When shall we travel again? – late spring update

Copley Via 195
Copley viaduct, on the Bradford arm of our Calder Valley Line, geographical focus for HADRAG. The new Northern train, amid Covid-19 lockdown, may have no more than half a dozen passengers aboard. If the “Northern Sparks” promise of 2015’s electrification task force had been respected by government this train could have been electric. We keep up the campaign, HADRAG’s Stephen Waring, in this blog reflecting a personal view plus an idea where HADRAG might be going in these strange times. There is a dystopian nightmare, but as campaigners we hold out hope of a better, greener society connected by active and public transport. See also our associated Electric Railway Charter website

WHEN SHALL we travel on the train again?

When (asks HADRAG Chair Stephen Waring) shall we go to Manchester or Leeds for work, for the shops, for the art gallery or theatre, for a good night out where we dance and hug? When shall we hop on our Calder Valley train, avoid the dismal A646, and take a turn (on foot or wheels) along the canal bank, stagger up the hill to Stoodley Pike, visit friends, sing in a choir or sit in an audience, or just occupy a café?

The Calder Valley line is a wonderful community asset. But at the end of May (as we update this blog), with the coronavirus lockdown (ambiguously?) easing, near-empty trains still run for essential journeys only. Workers are urged to go back, but work from home if the can – which many essential workers can not. Enclosed space makes public transport vehicles a potential arena for infection. Walk, or cycle, says the government – sustainable ideals. Or use the car – the opposite. This feels like a somewhat dirty exit in terms of what we should be doing to protect local environments and fight global heating. What if you don’t have a car or morally object to using it? Train companies are being paid by the government to run trains whilst discouraging people from using them, a policy that sounds crazy but has logic where we are now. Thanks are due to rail staff at all levels who keep these services going for essential workers, The intention is safety, preventing infection, and where we are now is the right thing to do. But…

Early in May polling suggested UK citizens feared early easing of lockdown. Looking ahead, friends for whom rail travel would always be first choice vow not to go on a train until they can get vaccinated. Immunity hopes rise, there’s talk of massive factories manufacturing vaccine, but as yet there is no guarantee. What if there is no vaccine?

The Institute for Fiscal Studies think-tank has advocated peak fare increases to discourage passengers. Staggered work times could help to ease the lockdown, spreading passenger demand for travel. Social distancing onboard trains means a tenth the capacity of normal passenger loadings. Clearly that cannot go on indefinitely.

Social dstncng Northern 195 cropped
New Northern train equipped for social distancing. This can not be permanent.

Public transport must either come back, supported as a public need, or die.

As Calder Valley Line commuters remember only too well from pre-lockdown, those early morning and teatime trains used to be disgracefully overcrowded. Rail commuting was not a choice, but a punishment for city working. Already, people were learning to work from home. Going into the office maybe just once a week could turn the rush-hour into history.

The nightmare… and the hope…

With or without an anti-coronavirus vaccine, there’s a dystopian nightmare here. People travel – only when they have to – singly or in permitted police-enforced groups, in driverless automatic pods centrally controlled to maximise road capacity (note: “road”). People meet on-line, but must log-in their immunity passports to meet physically. There are no passenger trains, buses or trams. But rail freight has replaced thousands of HGVs, and distributes food and hardware via thousands of robotic vans. The good news in this science-fiction world is that both the freight trains and the driverless road vehicles are powered by zero-carbon electricity. The bad news – it is simply not human as we understand the term. An ideal, but not one we’d want.

Science fiction, yes… maybe.

The worry is public transport really may not recover. The “right” to car travel, in bigger and bigger vehicles, it would seem, still largely powered directly or indirectly by fossil fuels, will be reasserted. We feel safe in in our sealed 4-wheeled travelling cage. The quieter roads and cleaner air we enjoyed during the early weeks of lockdown may be but a footnote in the narrative of environmental catastrophe.

The hope is that a better world is possible… and that people realise it must be done…

We are optimists about green reconstruction, post-Covid

As campaigners for clean transport (some of us have been doing this since that cuts congestion, protects the environment, and fights global heating, we are optimists. Our assumption must be that this coronavirus will be dealt with (dare we hope with lessons learnt for the future?). The climate emergency will still be there, more and more pressing. Post-Covid reconstruction must, surely, be about green, good growth, not about reseeding the old disasters. We shall need people using public transport for more and more different types of journey, cutting congestion locally and fighting local and global disaster. Even if every car is electric, and every electron in the grid system has been mobilised by renewable energy, we need to clear our roads and streets so people can move sustainably, sociably, using active and public transport, and where communities thrive.

We must recognise likely changes in the nature of travel. If city-based work is decimated, where does this leave high speed rail (HS2, NPR etc…) that links only the biggest cities and a few regional hubs? Is there an opportunity to better serve communities that focus on their local train stations. People need to travel, to explore, to get together, to be creative, to enjoy active leisure. Social interaction must again become possible. Should not transport be about promoting quality of life, not just work for work’s sake? Trains, trams and buses really can enable this. And enable environmental excellence.

