Spring update – HADRAG responds to Williams review. Plus timetable issues and Electric Charter campaign


180HBG Zeke

HOW SHOULD our railways be run in the future? As a campaigning rail users’ group embracing a range of views, HADRAG does not take a view on whether our national rail system should continue with largely privatised, private enterprise train operation, or whether there should be some form of social ownership or renationalisation. What many of us do think is that the present system is crazy, not necessarily because of who owns it, but because of fragmentation. We desperately need one railway that works for passengers and to provide an attractive, modern, reliable alternative to congested roads, supporting good growth and protecting the environment, locally and globally.


Last May we had a timetable change that was a complete mess. That must never happen again. In the North of England we have two main train operators, Northern and TransPennine Express. They run across a system operated by Network Rail, the government-owned track operator. Network Rail decides the final timetable, from a remote train planning office in Milton Keynes. Northern and TPE both have their own train planners and must bid, to some degree in mutual competition, for slots in the Network Rail plan. So that is three separate bodies of train planning expertise planning what rail users are surely entitled to see as one train service. Who cares who runs the trains (or owns it – a wholly separate matter in the fragmented railway)? We just want a timetable that is strategically planned by a regional guiding mind to meet the needs of commuters and more occasional travellers, and delivers enhancements that will make train travel more attractive, more usable.

The Williams Review is looking at the whole organisation of our railways with a view to feeding in to a government white paper this autumn. It’s a tight deadline. HADRAG responded to the “initial listening phase earlier this year, but anyone can put forward views – on franchising, the public-private debate or other issues by the end of May. See the summary of our initial response below, and our full paper here.

Meanwhile, HADRAG’s latest newsletter Halifax and Calder Valley Rail Views sets out our latest thoughts on timetable issues, and we have an update on the Electric Railway Charter with the argument swinging back from “gapped” electrification towards the need for strategic routes like the Calder Valley (as well as the Huddersfield Line “TransPennine” route) to be fully electric. – JSW

Here’s HADRAG’s summary from our response to Williams:

“There should not be a conflict between the interest of passengers and taxpayers. Taxpayers benefit from the existence of a modern and effective rail network through its ability to reduce congestion, taking people to work and delivery goods. Railways directly reduce the number of vehicles on the roads. Government financial support for rail should be seen not as subsidy but as social payment for a public service with wide social, economic and environmental benefits. Because of that, the possibilities of rail travel should be made attractive to as great a percentage of the population as possible.

Priorities should be:

  • To re-integrate a railway that is fragmented in its structure. Removal of fragmentation to put functions under one roof can reduce costs and promote effective, agile decision making. Train-operation and system operation (including timetable planning) need to be unified. For example, in the North of England a single company should be responsible for internal services, planning service patterns, devising the timetable and delivery of the service. The present system for example of separate train-planning establishments within Northern and TransPennine Express TOCs and centrally within Network Rail does not make sense.
  • Devolved structures to promote effective and prompt decisions as close as possible to the point of service delivery, responsive to passengers’ needs. Regional “track+train” operating companies may be in the private sector or may be socially or cooperatively owned. (HADRAG maintains a neutral position on the political question of private versus public ownership.)
  • Expansion of the rail network with a fares system that encourages increasing use for an increasing range of purposes – culture, leisure and community as well as work and business.”

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.


Electrification: Don’t take our word for it!

Look at the recent panorama of one of our big northern stations, complete with overhead electric wires. Of six trains in shot, five are diesels. If only more lines in the North were electrified all could be electrics, quieter, more efficient, better for air quality, for the climate and for passengers. Don’t take our word for it; here’s what Network Rail said on its website:

Electrification of the railway allows for faster, greener, more reliable train journeys, improves passenger services and supports economic growth in Britain.

