A Crossrail for the North? Time to Be Bold

HS3 in any form may be good for Northern England, but the basics need to sorted out first.

Rail patronage is booming throughout the UK, in spite of repeated stories about rising fares and substandard rolling stock. Northern England, where the terms of Northern Rail’s original franchise stymied any growth forecast, has seen record rises in patronage. Some of which partly through subsidised local fares or through necessity on journeys hitherto covered by local bus routes.

As a result, rolling stock designed for light usage has been tested to the limits in the last decade. Northern Rail has some of Britain’s oldest trains in regular service, with its eldest vehicles dating from 1985. Some peak hour journeys have as little as two cars. Their Class 142 Pacer units are its most perverse examples, derived from the Leyland National single decker bus in Workington. They carry 110 seated passengers in its two car set and (in peak hours) a similar number stood up in the aisles, bicycle bays and doorways. If Satan was looking for Hell on Earth, he or she may be advised to try the peak hour service from Huddersfield to Manchester Victoria (no seats past Greenfield). On a Merseytravel PTE specification unit no less.

Thankfully, Northern England has seen new trains in the form of Transpennine Express’ Class 185 and 350 DMUs and EMUs. Some principal stations have been, or presently in the midst of being, upgraded. Since the start of rail privatisation, passengers have benefited from new waiting facilities in Huddersfield, Stalybridge and Ashton-under-Lyne.

The Northern Hub and Ordsall Curve, though hardly the heady heights of London’s Crossrail projects, and electrification projects, aims to close the gap between our fellows in London and South East England. Compared with the amount of spending they have enjoyed, it is trifling. Even so, it is a significant difference to the region’s rail network, though plans to electrify the Blackpool North route have been thought of for over three decades. The Transpennine Express service routes from Liverpool Lime Street to all points North East and Yorkshire aims to put the Trans-Pennine routes back to where it belongs: as an inter-city route. One which’ll be electrified up to York by 2018.

From 2018 onwards, this should only be a panacea towards a greater northern network. By then, Stalybridge, Huddersfield and Dewsbury should enjoy fully electrified services. Could the wires continue beyond York to Scarborough, or from Darlington to Saltburn? Will the dream of a fully electrified service throughout Northern England be a reality?

Contrary to the expansionism, the successors to Northern Rail and Transpennine Express could be forced to make cuts. The Department of Transport’s consultation document for future franchisees propose:

  • Driver Only Operation throughout the network;
  • Greater use of electronic ticketing systems in lieu of fewer ticket offices;
  • Splitting of the Liverpool Lime Street to Scarborough service at Leeds (where it could join Northern Rail’s Blackpool North service).

Of the 280 page document, the above points are only a small selection. Firstly, DOO could only be effective if:

  • All stations have CCTV systems and real time information;
  • All rolling stock was wheelchair friendly (which is certainly not true of the Pacer and Sprinter units);
  • Every station had 100% disabled access and platforms level with all rolling stock;
  • Service levels are every 15 minutes or better (ticket barriers could be considered at such railway stations).

Secondly, electronic ticketing systems discriminate against people unable to grapple with the technology. Smartphone ticketing could be an expensive option if he or she loses their mobile device or fails to charge it in good time. Ticket machines could be prone to failure or vandalism, which also inhibits the successful implementation of Driver Only Operation.

Thirdly, the recasting of services, particularly Liverpool Lime Street to Scarborough is consistent with an engineering led approach. Given that York to Scarborough may be diesel only in 2018, most of the present route mileage could be ‘under the wires’. Hence a plan to tack it onto Northern Rail’s Blackpool North to York service which only crosses the wires at Leeds. Likewise with the present services to Cleethorpes and Norwich, which could begin at Doncaster and Nottingham respectively.

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Getting the Basics Right

Before I begin, I shall elaborate on the DoT’s consultation in a future posting on East of the M60.

The recent work and works soon to come under the Northern Hub scheme are a worthy addition to Northern England’s rail network. In the long term, these notions ought to be considered:

1. Ditch the Pacers

In 1985, they were appropriate for the time when passenger loadings were below 2014 levels. Then came bus deregulation; confusion over operators and ticket validity saw passengers in PTE areas turn to British Rail. Even amidst a background of failing Pacer units and squeezed Sprinters. Even amidst an era where GMPTE threatened to withdraw its subsidy to BR’s Provincial Sector service affecting its 2.6 million inhabitants.

It is claimed that insufficient revenue is behind the retention of Northern’s rolling stock. How on earth does Northern Rail get its fare revenue if the trains are too packed for their conductor guards? Plus, the step entrance makes for difficult access for wheelchair users and families with buggies, where an external ramp is required. Furthermore, its basic two-car layout with sealed ends stymies scope for capacity. Hence the number of standees on a 110 seat unit in the rush hour, which stops people with buggies or heavy luggage, and wheelchair users from boarding.

It is important that Northern Rail’s successors should be able to replace (rather than refurbish) its Pacer units. In my view the sooner the better but so far, the time it has taken for Northern Rail to acquire additional rolling stock is slower than Iain Duncan-Smith’s timetable for Universal Credit (now that IS saying something).

