The Reshaping of our Railways: 5. Poll Tax on Wheels

The fifth 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

Stalybridge Station and Class 185
Recent developments since privatisation has seen some improvement to our area’s railways, though none of this wouldn’t be possible without the continued efforts of passengers, local authorities and Passenger Transport Executives. Seen here is 185124 on the 1326 from Stalybridge railway station to Scarborough.

The start of the 1990s saw the arrival of new air conditioned diesel trains, more different liveries and the dawn of the Metrolink. On a sadder note for some enthusiasts, most signs of the 1960s – early 1980s British Rail was being phased out. Before long, the Rail Blue livery wouldn’t be the only thing to go. British Rail itself would follow. In our area, it seemed as if the Stockport to Stalybridge service and Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar would follow suit. Instead, the Stockport to Stalybridge service carried on, in spite of a 13,000 strong petition against its withdrawal. Following the petition, it would remain in operation – albeit once a week in one direction only!

In the early 1990s, it was rumoured that Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar would become a florist, or an anodyne Upper Crust/Pumpkin/Caffé Ritazza type venue. Its world famous reputation stopped that, but the Buffet Bar closed in May 1996. In January 1997, after being boarded up and attractively refurbished, it reopened with the late John Hesketh and Sylvia Wood its tenants, who also managed The Station on Warrington Street, Ashton-under-Lyne. The rest was Sociology…

In the greater scheme of things, the privatisation of British Rail would be implemented through the 1993 Transport Act. Some had speculated over BR being sold off as a plc with a shares issue; another suggestion was a 1990s version of The Big Four with latter day LMS and LNER franchises.

Instead, they opted for a system which was as decipherable as a 3-2-1 clue to the ordinary rail user. Services would be run by franchises subject to an initial bidding round (from 1995 – 1997), varying from five to fifteen years. Franchisees would pay a separate authority for use of the tracks. Trains would be owned by separate leasing companies. Engineering work would be taken over by subcontractors. The UK’s rail infrastructure, except for most railway stations would be owned by a separate public sector body. Franchisees would be subject to the terms and conditions bound by the Office of the Rail Regulator and OPRAF. Instead of being publicly accountable, The Mother of All Internal Markets would begin on the 01 April 1994.

As a shoo-in for this, each of British Rail’s sectors were reorganised into smaller regional profit centres. The Provincial Sector – known as Regional Railways from 1990 – would be split into North West and North East versions for northern passengers. Our trans-Pennine routes would come under Regional Railways North East, whereas the local services in our area, would be part of North West Regional Railways. InterCity was split into Cross Country, Great Western, East Coast, West Coast and Midland Main Line operations.

In spite of the organisational chaos, we saw (you’ve guessed it!) more livery changes. GMPTE changed their livery to a handsome light grey and black number with a red and white band below the windows (which looked well on Sprinters and slam-door Class 304s alike). BR’s new version of the Regional Railways livery was more subtle than the one used in the mid 1980s on local trains (which also looked well on the Class 101s as well as the Sprinters).

1993 saw the opening of Manchester Airport’s new railway station. Some Transpennine Express services were extended to serve the new two platform terminus. Crewe trains too were diverted, with more avoiding Styal in favour of Ringway’s new addition. Two years on, we saw the closure of three railway stations in our area. Godley East (formerly Godley Junction) closed, owing to the proximity of Godley station. Miles Platting and Park were the other two. All three stations by 1994 were served by limited peak hour journeys.

Towards Privatisation

1994 saw the start of Britain’s railways under the privatised structure. Prior to being taken over by private operators, passenger and goods operators would be part of British Rail for the interim. Freight was split into five different companies: Loadhaul, Transrail and Mainline, Railfreight Distribution and Freightliner. The travelling Post Office would come under the aegis of Rail Express Systems. Red Star Parcels (BR’s premium priced rail based parcels operation) was sold to its staff for a £1. Gradually, they ditched Red Star’s unique selling point for a more conventional road based operation, before selling it to Lynx. By 1994, Stalybridge also lost Tameside’s only Red Star Parcels point.

The first franchising round was completed by April 1997 – a month before that year’s General Election. Regional Railways North East’s franchise was awarded to MTL Holdings for seven years and one month. Ex-BR managers at Great Western Holdings won the North West Regional Railways franchise, again for a seven year and one month term. The head of the operation was Brian Scott, who began his railway career as a ticket clerk at Hyde Central station.

