“Four in 44” is great news. But sardine-can commuters need more now

New trains, faster journeys, more seats, more often: “Four in 44” — four broad objectives in 44 months from the start of the Arriva Rail North franchise last April, taking us to December 2019. On the Calder Valley Line we are promised a good share of the new trains (which could start to appear next year); and of the faster services, branded Northern Connect (including all Leeds/Bradford-Manchester and York-Blackpools); and of the more often. New destinations will include Chester, Liverpool and Manchester Airport, with an extra train every hour between Bradford and Manchester.

The more seats promise is globally a 37% increase in peak capacity for “31,000 extra customers”. That, we repeat, is by 2019, by which time most of the new trains will be delivered. There will also be lots  of units “cascaded” from other train operating companies (TOCs), all of which are to be refurbished to be good as new—which means even better than “partially refurbished” Class 158 train that has been running on our line over recent months, and which Northern admits is work in progress. The cascaded trains will include modern Class 170s from Scotland (promised for the Harrogate and Leeds-Brighouse-Manchester lines) as well as more 30-year old Class 150s. We are excited by the prospect of a “good as new” Class 150.

All the above we knew already. But we do have some simmering worries, to be voiced in more detail in our New Year message to Northern managing director Alex Hynes. In summary.

Worry One. We need more capacity now!

A 37% increase for 31000 “extra” passengers in three years time sounds great unless you are one of thousands of existing Calder Valley Line commuters who, right now, daily endure trains that seem more like 100% overcrowded. People who depend on the train to access employment pay the highest fares to travel on peak-hour trains, but often seem to get the worst service, as they find themselves packed like canned sardines in trains so full that sometimes passengers are left behind.

Northern actually had rolling stock taken off it last summer in a knock-on effect when TransPennine Express lost decent Class 170 trains to Chiltern Railways. One consequence was halving of capacity on two morning Calderdale-Leeds trains. Northern worked with sister Arriva company Grand Central to get a 5-car train running an extra Bradford-Leeds train. That (after some nagging by HADRAG) has now been extended to start at Halifax. We are grateful to Northern for this initiative and their positive response to or suggestion.

But we know, and they know, that a lot more is needed to help with intolerable overcrowding on other trains.

gc-at-bradford-interchange-jsw
The 0744 Northern service from Bradford to Leeds began last July, operated by a Grand Central intercity train, here seen alongside the 0752 to London. It used to come empty through Halifax causing annoyance to Leeds-bound commuters on the station who couldn’t get on! HADRAG pressed for the new service to serve Calderdale. Arriva Rail North agreed with us but with industry consultations seemingly non-optional for even the simplest, most obviously beneficial changes, it took until December to get the train starting from Halifax at 0728. Northern and Grand Central are both, of course, Arriva-owned companies. Good result! More needed!

Worry Two. Even if we can bear to wait until 2019, how is 37% more capacity going to be enough?

We understand the Arriva Rail North has an option to order more of the new trains —diesels and electrics— that are being built by CAF in Spain.

It is be hoped that when the current order for 281 vehicles is complete, more will be built! …

Worry Three. Delays to the rolling stock cascade affecting planned improvements

Last November, Network Rail issued a media statement announcing that certain improvements to Northern and TPE services scheduled for December 2017 would be “phased”, which of course means “delayed” (though some regional media interpreted the story as good news). We struggled to get clarification on this. It seems projects like the Ordsall Curve —critical to North of England service development— are OK. But late-running infrastructure projects elsewhere, like Great Western Electrification, mean the cascade of rolling stock to Northern could be held up. An email sent out by Northern in the North West suggested December 2017 improvements could be delayed until May’18.

It is not yet clear whether this will affect introduction of the CVL Chester service or Sunday Bradford-Manchester Airport trains, both of which were planned for December 2017.

Worry Four. Refurbishment means pain before gain as trains go out of service for the work to be done. Can’t we draft in more trains to cover?

Northern is still working out what the “good as new” refurbished trains will look like. When the programme is under way, covering everything apart from Pacers (which have to go), it will mean more trains out if service for the work to be done. Which will temporarily reduce capacity even more.

Some have suggested Northern’s rolling stock problems could be addressed by drafting in rakes of locomotives and coaches. Other TOCs have done this and Northern is doing it on the Cumbrian Coast route using old Class 37 diesel locos and rakes of Mk 2 coaches. But that sort of train could not keep up to “sprinter” timings on the CVL, and we hear there have been reliability problems on the Cumbrian Coast. However there may be sets of coaches available if suitable modern traction can be found to pull them. In particular the former “Wessex Electrics”, later Gatwick Express trains of Class 442 are lying idle in want of a new use. Two other Arriva companies have already expressed interest. Alliance Rail wants some for a proposed open access Southampton-London service, whilst Arriva Trains Wales is reportedly proposing to run them with diesel haulage as crowd-busters. There are 24 of these trains, not brand new but decent modern 5-car units that would be much better than a 2-car “150” or Pacer. So how about some for Northern? Modifications would be required; is cost a barrier for a franchise that is otherwise promising so much?

