The Reshaping of our Railways: 4. The Crumbling Edge of Quality?

The fourth part of East of the M60’s report on the effects of its area’s railways before, during and after the publication of The Reshaping of British Railways

Class 150 Sprinter, 150274, Poulton-le-Fylde
The 1980s would, among things, be remembered for the launch of second generation DMUs and the opening of new railway stations among Greater Manchester rail users. Seen here in 2011 at Poulton-le-Fylde station is 150274, on an all-stations service to Blackpool North.

In 1983, 20 years on from The Reshaping of British Railways, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government won a second term with a Commons Majority of 144. Their aim was to ‘get rid of socialism’ forever, which in short hand would mean the privatisation of public services. British Rail too wasn’t immune to the spectre of privatisation; though the 1993 Railways Act would follow ten years later, BR was ordered to divest itself of non-core trading interests. These concerns, since the Victorian times, were part and parcel of the railways’ expansion. They were shown no mercy.

Therefore, the second half of 1983 saw the privatisations of British Transport Hotels and BR’s Sealink services. A fair number of hotels, such as the Midland Hotel in Manchester, and the Victoria Hotel in Sheffield, were taken over by Holiday Inn. Sealink was sold to James Sherwood’s Sea Containers company, and within a year, shorn the ferries of its Rail Blue hulls and red funnels (which sported the double arrows). Travellers’ Fare, set up a separate BR company to operate its buffet bars and refreshments kiosks, was privatised. In later years, the yellow on red Transport font would be replaced by names like Caffé Ritazza, Upper Crust and Pumpkin. Also transferring into private hands was On-Board Services, a BR division responsible for operating buffet cars and hostess trolleys.

Whilst the BR Sealink livery was consigned to history, the Rail Blue livery started to lose some sense of authority. There was the large logo BR Blue livery with longer yellow ends; a Railfreight livery, again longer yellow ends but with red trim above the bogies; Inter-City would lose its Rail Blue and light grey in favour of black, white, red and beige; Network Southeast (well, London and South East till June 1986) had a striking Jaffa Cake style livery.

A reason for this would be possible baby steps towards privatisation. 1983 saw a reorganisation of British Rail: the word Sectorisation would be introduced to the railwayperson’s dictionary. Separate divisions with individual profit centres would be created for Inter-City, Parcels, Railfreight, London and South East, and Provincial sectors. Most of Greater Manchester’s local services came under the latter: one move to the Provincial sector from Inter-City was BR’s Trans-Pennine express services. By then, they were in effect Regional Express routes, somewhere between Inter-City and Provincial – a Provincial Plus or Inter-City Light if you prefer.

In Greater Manchester, GMPTE had raised their rail game, and it wasn’t just the adoption of a new Ken Mortimer designed orange, white and brown livery. The 11 December 1984 saw the end of Class 506 operation on the Manchester Piccadilly to Glossop/Hadfield services. Its wires were converted to the standard 25kV a.c. system, and in their place came slightly younger Class 303s, cascaded from the Strathclyde PTE region. 21 years after local services were proposed for closure by Beeching’s report, new stations would appear on the Hadfield line.

May 1985 saw the opening of Flowery Field’s station. Before then, in the tail end of 1984, British Rail experimented with two temporary platforms on the Hadfield line at Hyde North station. The northern steep steps alongside the bridge at Johnson Brook Road were unpopular, hence the new station at Flowery Field. It was one of a number of low cost railway stations funded by GMPTE and GMC, with prefabricated shelters and wooden platforms. July 1985 saw the opening of Godley’s new station, just off Mottram Road. As a result, Godley Junction was downgraded, only offering a peak hour service. Similarly, Royton Junction station, would also be downgraded, thanks to a new station at Derker, which opened on the 30 August 1985.

End of the Heritage DMUs

From 1984 onwards, the first generation DMUs were starting to be displaced by a new generation. Numbered within the Class 14x and 15x series, they would set new standards for comfort in different ways. The former for the wrong reasons, with the latter from Class 158 onwards offering air conditioning as standard.

In 1984, Metro West Yorkshire had BR’s first railbuses since the Modernisation Plan. Allocated Class 141, they were the first of five types of DMUs to be derived from Leyland National bus bodies. Known as Pacers, they would, for the sake of economy, eschew bogies in favour of four axles per car. Bus style folding doors and a perpendicular pole in each doorway would be standard. Some seats would fold to allow the storage of parcels.