Part of the NWRR bid included new trains for the Blackpool North and North Wales services. In 1997, the latter route was operated with Class 158 Express units or Class 37s with a rake of six Mark 1 or Mark 2 carriages. The Class 175 units were built by GEC-Alstom’s Washwood Heath works, Birmingham. It seemed as if little had changed from the early 1990s. Apart from – you’ve guessed it – more liveries! North Western Trains (as the NWRR franchise became known) opted for a dark blue livery with gold stars. In 1998, MTL Holdings’ Regional Railways North East operation rebranded themselves as Northern Spirit. They had two liveries: maroon and gold for TransPennine Express services, and green and sky blue for local routes. The most dominant part was an italicised ‘N’, either in gold or green.

On North Western Trains’ operations, everything in its first year seemed like a honeymoon. A new Rochdale to London Euston service was introduced along with a further service to London from Manchester Airport station (using Class 322 EMUs). New electric trains would be seen on the Manchester Piccadilly to Glossop/Hadfield route (though these new trains were slated for 1993 introduction – delayed by lengthy safety case testing and financial problems by builders Hunslet TPL).

As with all honeymoons, North Western Trains’ was short lived. March 1998 saw Great Western Holdings taken over by FirstGroup. Anathema to Great Western Holdings’ expansionist approach, FirstGroup set out to cut costs. Firstly, NWT’s train order for 100mph DMUs were cut. Secondly, the London Euston service saw its cheap fares raised by about 120%! By 1999, Rochdale’s link with London Euston was over. Known as First North Western it was, for our local services, more of the same, only more expensive.

But, more of the same wouldn’t last forever. A nightmare Summer of 1998 saw a lot of cancellations on First North Western’s trains, with staffing levels as well as maintenance the problem. So much so that the Manchester Evening News petitioned for a ‘rail refund’ in its Leader Comment. It caused much havoc with GMPTE, who were bombarded with complaints by angry commuters. The high water mark of that summer’s rail chaos was a week long cancellation of services along the Oldham – Rochdale Loop Line, which they claimed was ‘closed’ to allow the Metrolink contractors to take possession. These were secondary to the rail replacement buses introduced to allow resignalling work to take place along Miles Platting and Victoria. Commuters actually claimed that the rail replacement buses kept to the schedules better than First North Western’s trains did.

In February 2000, MTL Holdings sold out to Arriva, affecting their Merseyside bus operations and Merseyrail Electrics franchise along with Northern Spirit. In almost indecent ease, the Arriva logo and its cow horn livery appeared. The following year saw more rail related omnishambles. First, Arriva Trains Northern staff went on strike which disrupted its normal timetable so much that the temporary timetable was more or less a permanent one. Secondly, Stalybridge lost its TransPennine service to Scarborough and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Instead, passengers were ‘treated’ to an hourly service between Manchester Piccadilly and Leeds, with eastbound trains continuing to Bridlington from Manchester Airport, and return trains starting at Leeds, terminating at Manchester Piccadilly. Passengers to and from Bridlington to Stalybridge would have had to change at Hull, then Leeds, to make a journey which was direct in the westbound direction.

As a result, Arriva Trains Northern were about as popular in Stalybridge as a paedophile at a Peppa Pig gig. The then MP James Purnell fought to restore the town’s lost links. In the December 2004 timetable, they were, and Stalybridge passengers were able to travel to Oxford Road or Scarborough without changing trains. Elsewhere, First North Western tried to make economies at its staffed stations. There was plans to reduce the number of staff at Stalybridge railway station to just two, with the station unstaffed at evenings.

By the second franchising round, there was relief for Stalybridge passengers as Arriva Trains Northern lost its RRNE franchise. In December 2004, the Regional Railways North East and North West Regional Railways local franchises were merged to become a new Northern franchise. Trains to Wales from Manchester Piccadilly would be taken over by Arriva Trains Wales. Trans-Pennine services were spun off into a new Inter-City/Regional Express type franchise.

The Transpennine Express franchise was won by FirstGroup and Keolis. Though they began the year with cast-off Class 158 units from Arriva Trains Northern and Central Trains, they would end the noughties with a fleet of new trains, and boost passengers numbers.