2. Full disabled access at all stations

This is where the Metrolink has triumphed over some of Greater Manchester’s heavy rail stations. The 2005 Disability Discrimination Act has seen public transport added to its legislature and in spite of this, there is some stations within Northern England which lack these levels of accessibility. A fair number of which at present do not justify the extra spending required, owing to infrequent services (such as Reddish South and Teesside Airport).

3. Improved integration with local bus routes and other modes of transport

To allow for this, we need to encourage integration with other modes but at present, the wherewithal to connect local bus routes with rail services is lacking or discouraged. Free car parking instead of improved access to bus routes is seen as a greater priority.

4. Real time information in audio and visual formats at all stations

One of the worst things about using an unstaffed railway station is the paucity of information, beyond that of printed timetables. Sometimes, there may be a display board detailing the latest departures, though a lack of audio announcement which discriminates against visually impaired passengers. (Likewise with passengers hard of hearing who would welcome real time visual information).

The minimum any station should have for visual displays is a real time ‘next train’ board and remote speakers with audible announcements. With smartphones and mobile devices more commonplace, there is scope for users to gain real time information via QR codes.

5. Local concessions for disabled people and aged persons

At present, Transport for Greater Manchester’s concessionary scheme allows for free rail and tram travel within the TfGM area. On standard concessionary passes, after 0930 on weekdays, all day weekends and Bank Holidays (free at all times under the Concessionary Plus scheme). Owing to departmental cuts, some areas have reduced the rail concession or discontinued this altogether.

Funding should be made available to ensure local rail concessions in each person’s county of residence. In some cases the train is their lifeline, particularly so where local bus services are virtually nonexistent. Transport for Greater Manchester’s scheme is probably the fairest one at present. Even so, this was not without its detractors when flat fare rates were discontinued in favour of half fares.

6. Re-staff and refurbish Wakefield Kirkgate railway station

Compared with Wakefield Westgate, Kirkgate railway station seems to have been forgotten about for several years. At one time it had an overall roof and was one of the main stations of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. For a station which has trains every 10 minutes, six days a week, the lack of any staffed facilities is inexcusable. Toilets and refreshment facilities should be a must along with a ticket office.

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A Northern Crossrail?

Whereas I proposed a route more worthy of HS3 than Gideon’s token effort, these should be complemented by fundamental changes to Northern England’s rail network. Some of which in the confines of this piece can only be stated briefly, though with scope for elaboration at a later date on specific areas.

From over thirty years experience as a rail passenger (well, a slightly estranged relationship thanks to my noughties commuting exploits), I have noticed in my time:

  • How one city bigger than Manchester lacks a north-south route;
  • How another city bigger than Manchester needs its east-west links improving upon;
  • How unsuitable Sprinters and Pacers are for heavy commuting;
  • The need for a truly integrated bus/rail/tram/ferry system;
  • A need for High Speed Rail, complementing instead of competing with local and traditional inter-city services;
  • A need for improved north east/south west connections in Greater Manchester;
  • How almost every train other than my semi-usual Stalybridge to Huddersfield (all stations) route has superior rolling stock.

I think the city of Bradford has character, and love the place for its National Media Museum. Of late, it has fallen behind to Leeds and Manchester, possibly hampered by its SkyBet League Two standard railway connections. At present, Bradford has two modern railway stations, though these are rationalised modern day successors. Forster Square was closer to its square and had eight platforms. Bradford Interchange’s railway station stops short of the former railway bridge by St. George’s Hall which led to the closed Bradford Exchange (a commodious station with 10 platforms and a distinctive overall roof).

There has been numerous plans to link the two stations together, creating a north-south route. Potentially, there could have been an alternative route to Glasgow Central or Edinburgh Waverley via the Settle and Carlisle line avoiding Leeds City. Manchester city centre could have seen its commuter belt encroach onto Halifax and Guiseley via Bradford. Conversely, Bradford’s commuter belt could have encroached onto Oldham and Rochdale.

High Speed Rail should coordinate with instead of compete against conventional rail services. It should be part of the mix along with local services (rural local and urban commuter trains), regional express trains and conventional inter-city services. This is where are a Northern Crossrail system could be part of the mix.

How a possible Northern Crossrail system could work:

Extracts from the as yet unpublished A Day in the Life of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Crossrail: © EastOfTheM60 Press Ltd (Lower Ashton, 2041).

1. Bradford Crossrail

It’s 2040. HS2 is about three years old owing to project delays and nimbyism. Of all things, the L&Y Crossrail finished on time and to budget thanks to Rail North being part of Directly Operated Railways. Like the newly independent Scotland, Northern England runs its own trains with cooperation from metropolitan counties.

On the 15 September 2036, L&Y Crossrail was opened by Klay Rooney, the elected mayor for Greater Manchester Combined Authority, and Lord Gwynne of Debdale. The north’s Pacer units are preserved for posterity in the much expanded Manchester Museum of Science and Industry’s new Mode Wheel base.