Benefits of electric trains:

  • More capacity for passengers; more seats than diesel trains of the same length
  • Faster than diesel trains: superior braking and acceleration make journey times shorter.
  • Quieter than diesel trains: good news for our lineside neighbours.
  • Better for the environment:… carbon emissions 20 to 35% lower than from diesel trains, and there are no emissions at point of use improving air quality in pollution hotspots such as city centres
  • Lighter. Less maintenance is needed because electric trains cause less wear on the track so the railway is more reliable for passengers.
  • Good for the economy. Faster trains with more seats and better connections with previously hard-to-reach areas improve access to jobs and services, and open up new business opportunities.

Electric trains are better business than diesels because they use simpler technology—cheaper to buy, operate and maintain, offering a self-evidently better passenger experience.


Calder Valley sparks!

HADRAG intends to co-opt other groups on either side of the Pennines and lead a “Charter” campaign for a rolling programme of rail electrification across the North of England, starting with our own Calder Valley Line. It’s two and a half years now since the Northern Electrification Task Force (NETF) unveiled its Northern Sparks report. A cross-party group of MPs and local authorities supported by professional expertise, the taskforce ranked full Calder Valley line electrification as top scorer on economic, operational and business criteria.

By “full” Calder Valley line the taskforce meant the route from Leeds/Mirfield to both Manchester and Preston, via both Bradford and Brighouse. The assumption was that the Huddersfield Line from Manchester to Leeds and York would already be done by the end of the decade, a hope dashed in summer 2015, as Network Rail struggled with ongoing work, when that scheme, along with Midland Main Line was paused, and then “unpaused” for two years of replanning.

Then earlier this summer the Government (in the person of Chris Grayling MP, Secretary of State for Transport) announced to Parliament that Midland Main Line electrification from Kettering to Sheffield (once paused, then unpaused) was now cancelled, along with the Windermere Branch. There was nothing definite about the Huddersfield Line or any of the NETF schemes, but subsequent quoted comments cast doubt not only on what is now being called “Trans-Pennine Route Upgrade” (TRU) but on rail electrification generally.

The Department for Transport (DfT) seems to be sold on the idea that the North does not need electrification, or perhaps that it can make do with “discontinuous electrification”. Gaps will be left where electrification is too difficult or disruptive—such as through long stretches of tunnel, or where the overhead wiring is judged unsightly. (Is not the latter laughable given the DfT’s enduring love affair with building multi-lane highways through our green and pleasant landscape?) The gaps can be filled by running “state of the art” bi-mode trains. So the new Midland Main Line will have to invest in electro-diesel trains, electrics with underfloor diesel engines to be inefficiently carted about whilst the train is running “under the wires” as well as electric pick-up gear and transformers that will be equally dead weight whilst the train is running on diesel. Surely that must be bad not just for the environment, but also for business too, as energy, running and maintenance costs increase. The idea of electro diesels is not new, but what is now being built, and more proposed, is a complex train with dual traction systems. For “state of the art” should we read “yet to be fully tested in service”?

We’re not sold on electro-diesel bimodes!

The Windermere branch may get “alternative fuel” trains by early next decade — which sounds like a glimmer of hope for more enlightened thinking.  Because diesels, as we all now know, can never be anything but dirty, century-old technology that manufacturers are struggling to clean up whilst maintaining performance. If we care about air quality in our towns and cities we should care about air quality in our train stations. We hear that diesel buses that comply with the latest environmental standards have difficulty climbing Calderdale hills. Of course there are some significant rail gradients on our cross-Pennine tracks. The TransPennine express franchise is getting some new diesel-hauled coaches for its    Liverpool/Manchester-Middlesbrough/Scarborough routes and electro-diesel bimodes for services going to Newcastle and Edinburgh. Even without full Huddersfield line electrification the diesel power will be doing significant mileage under the wires. It seems such a waste. Looking with an engineering eye at the specifications it is not clear whether these trains will perform as well on diesel power as existing trains    between Manchester,

Huddersfield and Leeds. Power to mass ratio and other factors come in. In short, we’re not sold on electro-diesel bimodes even if the DfT is.  For the record we’ll add without comment here that within days of announcing cancellations of electrification schemes and casting doubt on other infrastructure improvements the government not only announced substantial investment in planning London’s Crossrail 2, but also in its air quality plan reminded us of an existing policy to ban the sale of “conventional” petrol and diesel road vehicles by 2040. (The same policy, dating back at least to 2011, aspires to near-total zero-emission road transport by 2050.) Meanwhile planning of HS2, the ultra-high-speed railway between the North and London divides opinion among transport campaigners, and could end up costing the best part of £100 billion, forges ahead.