Electric trains can be spacious and comfortable for passengers. With a more flexible approach to work they can enable a new commuting that is a comfortable, relaxing start and finish to the day, not a sardine-canned, unhygienic ordeal. Low-pollution, energy-efficient, ideal for routes with lots of stations, electrics can run on zero-carbon energy.

So, what is HADRAG doing?

Given the present situation, is this blog just deckchair shifting on a public-transport Titanic? It may be an act of faith, but we must make cautiously optimistic assumptions and keep up the campaign.

Northern Rail, the train company, was renationalised on 1 March. (Farewell, Arriva!). However much has happened since then, we are committed to press the new controllers of Northern Trains Ltd for three aims:

  • A timetable that works and delivers a reliable service. Latest update on the new company’s plan suggests a recast performance-based timetable is the official objective for December 2021.
  • Delivery of promises, including trains from Calderdale across Manchester to Oxford Road and Piccadilly stations, probably to the airport. It’s not that we want to encourage lots environmentally damaging air travel. But there are important work and leisure destinations on the southern fringe of Manchester city – universities, hospitals, theatres and concert halls, leisure and heritage attractions – all places where people must congregate in the future if people are to fulfil the potential of being human. And of course connections to destinations beyond.
  • Better deal for all our stations. All trains should stop at Sowerby Bridge. HADRAG held a successful public meeting here on February 1st, and we had an excellent discussion wit rail manager from West Yorkhire Combined Authority, Richard Cravtreee. Sowerby Bridge station serves a population equalling that of Hebden Bridge and Todmorden combined – you could call this the Upper Valley Equivalence Criterion. And of course the Brighouse Line needs a much better service, especially as we expect the opening of Elland station in a couple of years’ time. Each of Elland and Brighouse also meets the Upper Valley Criterion – they should have as good a service as Hebden Bridge and Tod.  Then there is Mytholmroyd, a village station, bit one that should soon get a large new station car park. Could MYT offer some relief to HBD?  Where we are now, with doubt over the future role of city living and working, can we reasonably demand the franchise promise of three trains an hour Bradford-Manchester? Or would we be better asking for more trains serving lower Calderdale and the Brighouse and Elland communities and encouraging their development? We must also press these points with Transport for the North, West Yorkshire Combined Authority and Calderdale Council. What should we be asking for?

Let’s put “Northern Sparks” and classic rail capacity ahead of planning high-speed links between cities

We have responded to Network Rail’s latest consultation on TRU, the TransPennine Route upgrade. They asked for views on revised proposals for Huddersfield-Dewsbury 4-tracking, grade separation (flying junction) at Ravensthorpe, and local station rebuilding schemes, before a Transport and Works Act application. We simply state this work is essential and must go ahead without delay, without waiting for some protracted inquiry into how it links with the future Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) scheme. We need the extra tracks through Mirfield and into Huddersfield so more trans can run via the Elland-Brighouse corridor from Calderdale towards Huddersfield, Wakefield, Dewsbury and Leeds. This is about expanding local and regional connectivity to create an attractive alternative to damaging road transport. It cannot wait for high speed proposals that are still decades away, that will only link the big cities (albeit possibly including Bradford), and that may be irrelevant post-Covid.

And have also now responded (29 May) to a call for evidence from the National Infrastructure Commission on Rail Needs for the Midlands and North. This follows the February government announcement confirming go-ahead for HS2 Phase 1 (London-Birmingham) and proposal for an integrated rail plan for that big tract of England north of the Trent , coordinating HS2, NPR and other rail proposals. This, surely, is an opportunity to make the point that, notwithstanding the present disease threat, there are long-delayed projects to increase rail capacity in the North of England that simply need to go ahead now. In three headings, these are:

  • Northern Sparks – rail electrification across our region, across the Pennines. To state again: the full Calder Valley Line, Leeds to both Preston and Manchester via both Bradford and Brighouse was top-ranked scheme of the Northern Electrification Task Force five, yes five years ago…
  • … that needs to go ahead following full Huddersfield Line electrification, and promised capacity increases under TransPennine Route Upgrade (including four tracks along the Huddersfield-Mirfield-Dewsbury corridor). Another promise for which we have been waiting five years.
  • Manchester capacity. Extra platforms at Manchester Piccadilly allowing more trains including Calder Valley ones round the new Ordsall chord railway were planned – you guessed it – five years ago. We hoped the new government’s first budget might have given this the go ahead. But still we wait. An alternative being mooted could be a new tunnelled railway from the Liverpool and Bolton lines coming in at Ordsall (Salford) under the city to Manchester Piccadilly. Might this be done quicker than a scheme that was shovel-ready years ago?
  • Other enhancements that could make our service better including passing loops to get freight trains out of the way of our services, and possible station improvements including, just maybe, a third platform at Halifax to enable future timetable development.
  • And a bit of extra capacity at city terminals could enable new services over existing but under-used routes. We are thinking of a west-east service from East Lancs, through Calderdale, Wakefield and Castleford to York, via an existing freight and diversionary avoiding Leeds. The lines are there and in use, and there is space for an extra bay platform at York station. More in our response to the NIC