By the summer of 1985, Greater Manchester’s Pacers arrived. This time, the later Class 142 with wider bodywork and different cab ends. They looked swish in a new version of BR’s Provincial livery, with some wearing the mostly orange with brown skirt GMPTE livery. Like any new form of traction, there was teething troubles. But, the Pacers’ teething troubles lasted for five and a half years – so much so that GMPTE wanted a refund from British Rail – and, that the first generation DMUs which they would have replaced (along with loco-hauled stock) – returned to service! Luckily, spare capacity from the loss of newspaper trains enabled the use of diesel locomotives with carriages. By 1991, much of the Pacers’ unreliability issues were ironed out when their original Leyland engines were replaced by Cummins units.

More successful was the 1985 to 1987 launch of the Sprinter units. Along with the Pacers, they would soon dominate our locality’s services (and remain dominant today). By the mid to late 1980s, Pacers would be a regular feature on the Oldham-Rochdale Loop Line, with Sprinters seen on Trans-Pennine workings. They augmented the loco hauled Trans-Pennine express services, where Class 47/4s would haul a rake of six carriages between Hull and Holyhead, or Liverpool Lime Street to York.

The Business Railway: BR in the late 1980s

Recent changes, aesthetically and fiscally, made rail a more attractive option. The dawn of bus deregulation resulted in a patronage boon throughout the Metropolitan areas. The launch of APEX fares, in line with the book-ahead ethos of airlines, were launched in 1985, and became a popular option on longer routes. At lines with a great number of unstaffed stations, the Paytrain concept also moved into the computer age. The PORTIS ticket machines would sell the full range of walk-on fares and offer Railcard discounts. In railway stations, the manual ticketing methods would be raised by APTIS ticket machines. Resembling a cash register, it would print tickets and – for the first time – take credit card payments. Linked to a Viewdata system, the sale of advanced purchase tickets were possible.

Inter-City celebrated its 21st birthday with a rebrand and a sleek new look. This not only made the HSTs look swish, it also looked well on the new Class 90s seen on the West Coast Main Line. The Transport font was ditched for a serif font on the Inter-City lettering. Its new look was complemented with a Swallow logo, with Inter-City now spelt as ‘InterCity’. The livery was a continuation of the 1984 executive livery, with a similar one introduced for non-InterCity mainline services.

In our area east of the M60 motorway, the Oldham – Rochdale Loop Line had a steady half hourly service comprised of Class 142 Pacer units and the occasional Heritage DMU. Class 110 Calder Valley units would still be seen on the Manchester Victoria – Rochdale – Leeds services, with some making occasional appearances on the peak hour Huddersfield – Manchester Victoria all stations service. In contrast to the average Ashtonian’s rail service (peak hours only in 1988), all stations from Marsden to Leeds (including the newly reopened Slaithwaite station from December 1982) had an hourly service. Stalybridge’s hourly Trans-Pennine service offered passengers a mix of Class 47s and Mark 2 carriages (in a special two tone blue livery), and Sprinter units. On some occasions, this would have been a spartan Class 150 compared with the more plush Class 156 Super Sprinters.

Electrification was extended to Hazel Grove in March 1986, and complemented by the opening of the Hazel Grove Chord. The 25kV extension from Stockport was another hangover from the aborted Picc-Vic scheme. Express trains to and from Sheffield used the chord from Hazel Grove, which joined the Hope Valley line via Disley tunnel. Today, two trains per hour continue to Sheffield via Hazel Grove, with a third less frequent one using the old Sheffield to Hope Valley route via Marple. Bury’s trains remained wedded to their non-standard third rail system, but its days were numbered. By 1988, the then Conservative Transport Minister Michael Portillo approved GMPTE’s plans for a physical Picc-Vic connection. This time, it wouldn’t use underground tunnels nor 25kV electrification, but trams.

A year before Portillo rubber stamped what would become today’s Metrolink system, there was another historic opening in Bury. July 1987 saw the reopening of the Bury Bolton Street to Bacup line up to Ramsbottom. The East Lancashire Railway in its present form was on its way to becoming a successful and much loved preservation project. Originally, the East Lancashire Railway Society wanted to restore the Helmshore line, but progress was stymied by the opening of a bypass on the A56. In 1977, they converted an engine shed to the Bury Transport Museum and had a little running track for the operation of industrial locomotives for demonstration purposes. By November 1980, Bury Bolton Street would transfer to ELR ownership.

After July 1987, their collection expanded beyond the industrial locos. 1991 would see the line from Rawtenstall to Ramsbottom reopened. The railway, along with its famous market, would seal Bury’s reputation as a popular tourist destination, among coach parties as well as SaverSeven or ClipperCard holders. From 1989, they could have also visited Bury on a new day rover ticket. The Greater Manchester Rail Ranger (probably introduced as an alternative to the minefield of finding a valid ticket on one or more of Greater Manchester’s 68 bus operators), would enable passengers to explore the county aboard any train. Not only provincial ones, but also InterCity services inside the area (unlike Metro West Yorkshire’s MetroRover which only allowed travel on local trains).