We should know the scope of the replanned TransPennine Route Upgrade by early next year. How much electrification it includes we shall see. Perhaps not through Standedge Tunnel, perhaps not anywhere between Stalybridge and Huddersfield. But the TRU (Huddersfield Line) is not just electrification. Track enhancements should increase capacity (as well as speed). HADRAG wants to see tracks restored in the Huddersfield/ Mirfield area to allow a better timetable on our Elland/Brighouse line. Mr Grayling has recently announced £5 million for Network Rail to develop plans for “digital signalling” on the Huddersfield Line. This may not be a miracle cure! (See our Back Page.)

Returning to electrification as such, HADRAG and other groups believe the case remains sound, as sound as it was when NETF drew up its list of 32 schemes, ranging in size from the Calder Valley Line downwards, with 12 recommended for Network Rail’s 2019-24 Control Period — including the top scoring Calder Valley itself. What better place to start a rolling programme of electrification across the North? Our line should be next after the Huddersfield Line. We want to orchestrate a cacophony of calls for that.

A start was made in Halifax Town Hall at September’s full council meeting when Calderdale councillors passed a resolution calling on government to recommit to rail development in the north, to a fair balance of investment across the country and more particularly to Calder Valley electrification. From the public gallery it was pleasing to hear arguments that chime with HADRAG’s view. Issues about the cost and disruption of electrification work were rightly raised, but in the end the resolution had all-party support and no member of the council voted against.

For HADRAG’s part, we understand the argument about the need for smarter electrification. Network Rail is learning the lessons of projects in the West of England and Scotland that have proved far more difficult than anticipated. Those lessons are wasted if we do not persevere with a rolling programme.

If clean technology can be used to allow some sections involving tunnels or other obstacles to be left unwired then, maybe, so be it. Electric trains with energy storage have been tested and will surely be part of the solution. Battery technology is moving ahead driven by renewables and (with in-your-face irony) road transport. But dirty diesels, no. -JSW

See HADRAG’s draft Argument’s for Electrification paper via our website:


Header Image: “Northern Electrics branding” flickr photo by hugh llewelyn https://flickr.com/photos/camperdown/20658157925 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Autumn update 1: Arguments for electrification

DSCF1406HADRAG intends to play a leading role in the campaign for a rolling programme of rail electrification across the North of England. It’s well over two years since the Northern Electrification Task Force (NETF) drew up a list of 32 northern routes and recommended 12 for electrification in the early 2020s. The schemes were scored on economic and operational criteria, and the top ranked scheme was our Calder Valley Line from Leeds to both Manchester and Preston via both Bradford and Brighouse. We say that would follow on naturally from the Huddersfield Line “TransPennine Route Upgrade” scheme, the scope of which should be announced later this autumn.

How much actual electrification of the York-Huddersfield-Manchester route it will involve is now in doubt following government announcements and comments by the Secretary of State for Transport earlier this summer. Talk at the Department of Transport is now of “state of the art” bimode trains that mean sections of line can be left unwired – “discontinuous electrification” – where the constructing masts for overhead wires is deemed too expensive or disruptive.

Many of us think that is short term thinking, bad for business, bad for the environment. What bimode trains really mean is “electro-diesels” and “state of the art” means electric multiple units with diesel engines under the floors. More complexity meaning more to go wrong, higher maintenance costs – and compromised reliability? The diesels take over on sections of line that are not electrified, but mean the whole train is heavier, less energy efficient and more polluting. When the train is running on electricity from the overhead supply, the diesel engine is just dead weight. When it’s on diesel the transformers that handle the 25000V electricity are not being used. More mass means more energy used, means higher running costs, bad for business, bad for the environment.