Whatever the future of country-town commuting or city-city business travel, our ideas above are projects that we need so that future transport meets community needs, supports human wellbeing, and does not contribute to wreckage of the local and global environment. How bad would it be if post-Covid reassessment of needs killed HS2 or NPR (aka HS3)? If you have a view, tell us.

This is why we keep campaigning.>> – JSW

Electrification: Harrogate leads the way…with buses!

The Electric Railway Charter calls for smart electrification to save time, costs and disruption. Rail needs to catch up as cars and buses go green. Could pioneering bus development set the example? Andrew Whitworth reports from Harrogate.

It’s exasperating that railway electrification in England is going backwards.

Latest news on the delayed Manchester-Leeds-York plans came as an apparent (deliberate?) leak in September. The emphasis was on how difficult it would all be, despite actual proposed electrification seeming to be limited to Leeds-Huddersfield. It’s a different story in Scotland, where the fourth electrified route linking Edinburgh and Glasgow went live in July – and work progresses on the fifth route. The enterprising Scots are also wiring the Stirling to Alloa branch line. Meanwhile,

Wales has approved some innovative electric plans for the Cardiff Valleys lines using battery power to reduce the costs, timescales and disruption of electrification.

In contrast to their lamentable rail electrification policy for England, on the roads our government have set ambitious targets to switch everyone to electric cars (or at least hybrids) by 2040.

The government is also spending money now to promote low emission buses in towns and cities.

Of 13 such schemes approved in 2016, most are hybrid or electric, including a unique plan for Harrogate due to go live imminently.

Harrogate has had two battery buses since 2014, but they can only run for about 7 hours, then need an 8 hour slow charge at the depot.

Now, The Harrogate Bus Company owner Transdev is buying 8 new-generation electric single-deckers. The new battery buses are able to run for a full day, by using fast ‘opportunity charging’ whenever they’re at the bus station, which takes only 6 minutes. This is topped up by an overnight slow charge. Compared to conventional battery buses this system requires fewer vehicles, with smaller batteries -which also saves a lot of weight.

It’s an innovative idea which – together with the flexible approach in Wales, and the stability of the rolling programme that has succeeded in Scotland – must have potential to help get northern railway electrification plans back on track.

The Electric Railway Charter — watch out for our launch!

Quick recap: big station, fully electrified since 1960. But five out of six trains in our picture are still diesel. Seems a waste? It’s blindingly obvious more could be electrics, helping to keep the air in the station safe to breathe, helping to combat global warming, if only more lines had the “wires” up. Britain lags other advanced European countries in terms of electric rail-km. Yet the Department for Transport seems to be saying that buying fleets of trains laden with both electric pick-up and diesel-generator equipment is a sensible substitute. As explained in our Autumn issue, we don’t agree. “Bimodes” are inefficient, underpowered on diesel, overweight on electric, more complex and costlier to maintain, bad for business and bad for the environment. If diesel or bimode traction were to be the norm for another generation those polluting trains would still be running when fossil fuel power is coming to an end on the roads. Of course electrification means major investment, and, like any improvement scheme, some disruption. But as has been shown the cost is recouped by operational savings (such less fuel, less maintenance) and the “sparks effect” of trains that more people want to use.

Network Rail is the national agency that has the multifarious tasks of managing day to day operation of the system, maintaining tracks and signalling and organising upgrades. Having let engineering expertise go it has, with its contractors, been learning the hard way how to electrify railways in the North West, in Scotland and on the Great Western. An effectively managed rolling programme would capitalise on the skills gained. Nearly three years ago a politically balanced task force backed by professional research recommended a dozen northern routes for electrification by the mid-2020s. You won’t need reminding that the Calder Valley Line, from Leeds to both Manchester and Preston via both Bradford and Brighouse was the top-scoring scheme.

Campaigning train user groups along the length of the line are not giving up. In the coming weeks, HADRAG, STORM (Rochdale), Bradford Rail Users and our colleagues in the Upper Calder Valley Renaissance Sustainable Transport Group are to jointly launch the Electric Railway Charter. The charter will be a declaration calling for implementation of the task force recommendations with our line at the top. It will promise to keep up the campaign for an economically and environmentally sustainable railway. And it will call on a wide range of other groups—business, environmental, political, workplace, community—to support us. We are already supported by the Yorkshire branch of Railfuture, the national independent group campaigning for a better rail network for both passenger and freight. Spread the word.