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?

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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.

December timetable update

195SOW2019.07.25(2)HADRAG has been pressing Northern Rail to improve the proposed December 2019 timetable for Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd. You can read our updated review of the new timetable HERE. The two stations are to lose calls by the York-Blackpool trains on Mondays to Saturdays, which amounts to a 33% cut in service frequency in the “standard hour”. Northern has now introduced some improvements which will maintain present frequency for Sowerby Bridge commuters who work in Leeds but this will not help Mytholmroyd and will not restore the all-day Blackpool and York trains fir these two stations.

On Sundays the York-Blackpools will be stopping at “SOW” and “MYT” but the Manchester trains will not be – so that’s a 50% service cut. There are hints, however, that the Manchester stops at least for Sowerby Bridge may be put back in and there could be further improvements next May.

To be fair this is not entirely the fault of the Northern train operator, who have been forbidden to bid for enhancements such as the proposed new service from Bradford and Calderdale to Manchester Airport, and are dependent on the system operator Network Rail to agree to their bids. This has been a barrier to getting other improvements over the last year including dealing with gaps in the late evening service from Manchester back to SOW and MYT.

Meanwhile brand new trains have been introduced to Leeds-Manchester and Chester trains on the Calder Valley line. Good news, though the first week has been far from smooth, with a lot of delays and cancellations. Clearly some snagging work to do

December timetable: changes needed to avoid kick in teeth for Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd

195SOW2019.07.25ws

Brand new Northern train speeds through Sowerby Bridge in July this year. This was just a test run, but we’ve been led to expect to be able to ride these trains, already in service in the North West, on our Calder Valley Line before the end of this year. Sounds good, but there could be bad news for Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd if the first public version of the December 2019 timetable is not improved. It looks like the two valley stations will no longer be served by the York-Blackpool service on weekdays, whilst on Sundays Manchester trains will not stop. HADRAG is on the case.

HADRAG members will be hearing from Northern Rail at their September Committee meeting (Contact us for details.) . Theme is how to improve the Calder Valley Line timetable.

A preview of the December timetable is now available on-line via the Real Time Trains website (see for example https://www.realtimetrains.co.uk/search/advanced/HFX/2019/12/17/0200-0159?stp=WVS&show=all&order=wtt), and HADRAG’s review of what we’ve seen is here. There is good news for Halifax in December with an even-interval service of 4 trains an hour from Leeds, improvements to the (still uneven) westbound pattern and a new hourly service to Hull, restoring the useful commuting link between Calderdale, Bradford and local stations east of Leeds.

But Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd look to be taking delivery of a kick in the teeth.

The provisional timetable shows all York-Blackpool trains (Mondays-Saturdays) running non-stop Halifax-Hebden Bridge, reversing an useful improvement brought in last year, and cutting basic service frequency at “SOW” and “MYT” by a third.

On Sundays passengers from the two valley stations look like they will lose trains to Manchester; the Sunday York-Blackpools will still call. Manchester passengers will have to change at Hebden Bridge, but the wait could be something like half an hour. We can not believe that this is really what Northern intend so we believe there is some hope these proposed cuts may be reversed.

For the Brighouse Line the December timetable makes concrete what has always been effectively true, that Brighouse really only has one train an hour to Leeds. In recent years the two trains have been timed such that the direct one via Dewsbury either overtakes or effectively catches up with the one via Bradford. So from December, weekdays Brighouse will have one train an hour on the Leeds-Dewsbury-Manchester-Wigan route, and an hourly Bradford-Huddersfield shuttle. The shuttle looks to give sensible journey times Bradford/Halifax to Huddersfield (unlike the present timetable): so that’s an improvement. But connections for Huddersfield from upper Calderdale are unsatisfactory – particularly for Mytholmroyd and Sowerby Bridge. On Sundays Brighouse now has a more or less hourly service on the Huddersfield-Bradford-Leeds route. We say the Brighouse trains via Dewsbury should also run on Sundays.

It’s the policy of West Yorkshire Combined Authority to have a useful 2 trains per hour on local routes. So HADRAG’s call is for Brighouse to have 2/hr on the upper Calderdale-Dewsbury-Leeds route, and the same on the Bradford-Huddersfield shuttle. This, surely is a reasonable demand for when Elland station opens in less than three years time (we hope). A fast service Brighouse-Leeds via Dewsbury would bring the journey down to about 20 minutes, with benefits for stations further up the valley.

In the meantime Northern’s franchise commitment was to run 3 trains/hr Bradford-Manchester from December this year including an hourly service round the Ordsall Chord to Manchester Oxford Rd, Piccadilly and Airport stations. That is not going to happen this year because there is insufficient track and platform capacity Piccadilly. Plans to deal with this should have been implemented along as part of the original Northern Hub project in Network Rail’s 2014-19 control period to enable all the service possibilities of the new Ordsall line. Sadly that plan is now very much kicked into an unmown region of the Department for Transport garden. But TransPennine Express is still allowed to run 2 trains/hr from North East England whilst Northern’s promised are on hold. Not fair, is it?

HADRAG’s committee meeting with a speaker from Northern Rail is Monday evening 16 September. You are not a member and would like to attend as an interested rail user (actual/would-be) please contact us for details.

 

 

Hang on to your Ticket!

“Delay Repay” is available on Northern if your train is more than 15 minutes late, though the last we heard it still only applies to rail-only tickets not multi-modal passes like the MCard. Hang on to your ticket to claim! We’ve heard of at least one passenger being refused because their used ticket was captured by the station exit gate. Separate proof of purchase and photo of screen showing train cancellation were not accepted. Surely rather harsh, since it’s not always obvious the automatic barrier is about to confiscate your ticket. Gates should always have staff present to help.

 

Header Image: “Leeds Station” flickr photo by OliverN5 https://flickr.com/photos/mtl_shag/4515194671 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license