The Northern franchise was won by Serco and NedRail. They inherited the cast offs of the other operators’ cast offs as well as a variety of liveries. Before adopting a livery of their own, there was liveries from both Arriva, FirstGroup, Great Western Holdings, plus Merseytravel, Metro West Yorkshire and NEXUS PTEs’ liveries. The recent Class 175 order from First North Western was shifted to Arriva Trains Wales, where they were deployed on the Cardiff Central to Manchester Piccadilly services as well as the Llandudno service. Some worked with First/Keolis Transpennine Express on the Barrow-in-Furness and Windermere trains. They were awarded the original franchise for the same term as their predecessors (7 years, 1 month), though on a zero growth basis which meant no new trains. This is rail terms, would be the equivalent of Decca turning down The Beatles, as we will soon find out.

The Second Rail Renaissance?

In 2005, concerns over traffic saw a boost in popularity for rail travel throughout Greater Manchester. By 2010, patronage rose by 50 – 70%. The result of which was severe overcrowding on inadequate trains. The main culprit was Northern Rail’s Pacer units. They were built for lightly used services, which would save unprofitable routes from closure. Instead they were – and are still to this very day – tested to the limits on peak-hour commuter services. At one point, overcrowding was as high as 216% over capacity on the Manchester Victoria – Huddersfield local service.

By 2010, the Manchester Victoria – Huddersfield service operated twice hourly between Stalybridge and Manchester Victoria, with one per hour continuing to Liverpool Lime Street. The Wakefield Westgate link had ceased owing to problems with track paths. Stalybridge maintained her hourly Transpennine Express service with peak hour extras. Instead of contraction, expansion would be order of the day at Stalybridge, as the annual number of passengers reached the million mark there.

Northern Rail had improved the image of our local services thanks to Heidi Mottram’s tenure. Their antiquarian Sprinters and Pacers held their own against the Pendolinos, Voyagers and Desiros. Instead of trying to lure passengers onto their trains on the strength of rolling stock, they promoted the joys of Northern England, pretty much the same thing British Rail did several years earlier. They launched and promoted existing rover tickets. There was one initiative which spawned a monster, one which not only guaranteed good off-peak patronage, but also – in later years – kept the British Transport Police gainfully employed.

Thanks to television exposure of Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar, and the number of pubs along the Manchester Victoria – Huddersfield route, Northern Rail spawned the Rail Ale Trail. Real ale fanatics would probably visit one or more of the pubs. Some daring passengers would attempt to complete the set. In more recent times, this became a popular Stag Do activity. Saturday afternoons outside Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar are just as likely to include dozens of blokes in customised tee-shirts as well as real ale aficionados. Other initiatives include Folk Trains along the Hadfield and Hope Valley lines.

Even with fare increases, rail has remained a popular public transport for local journeys. Fares compare well with, or tend to be in most cases, cheaper than local bus fares. Special Evening Returns and Rover tickets have made the train a cheaper and faster option than local taxis. Free parking, has wooed car owning passengers to make part of their commute to work by train.

Though rail patronage has reached an 80 year high in the United Kingdom, there remains the threat of further rationalisation. The McNulty Report aims to cut costs by reducing the number of staffed stations. A similar plan which was scrapped – in the run-up to privatisation – entailed the reduction of staffed stations to just 300. McNulty’s Report – which the Tory-led Coalition Government endorses – could well be our 21st century answer to The Reshaping of British Railways. Let’s hope it isn’t.

Today, it is hard to imagine that Ashton-under-Lyne’s railway station would have been closed as per Beeching’s report. In its refurbished form, 400,000 or so tickets a year are sold to and from Ashton station. Following our recent weather, Buxtonians would have been cut off had the Buxton line been closed.

Though our fare rises are still above inflation, and that our trains are still overcrowded, we are in the midst of another Golden Age of the Railways in terms of passenger numbers. Even so, I doubt as if any of today’s younger generation would look at Transpennine Express or Northern Rail in 2050 with the same dewy eyes their parents or grandparents have had with British Rail, or the Grouping era companies.

*                         *                         *

Part Six: Conclusion

In the last part, we shall focus on how The Reshaping of British Railways and subsequent developments had an affect on our railways. Did Doctor Richard Beeching deserve to be the pantomime villain, or was it Ernest Marples, not least for hiring him in the first place? We shall see in our concluding part.

S.V., 29 March 2013.

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