After much deliberation, the city of Bradford finally got its north-south route, with its new railway station attracting shoppers to the Westfield Centre. Forster Square railway station was moved closer to its previous position. Bradford Interchange would also see occasional HS2 trains via the reopened Low Moor to Horbury and Horbury Curve lines. Healey Mills sidings would be home to Ossett Parkway, a conventional rail and HS2 interchange.

Bradford Crossrail would see the Wharfedale line services, starting at Ilkley and Skipton, extended to Manchester Victoria via Hebden Bridge and Rochdale. Leeds-bound trains from Rochdale would go via Brighouse and Dewsbury. Some Transpennine Express trains would avoid Dewsbury thanks to the reopening of the Leeds New Line from Cleckheaton, accessed via the Mirfield chord of the Horbury – Low Moor route.

Again, via the Low Moor to Horbury route, some services could continue to Sheffield or Doncaster via Wakefield Kirkgate, probably starting at Bradford Interchange or Ilkley.

2. Manchester Crossrail

Though Manchester’s north-south, east-west and north west-south east routes were all sorted out thanks to Northern Hub and the Ordsall Curve, the city’s north east-south west routes needed improvement. In 2014, a few minor obstacles stymied its development. One being the pathetic line speeds on the Brewery Sidings chord and connecting line to Ashburys. Another, the closure of its connecting chord from Ardwick. A third issue, the lack of a Manchester Piccadilly connection for Rochdalians.

By 2040, the people of Rochdale would no longer need to change at Market Street for a Piccadilly tram. Instead, the Manchester Oxford Road to Liverpool Lime Street all stations service would be extended to Rochdale, via Manchester Piccadilly, later calling at Moston, Mills Hill and Castleton prior to terminating at a new Manchester bay platform. On matchdays, an additional stop could be made at the Etihad Campus railway station accessed from Ashton New Road, or via a footpath from its Metrolink counterpart.

On the Standedge line, the present Trans-Pennine route could see express trains moved to the reopened Micklehurst Loop line. Stalybridge’s all stations service to Huddersfield could be upgraded to every half hour, in line with the service to Manchester Victoria some 36 years past. All stations electric trains could be extended to Leeds from Huddersfield, continuing to Wigan North Western. This via a newly electrified Atherton line, connecting with HS2 trains for Scotland.

Hadfield trains, thanks to electrification work on Stephenson’s Liverpool line, could continue to Warrington Bank Quay with stops at Eccles, Patricroft, Newton-le-Willows and Earlestown Junction. This could be enabled by the electrification of the Ashburys – Park line with some trains calling at Manchester Victoria or Manchester Piccadilly via a now quadrupled section up to Manchester Oxford Road.

As a consequence, some journeys from Rose Hill Marple could run as far as Clitheroe via the Ashburys – Park line before reaching Manchester Victoria, Bolton and Blackburn. Others could run as a tram-train into Manchester Victoria via Stockport, East Didsbury and the Second City Crossing. Access to Stockport is gained from a reopened chord at Bredbury, with the town’s Morrisons store demolished and relocated to allow this. Stops in Stockport include Merseyway, Stockport Interchange, Brinksway and Edgeley, and Heaton Mersey prior to reaching East Didsbury.

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Is This Tomorrow Calling?

Could a Crossrail system be a suitable elaboration on the present day Northern Hub, and if so, should this complement present day High Speed 2/High Speed 3 plan. Or should this be in place of HS2? Could through trains from Ilkley to Manchester via Bradford help to make the West Riding woollen city a powerhouse as part of a strong Northern England?

Over the last week, George Osborne’s announcement of a HS3 was seen as political posturing, to win a few Tory votes in what is mainly a Labour heartland. I thought so as well, lacking in real ambition. A plan which seemed to think Leeds and Manchester were the only cities in Northern England. Where were the radical improvements for the people of Wakefield, Liverpool, Kingston-upon-Hull and Sheffield? Where were the plans to make Liverpool, Sheffield, Chester and Preston 30 minutes away from Manchester as well as Leeds?

Whatever you think of the proposals, it is helping to place into our nation’s psyche that Northern England’s local trains are substandard in comparison with our fellows in London and South East England. Something which many northerners have known since The 1970s Bus Shelter Revolution and Paytrains reared their ugly heads. Even amidst Pendolinos, Voyagers, Desiros and Eurostars. Refurbished High Speed Train sets even.

Oh, and whoever wins Northern Rail’s franchise, could you please make sure they are obliged to add some new trains. Ideally enough to replace the Pacer units.

S.V., 26 June 2014.

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One thought on “A Crossrail for the North? Time to Be Bold

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  1. Wow! Extolling the benefits of privatisation and DOO! This article has clearly been written by someone with no experience of working on the railway and little knowledge concerning the industry. Both have represented disaster for Britain’s railways. Privatisation has gutted us, milking the increased government subsidy and hiving it off into shareholder pockets. DOO will leave our busy trains unsafe to travel on. What a load of nonsense!

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