Skipstopageddon: Reading Between the Lines on Tameside’s Train Torment

How an incomplete timetable – and more besides – have caused chaos for Tameside and Saddleworth rail passengers

Everything looks good on paper. Last month we looked at how radical changes to our train timetables would have affected Tameside and Saddleworth passengers. Our overall verdict was that the timetable was unfinished. We said it should have been enhanced with the retention of an hourly all-stations service. We also suggested that Stalybridge should have been given a stop on Transpennine Express’ service from Liverpool Lime Street to Newcastle Central.

Though our blog showed some concern and tried to glean some positives we underestimated the amount of ire it attracted. What we did underestimate was the collective ineptitude which led to the chaos. Not only on a local level; also across South East England and, in our case, Northern England.

More so than anything, the state of affairs across Northern England are exacerbated by northern’s driver shortage. Also its antiquated rolling stock; the lack of any rolling stock; the cancellations which make overcrowding worse. Also greatly extended journey times – to levels last seen in the Victorian era.

In our previous post, the most articulate comment came from Douglas, from SMART Rail (Slaithwaite and Marsden Action on Rail Transport). He also cited the loss of smooth cross-boundary commuting, which had been available to passengers on the stopping service since 1981. If you refer to the previous post, his comment in full is lengthy. His final paragraph scotches the myth of skip-stop being an answer to timekeeping issues:

“It was claimed that skip-stopping semi-fast trains would improve reliability. If the first ten days of the timetable are anything to go by, the reverse is true. TPE claimed at the public meeting two weeks ago that the new timetable would be more resilient than the old. So far it has been anything but, and a lot of passengers have deserted the trains.”

In this month’s Saddleworth Correspondent an article on the chaos stated how footfall has slumped at Greenfield station, in the first three days of the new timetable. Given the choice of 20 minutes in the car or bus, or 23 minutes on a train to Mossley (previously five minutes), you would go for the first two options.

Returning to Douglas’ comment, he said on the Transpennine Express improvements:

“All this because back in 2011 someone in the DfT thought that six trains an hour between Manchester and Leeds would look good on a press release, and they only discovered much later that there were places in between.”

That sounds about right. Here’s how it could have panned out at Network Rail’s timetable planning department:

Network Rail offices, sometime in 2011:

Chief Planner: I see your plan for six trains an hour between Leeds and Manchester (via Huddersfield) is commendable. A train every ten minutes… wow!

Junior Planner: Thanks Boss.

Junior Planner’s Colleague: I like it too. But I think you have missed something.

Junior Planner: Like what…? (The Junior Planner’s Colleague shows him a rail map between Leeds and Manchester station)

Junior Planner’s Colleague: Between Leeds and Huddersfield there are seven stations. You’ve only remembered one of them. (Planner points at Dewsbury) What about Ravensthorpe, Batley, Mirfield, Cottingley, and Morley?

Junior Planner’s Second Colleague: You’ve forgotten Stalybridge: how can you forget Stalybridge, home of the Buffet Bar? And Marsden, Mossley, Greenfield, and Slaithwaite. (The Junior Planner snatches the map).

Junior Planner: Right, here’s how it should work: four expresses per hour, two on a skip-stop basis. (The Junior Planner adds dots to Stalybridge on two lines. Then he adds Mossley, Slaithwaite, and Batley on one line).

Junior Planner’s Colleague: You’ve still forgotten Greenfield and Marsden – and Ravensthorpe.

Junior Planner: (Looking to his colleague) Just do your worst: add the other stations to the other line. (The Junior Planner’s Colleague places a few dots to mark the positions of Greenfield, Marsden, Deighton, Mirfield, Ravensthorpe, Batley, Morley, and Cottingley.)

(The Chief Planner looks at their efforts.)

Chief Planner: That looks fine. Do you really think the Trans-Pennine franchise holder should run the skip-stoppers?

Junior Planner: I think it should have been in the Northern franchise holder’s jurisdiction. But they’ve no trains.

Junior Planner’s Colleague: Neither have TPE. (pausing) Hold on a second: I have heard a little rumour that the Pacers could be heading to C.F. Booth’s yard before long. I also had a strange dream where I saw a Class 185 DMU in Marylebone station. In First/Keolis Transpennine Express livery. If this is true, we are stuffed.

Chief Planner: I don’t think you know what you’re doing. But, in the absence of anything else, it’ll do for now.

Mossley station, 29 May 2018

Overview of operations

On the 29 May 2018, the new timetable was nine days old. Its teething troubles should have been eradicated by then. Instead of being remembered for the 50th Anniversary of Manchester United’s first European Cup Final victory, it was a real nightmare for the railway network.

Of Mossley’s 47 trains, five of them were cancelled (29.82% of trains stopping at Mossley). Only one of them were operated by First Transpennine Express. The other four cancellations came from northern’s peak hour service. Among the cancellations was Transpennine Express’ last train of the day which serves both Manchester Victoria and Manchester Piccadilly stations via the Ordsall Curve.