North by Network NorthWest

The joys of local rail travel would be promoted by a range of names throughout BR territory. Lines would have ‘brands’ of their own, like ‘The Tarka Line’ or the ‘Robin Hood Line’. Local networks would be meted similarly. In our area, we came under ‘Network NorthWest’. Launched in 1989, it would publicise the provincial sector services within North West England. Some trains wore a red and grey version of the Provincial Sector livery; maps with a local timetable would be delivered to each household; and there would be greater use of regional advertising. It was all a far cry from 26 years ago when Ashton Charlestown was threatened with closure in The Reshaping of British Railways.

In spite of the gloss, BR was operating its services without central government subsidiaries, so it had to be ‘sell sell sell’ as the Tories tried to push the system towards privatisation. The Manchester Victoria to Huddersfield local service was still peak hour only. Worst of all, owing to the opening of the Windsor Link in Salford, and greater use of Manchester Piccadilly for Trans-Pennine services, was the run-down of the Stockport – Stalybridge line. Prior to March 1989, it had a hourly service operated with Class 121 bubble car units. After that, its service was reduced to five trains a day (two one way, three another way).

In a bid to make further cuts, British Rail also drastically reduced its dependence on loco hauled services opting for more multiple units. The European was discontinued in name, then altered to become a DMU service using Class 156 Super Sprinters. Manchester Victoria lost her Glasgow Central and Edinburgh Waverley trains too. At one point, the Hull Paragon – Holyhead route was operated with a 2-car Class 150 DMU and… a 2-car Class 142 Pacer unit!

As well as the hourly service of the Stockport to Stalybridge line, we also said ‘goodbye’ to the Fairfield – Cornbrook line in 1988. Its last movement was a Freightliner service to Trafford Park. Today, much of the line up to Firswood is used a cycle route. Fairfield station, which once boasted more platforms than London Marylebone, was a two platform unstaffed halt. Neighbouring Gorton, on another junction of the Cornbrook line avoiding Manchester, was modernised with a new ticket office.

Towards Privatisation

The start of the 1990s saw continued change. Rail Blue was an exception rather than a rule, with more trains wearing the provincial liveries. The freight scene looked rather colourful with two tone grey liveries wearing an additional logo for each train load. Parcels traffic and mail trains were decked in a handsome red and black, and a great many of Greater Manchester’s trains wore the orange and brown liveries, which would, by 1992 – 93, be replaced by a light grey and black livery with red and white banding below the windows.

The opening of the Windsor Link saw Manchester Piccadilly’s importance rise at the expense of an increasingly tired Manchester Victoria. Some platforms would be taken up by the Metrolink system, with platforms 12 – 17 about to be swallowed up by a multi-purpose arena.

1991-92 was quite an important period for our railways, taking us towards the frequent service we enjoy today. After 23 years of poor off-peak services, the Manchester Victoria to Huddersfield local service became an hourly stopping service with peak hour extras. An extension to Wakefield Westgate was added, enabling passengers to visit Doncaster, Grantham, Peterborough or Huntingdon without changing at Leeds. Class 142 Pacers and Class 150 Sprinters would form the gamut of its rolling stock. They still do today, complemented by Class 156 Super Sprinters.

Of great importance, the Trans-Pennine Express services saw its loco hauled trains replaced by air-conditioned Class 158 Express DMUs. Though the air conditioning set new standards in comfort, legroom was less generous than the Mark 2 carriages they replaced (some would say less generous than some of the other Sprinter family DMUs).

Creating another watershed moment in Greater Manchester’s rail based transport would be the 1992 opening of the Metrolink. At long last, Mancunians got their physical rail based link between Victoria and Piccadilly stations. The lines chosen, between Altrincham and Bury were hitherto popular commuter routes with a suitable density of stations to permit light rail operation. As a consequence, the Oxford Road – Chester service via Altrincham was diverted to operate via Stockport. By then, the service was extended to Southport, then took in the Manchester stations and reached Altrincham via a former freight line through Cheadle.

With traffic increasing and the state of bus competition confusing, rail transport became a more popular option. There was stability compared with the chaos from bus deregulation. Even that was about to change after the Conservatives’ 1992 General Election. 1993 would see a transport act which would make a spat between GM Buses and an independent operator on a single route seem like handbags at dawn. Was the ghost of Beeching about to bite us on the posterior in spite of several years work between the PTEs and British Rail?

*                         *                         *

Part Five: Poll Tax on Wheels (1993 – present day)

In the penultimate part of this series, we shall focus on how rail privatisation affected our area east of the M60. There will also be reference to the expansion of the Metrolink, and how, in spite of privatisation, an unexpected rail revival took shape.

S.V., 29 March 2013.

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