Worry Five. Will innovative rolling stock solutions work?

With delays expected to diesel train cascades, rolling stockleasing company Porterbrook announced with Northern and Rail North just before Christmas that it intends to fit some Class 319 electrics with diesel-generator modules and put in service with Northern by Spring next year. Northern has been using pure-electric 319s for a couple of years on newly electrified lines in the North-West. As “bi-modes” they could be used more widely across the North. Like the Vivarail Class 230 “D-train” which uses former London Underground D78 trains, it is thought the “Class 319 Flex” would have automotive diesel alternator modules installed under the carriages. On 30 December one of the power modules on Vivarail’s “230” prototype caught fire whilst on trial near Coventry. Public trials of the “230” are therefore postponed pending an investigation report. Of course the 230 and the 319 Flex are not the same train and we may be worrying unduly. But don’t blame us for being concerned.

Worry Six. Service development. The Northern Connect promise is excellent, but what about our “Cinderella stations”?

This was HADRAG’s big strategic issue for 2016 and we are not giving up. Latest station usage estimates (next page) confirm the increase in Brighouse and Sowerby Bridge passengers over ten years. Sowerby Bridge is earmarked a Northern Connect station (meaning all-day staffing), but it is still not clear whether there will be any significant increase in trains stopping. Brighouse is to get a modest increase in Sunday trains and earlier first trains during the week, but what else we are not sure. We await detailed plans for service stopping patterns 2017- 2019 with great interest.

The Train Service Requirement commits Northern to a 55 minute Bradford-Manchester semi-fast journey time by 2019. We say this could include a Sowerby Bridge stop giving the station an “express” as well as “stoppers”. And we have of course been saying for years that all the York-Blackpools should serve Sowerby Bridge.

We still hope the Brighouse-Manchester trains may be speeded up with a semi-fast pattern.

Beyond 2020, we hope Arriva will commit to the 4 trains/hour Bradford-Manchester that is West Yorkshire Combined Authority’s aspiration, as well as more trains through Brighouse and fast Brighouse-Leeds journeys.

Northern knows we are their supporters, not naturally complainers. We trust them to deliver. We look forward to good  news. —JSW

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Tantalising Scene

History in the making? The scene looking north-east(-ish) from Halifax station hints tantalisingly at the future. Observant Leeds-bound passengers know that if the signal at the end of the platform shows a yellow (never amber on the railway!), they’ll be crawling to a halt at a red just this side of Beacon Hill Tunnel. A preceding train has to pass the signal nearly 4 miles away at Wyke before the next can go. Network Rail’s resignalling scheme over the next 18 months aims to sort the  problem, allowing trains at closer headways all the way from Manchester to Bradford, meaning higher frequencies as well as speeds and—hopefully—better punctuality. It will also make the historic signalbox standing on the former platform redundant as control of the signals is transferred to York. What new use will the old “box” find? The train on the left, a grim old Class 150 unit arriving at Platform 1 for Manchester Victoria, is also going to change and before 2020 will more likely be one of Northern’s brand-new trains now being built by CAF in Spain. The “150” itself, years of life remaining, is promised good-as-new refurbishment. Truly tantalising is the vacant track bed next to the Platform 2 line, with much interest locally in the idea of bringing Platform 3 back into use. Wider development promises to create a transformed gateway between station and town. A third platform would spread the crowds and allow more flexible operation, though we may still have a job on to persuade the railway of its necessity.

History could have been different. Back in the 1980s Halifax & District Rail Action Group started up against a background of shady proposals by British Rail to reduce the line from Sowerby Bridge to Bradford to single track. Ambitions in West Yorkshire put a stop to that idea so that after 30 years of improvement that relied on cut-back infrastructure, we now have a railway that’s not too hard to upgrade, hopefully overcoming current worries to transform services by three years from now.

So, settling in to 2017, we wish HADRAG members and friends, passengers actual and would-be, happy travelling in the future! – JSW

Good news update! Quality commuter train to start from Halifax in bid to relieve overcrowding

 

UPDATE DECEMBER 2016: Good news of relief for at least some Calderdale-Leeds commuters, thanks to efforts by train operator Northern working with sister company Grand Central.  Halifax is to get an extra weekday morning train to Bradford and Leeds when new timetables start on Monday December 12th. The new Northern service will be formed of a 5-carriage Grand Central train that already comes empty through Halifax to form the 0744 Bradford-Leeds service that has run since July (see our original newsletter story below).