And train companies seem at present to be creating a glut of modern electric trains. New trains are being ordered and replacing ones that are perfectly serviceable for years more use – if only more lines were electrified to use them! See picture caption below.

So why, when there is more and more talk about electric cars and road transport generally become “greener”, do we seem to be committing our railways to the obsolescent internal combustion engine for another generation? Government aspirations are to stop sale of conventional petrol and diesel road vehicles by 2040 and make road transport almost completely zero-emission by 2050. Surely it’s time we had a plan also for the rail industry to phase out prime movers that damage air quality and damage the climate. HADRAG says the argument for electrification, starting with our own line, remains strong. Yes, there may be innovative solutions for sections with significant lengths of tunnel or other obstacles. We believe future electric trains may be pure electrics with onboard energy storage. Battery technology is leaping ahead driven by renewable energy development and (ironically) electric cars.

HADRAG intends to promote a Charter for Rail Electrification and have written a draft supporting document Arguments for Electrification . Click to read – and prepare to engage in the debate!

HERE’s one of those “cast-off” trains that came North from London’s travel-to-work area, and a story that shows just one little reason – among many bigger ones – for electrifying more of our railways.  It’s a Class 319 electric train at Liverpool Lime Street station about to work a service to Manchester Airport. From March 2015 the old Northern Rail franchise gave them glossy new colours so that from the outside at least they really did look almost like new. (Now they are beginning to appear in Arriva Rail North’s near-white livery.) Not bad inside either, despite old-fashioned 2+3 seating layout. (A former Northern boss was once heard to say that passengers couldn’t tell them from brand-new trains, but we weren’t sure we quite believed that.) The last “319s” have now ceased service on the Thameslink route between Bedford and Brighton. There were 86 of these 4-car trains. 32 are now with Northern (or about to be). Eight more are to be given diesel engines, becoming electro-diesel “bimodes” called Class 769. The eight should (assuming conversion and testing runs smoothly) enter Northern from next Spring. A further five “769s” have been approved for the Welsh trains franchise. That still leaves nearly half of these decent modern trains, easily upgradable to modern high quality, in store, “off-lease”, awaiting a user. Northern (Arriva) will probably use some of its eight 769s on the Windermere branch, where electrification plans have recently been cancelled by the government. Windermere-Manchester Airport trains seem likely (until brand new stock arrives) to run on diesel on the branch line, and on overhead-wire electric from Oxenholme to the Airport. So heavy internal combustion engines and fuel tanks will be dragged as dead weight under the wires. The promised brand-new stock might have to be pure diesel, though there is a hint of “alternative fuels” – electrics with battery storage maybe – by the early 2020s. It’s not just the 319s – with new franchises down south – not to mention Northern’s neighbour TransPennine Express –  replacing serviceable electrics with brand new stock, there appears to be an increasing glut of electric trains. All the more reason, surely, for a rolling programme of proper electrification, not least across the North of England and starting with our top-ranked Calder Valley Line. Read our draft Arguments for Electrification paper.


Aspirations for more

Network Rail’s HADRAG presentation was about projects in the current 2014-19 control period (CP5) and our guests preferred not to be drawn on any more ambitious aspirations that might be considered in the future. There are obvious projects, some that we have called for in the past and that our friends in the UCV Renaissance Sustainable Transport Group included in a list of priorities published a year ago. Much of this is not so much investment in new railways but more about restoring valuable infrastructure short-sightedly taken away over the last few decades, such as:

  • Loops/four tracking between Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd to allow freight trains to be overtaken.
  • Putting back four tracks in the Huddersfield/Mirfield/Dewsbury area creating capacity for more trains through Brighouse as well as on the Huddersfield line.
  • Halifax platform 3 as through loop.
  • The “Crigglestone Curve” linking the lower Calder Valley and Barnsley routes for a service through Brighouse to Sheffield —advocated years ago by HADRAG!
  • And of course CVL electrification via both Bradford and Brighouse.