchester and Lancashire, using services that span York, Leeds, Preston, Blackpool, Manchester, Wigan and Chester.
- We agree that Northern is geographically large. But we believe an already fragmented railway needs to be re-integrated, not split into further smaller parts
- Such re-integration should, we believe, go beyond the existing Northern TOC bringing in TransPennine Express and the infrastructure operator Network Rail. Vertical integration – literally across the “wheel-rail interface” is perhaps more critical than geographical boundaries. But the cross-Pennine services of Northern and TPE should also be brought together since they are complementary and need to be operated in cooperation.
Whatever the future structure, the railway in the North must be collectively tasked with the duty, and provided with the financial and physical resources, to achieve the following priorities:
- To run a reliable and punctual and comfortable service in the short term and going forward.
- To deliver benefits that were promised by the 2015 franchise. These must include enhancements such as (on our line) increased frequency between Bradford and Manchester, and a regular link with the south side of Manchester, for which we know there is demand in terms of access to employment, education, attractions and connections. Locally, it is a major disappointment that the present franchise is unable to deliver these commitments.
- To plan for further improvements to services and new services. In the Calder Valley there is a pressing need for a better service on the Brighouse route (which will hopefully have an additional station at Elland in 2-3 years). Since December 2019 Brighouse has only one train an hour Leeds-Manchester plus a Bradford-Huddersfield shuttle – a cut in service which fails to comply with the Train Service Requirement (TSR) in the original franchise agreement.
The recent collapse in service performance on both Northern and TransPennine Express sadly coincided with the introduction of new rolling stock, turning good news into bad. We hear that new trains were introduced with staff training insufficiently complete on both TOCs. Meanwhile, regular late-running by TPE causes hold-ups at Manchester, Leeds and York, hitting the performance of Northern-operated Calder Valley trains, showing the inter-dependence of the two TOCs.
The train companies seem to have offered too much with too little resources or allowance for contingencies. But failure to deliver franchise commitments for the Calder Valley Line is due in part to capacity on the Ordsall and Castlefield route through south Manchester. The Ordsall chord was built to carry both long-distance TPE trains and Northern’s Calder Valley services. Complementing Ordsall, we should by now have two more through platforms in use at Manchester Piccadilly and other works completed to allow longer dwell times and more trains. But the go ahead for this work was not given. We know other possible enhancements in the area are being considered. Meanwhile, Northern have told us they are banned from bidding for the additional Calder Valley services. Yet TPE is allowed to run 2 trains/hour from North East England to Manchester Airport via the Huddersfield line and Ordsall.
We respectfully ask therefore:
- That you give the go-ahead – now – to the Castlefield enhancements planned originally for CP5 (2014-19). These are essential to deliver the priorities (1) and (2) above – franchise commitments.
- That service planning should treat Northern and TPE as complementary and equal priorities. As we wait for more capacity, it may be necessary to run fewer trains – for now – via Castlefield. All we ask, however, is a fair share of the available paths, and delivery of promises that were made for our line. We look for imaginative interim solutions to deliver benefits.
- For a realisation that Calder Valley line passengers find it unreasonable that present reliability and potential future services are being damaged because other train operators take priority. Connectivity across Yorkshire, Manchester and Lancashire are at least as important as connectivity between Tyne/Tees and Manchester Airport.
- For further infrastructure enhancements to allow better timetabling and performance. Examples include additional tracks at pinch points, passing loops so that freight traffic does not hinder the passenger service, and of course electrification – essential for decarbonisation.
Whatever the short-term fix, we call for “one railway” involving both TOCs and Network Rail. We have no wish to pre-empt the (overdue) Williams Review. But:
- Please do not keep us waiting any longer for publication of Williams and of your White Paper!
- Could some of the ideas generated by Williams be brought forward as a pilot to tackle the problems of the railway in the North of England, a process that is now urgent?
- Train planning functions at present seemingly in “silos” at the separate TOCs and in Network Rail have obstructed apparently easy service improvements. Two local stations one of which serves the significant catchment area of Sowerby Bridge have seen cuts in service with trains missing out stops late at night, their latest blow being loss of daytime services to York, Preston and Blackpool. Planning must be unified, and devolved as far possible to ensure that decisions are informed by local detail and responsive to common sense proposals.
We look for an alliance of train operators, Network Rail, local/combined authorities and Transport for the North to plan a service pattern that is fair to all, design a timetable that works, and operate it through a system that is adequately funded, swift-acting, and well-communicating within the railway and outside it.
Yours sincerely, and with thanks again,
J Stephen Waring, Chair, HADRAG
cc MPs, local leaders, media, neighbouring rail user groups, Railfuture