The extra train will start from Halifax at 0728 arriving in Leeds soon after 0805. It should give people a welcome and attractive alternative to the overcrowded 0720 and 0734.These two services (respectively the 0659 from Huddersfield via Brighouse and the 0636 from Manchester via upper Calderdale) were both cut from four carriages to two last summer when Northern had to replan its rolling stock deployment in the wake of a rolling stock “grab” involving three train operating companies. As we understand it decent trains that had been operated by TransPennine Express were reallocated southwards so Chiltern Railway could expand services. This meant some equally decent trains on loan from TPE to Northern in the north-west had to go back to TPE. Which left Northern short. As soon as we heard they were going to run the Grand Central train on a Bradford-Leeds service, HADRAG started pressing Northern to start the service further back along Calder Valley Line. So it’s good news that the proposal, after a period of industry consultation (it seems these things are never a formality), looks to have borne fruit.

Given that Northern’s loss seems to be Chiltern’s gain, we are not sure what the fall-out would be if people on the latter operator’s new service from Oxford to Marylebone had to endure the conditions of our lines Leeds and Manchester commuters.

The new Halifax-Leeds train which will have free wifi, extra legroom and – top-tip! – a first class coach at no extra cost! Although the train starts at Halifax, passengers from Brighouse and upper Calderdale will also benefit indirectly with less crammed conditions on their trains. Hopefully a few people may also transfer from the 0749 from Halifax, a Blackpool-York service that has seen some sardine-can conditions that are surely unacceptable.

We’re under no illusion that this is a complete solution, and nor, we trust, are train operators Northern who are in a seemingly impossible position for peak capacity until new rolling stock arrives. Running as it already does from Bradford, the GC train has built up quite a following is and is fairly full by Bramley; but getting on at Halifax at 0728 you’ll have first choice for a seat. Advertised arrival time in Leeds is 0807 (Tuesday-Friday) but 5 minutes later on Mondays when our train has to cede a path to a freight train going through Leeds. The service is expected to run at least until December 2017.

We could really do with some even more imaginative thinking to help commuters on other crammed services including the aforementioned 0749 from Halifax. Local train operating franchisee Northern (Arriva Rail North Ltd) and the open-access operator Grand Central, who are operate the new train on Northern’s behalf, are of course sister companies under the German-owned (but North East England based) Arriva group. The GC “Class 180” unit that works the extra service to Leeds then operates the mid-morning Grand Central service from Bradford, Halifax and Brighouse to London.

Original story from Autumn 2016 Halifax & District RAIL VIEWS (October): 

Bradford Interchange, weekday morning, about 0740. At platform 1 (left), the 0752 Grand Central (GC) train to London (calling Halifax and Brighouse on the way). Meanwhile on P2 lucky commuters board another GC “Class 180” with its intercity seats, plenteous toilets, free wi-fi, and “operated by Northern” window stickers. This is the 0744 extra train to Leeds, and Northern hires the roomy 5-car “180” (which goes to London later in the morning) from its “sister” Arriva company. It’s a tactic that responds to a rolling stock shortage and peak-hour overcrowding that’s marred the first six months of the new Northern (Arriva Rail North) train operating franchise.

In July the TransPennine Express franchise lost some good modern trains down south to Chiltern under the Department for Transport’s “let the market decide” rolling stock policy. Northern had to return some other nice carriages that it was using on  services in the North West back to TPE, requiring to major train replanning to cope.

On our line the two Leeds commuter trains at 0720 and 0734 from Halifax have been cut from four carriages to two. The 0734 now sees intolerable crush-loading between Bradford and Leeds, as does the following 0749 from Halifax, a Blackpool-York train which should be 3-car (but sometimes is only two). Here’s one of many comments from a HADRAG regular on the 0749:

“Three carriages but horrendous today. Stood up all way to Leeds… 22 standing in my carriage from Halifax… everybody managed to get on at Bradford but we were then full… counted 80 on platform at New Pudsey and very few managed to squeeze on… one bloke running along [platform] desperate. Late at Leeds due to time it takes to get people on and persuade others to give up trying and stand clear of the doors.”

The 0744 Bradford-Leeds “GC train” has developed a following. We’ve seen it quite full by Bramley, but with some seats free and a few “optional standees”. It is limited help for Calderdale passengers. Yet GC’s “empty stock” from depot comes non-stop through Brighouse and Halifax. So, HADRAG suggested, why couldn’t the GC train could pick up on its way or even start further up the Calder Valley? These things are never easy with “pathing” issues and the need to taxi a GC conductor to the right place. But if this nice train could be judiciously timed to start at Brighouse, or maybe even Hebden Bridge, it could spread demand between Halifax and Leeds and ease intolerable crowding on the 0734 and 0749. However they do it,  Northern need more carriages for Calderdale commuters now. We can’t wait till 2019! – JSW

A better class of cast-off!

These ScotRail “TurboStar” Class 170 diesel trains built around 15 years ago are a lot more modern than most of what currently runs on the Calder Valley Line.  We hear that they could be taking over Leeds-Brighouse-Manchester-Southport services (along with the Harrogate Line) in a couple of year’s time, displaced by Scotland’s electrification programme. So is this another case of Northern England having to make do with cast-offs, this time from further north rather than down south?

Such a view would be unfair. Arriva promises that, whilst acquiring 281 brand-new carriages, they will refurbish all older units as new. This means modernising, complete with free wi-fi and compliant access, not just any 1999-2005 vintage Turbostars, but also our ancient Class 150s that in their present state really are a step back into the grim
1980s. (That such transformation is possible has been demonstrated by South West Trains with its 30-year old Class 455 electrics.) Our guess is that”150s”will still be running Leeds-Halifax-Huddersfield services in five years time but there is every reason to hope they will look and feel much more like modern trains. They will keep one current advantage
doors part way along the carriage to facilitate quicker boarding and alighting at busy times compared with later”super sprinter”and “express”types. The 170s also have the doors advantage, plus higher power that HADRAG hopes will help improve journey times on the Brighouse-Manchester route.

Of course the really good news for all Calderdale stations apartfrom Brighouse-is that most trains via Bradford and Halifax will become Northern Connect services employing brand new”Civity”Class 195 trains being built in Spain”as we speak”, to quote Northern boss Alex Hynes. We expect the 195s to have all mod cons including tables, leg room and a decent view out of the window!

Rolling Stock Roundup

Pictured mid-August – the first Vivarail D-train carriage, converted from a decades-old “cast-off” London Underground car, ready for a trip round a Warwickshire test track.  We couldn’t resist the chance to muck about on a “new” (?!) train and so joined an invited party of stakeholders to look at work in  progress. Low-emission diesel engines have been fitted, and a new strengthened cab. Inside, it still felt very much like a London “Tube”, with District Line blue moquette replaced by a duller grey. There were mock-ups to look round of innovative modern interiors more suited to longer trips. It will be good to see these in service. The test-track demo was a pretty good ride at maximum speed of maybe 35mph (though we were advised to remain seated at one point). It could go at 60 in service. Faster than the usual 45 max on the District Line. Slower than a Pacer or Sprinter, but with better acceleration. Could the D-train replace Pacers in the North? Surely not. The bidders for the Northern franchise have made such decisions by now and the D-train is some months away from useful evaluation. A 3-car prototype should enter service on the Plymouth-Gunnislake branch next Spring. Scenic branch lines in the South West of England or elsewhere could just suit this train, with its good views out of the window hopefully improved by upgraded seating. Overall it’s a laudable re-engineering of a train that is too good to just throw away.

On the Calder Valley D-trains just wouldn’t do. We hope to receive a share of the 120 brand-new carriages required by the franchise specification for non-electrified routes, and speculate hopefully that these proper new trains could be used on a network of regional express routes including our York-Blackpool and future services to Chester and Manchester Airport. The franchisee will also have to refurbish all existing stock to modern standards, provide a significant increase in capacity and banish Pacer units by 2020. Interestingly, however, the Porterbrook train leasing company’s prototype refurbished Pacer is expected to be trialled on Northern lines as we write this. Well-tested in the North, Pacers could yet come out of retirement down south, slightly redressing the balance!

Meanwhile the North West continues to go electric as 25-year old Class 319 units from Thameslink, refurbished to look like new (well nearly), provide a lot more seats on routes from Liverpool to Manchester Airport, Wigan etc. The 319s are 10 years older and significantly less powerful than certain other electric trains in the North, including Class 323s which work existing Manchester electric routes and the 333s (pictured front page) that work the Airedale and Wharfedale lines. Now we hear that Northern’s 323s will likely go to the Midlands in the next few years and it’s obvious 319s would struggle to maintain timings on routes such as the tightly scheduled Glossop line. After the removal of TransPennine Express Class 170 diesels to Chiltern Railways, it sounds like the Northern Powerhouse could be suffering a Northern Power Loss. Oh dear!