Of the 42 trains which arrived at Mossley, only seventeen ran to time as per the Passenger Charter’s definition of on-time for provincial routes (five minutes late or less). This amounted to 33.04% of journeys. As for trains which ran to the Right Time figures, only three trains – or 9.64%.

Whereas driver problems accounted for northern’s woes, the bottleneck caused by the Ordsall Curve (and the lack of capacity at Piccadilly station) affected TPE’s figures. Besides the skip-stop services this led to a number of cancellations on their more express services.

Timetable comparisons

In addition to stifling cross-PTE boundary commuting, changes to this year’s timetable have uncovered a few home truths. From Mossley:

  • There were more all-stations trains between Manchester Victoria and Huddersfield in 1972 than on the present timetable;
  • Though journey times to Huddersfield have fallen from 26 (in 2016’s timetable) to 17 minutes, it also takes 17 minutes to get to Greenfield on most trains;
  • The 353 or 354 buses offer a faster way of getting to Greenfield than the train (based on boarding at The Commercial Hotel stop on Manchester Road).

Many of the comparisons are detailed in a little PDF document entitled Skipstopageddon which I have based this post on. All data has been carefully collated from Mossley’s timetable on the 29 May 2018, via Real Time Trains website.

Compared with the 1972-73 British Rail (Eastern Region) timetable, Mossley had far fewer trains than present. There was only four peak hour trains each way, compared with today’s total of 47 trains. In 1972 there was no Sunday service. Where the 1972-73 timetable surpassed today’s equivalent, is the fact that all Mossley trains terminated at Manchester Victoria. As they did until the 19 May of this year. Most of its trains began at Leeds with one starting at Hull Paragon.

From 1972 to 2016 there had only been modest improvements to journey times. Some were slower – 24 minutes to Manchester Victoria compared with 22 minutes in 1972. 26 minutes to Huddersfield in 2016 – compared with 23 in 1972.

For many journeys in 2018 (thanks to changes at Stalybridge or Huddersfield stations), considerably slower. Slow to a point where the two-hourly 354 bus service is a faster option (to Greenfield). Furthermore, the 350, 353, or 354 may be needed for a trip to Marsden (if you fancy changing at Greenfield station).

I Can’t Get No Trains to Ashton…

Has anyone lived long enough to remember another time where Mossley passengers had to change at Stalybridge for Ashton-under-Lyne trains on a regular basis? We think the last time this may have happened was shortly after the end of the First World War (any corrections are appreciated). Shortly before the LNWR’s takeover of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway company.

On the 29 May 2018, late running made the 350 bus a more competitive option between the two towns. Of the 151 trains that stopped at Stalybridge that Tuesday, 32 of them were cancelled. Most of those affected were northern’s trains to Manchester Victoria and Wigan. After 7pm, fifteen of their seventeen trains along that route were cancelled. Out of 32 cancellations from Stalybridge, 29 of them were northern’s journeys.

If I wanted to go to Ashton-under-Lyne (for the flea market), my journey by train that Tuesday would have been as follows:

  • 0947: Mossley – Stalybridge (arr. 0952);
  • 1000: Stalybridge – Ashton-under-Lyne (arr. 1004).

Journey time: 17 minutes.

Actual journey time (including delays): 21 minutes.

In 21 minutes I could have caught the 350 bus instead. If I lived in Top Mossley I could have caught the 1024 journey of South Pennine Community Transport’s X50 service. Their Tuesdays only service from Holmfirth (two return journeys) takes 9 minutes.

In reality, both trains were late. The 0947 arrived at Mossley eight minutes late (0955), arriving in Stalybridge by 10am. Strictly speaking, no connection. In reality, the Ashton train was four minutes late; great if your walking speed is akin to Usain Bolt’s.

Supposing I made a return journey at one-ish, this would have meant:

  • 1332: Ashton-under-Lyne – Stalybridge (arr. 1337);
  • 1359: Stalybridge – Mossley (arr. 1404).

Journey time: 32 minutes.

Actual journey time (including delays): 43 minutes.

I kid you not! Due to the connection times, there is a 22 minute gap between the two trains. In 22 minutes you can get from The Ash Tree to Top Mossley on a 350 bus. When they are at their best, a bus every 15 minutes. If you chose the 1332 from Ashton, you had a ‘neat’ 11 minute delay on top of your 22 minutes wait between trains.

Supposing we caught the X50 bus back (1320 from outside The Engine Room stop), in Top Mossley for 1329.

One wonders if the skip-stop times and station change is a form of nudge theory in practice. A nudge towards getting passengers from smaller stations onto buses or private cars. Which in the long term could see smaller stations being run down, leading to their closure.

The Human Factor

Unless you have spent the last fortnight in a cave with no internet access on the Outer Hebrides, you couldn’t get away from the problems affecting rail passengers in South East England and Northern England. In making such radical changes to May’s timetable, Network Rail haven’t only dismantled historic links. Livelihoods have been affected at professional and personal levels.

Where there has been driver shortages, a 45 minute journey due to the delays could have taken up to 3 hours. Some with a mix of more frequent changes and bus replacement services. This has meant less time to spend with children and more stress in the office. Given that the changes have fallen in the school holidays, a negative effect for leisure travellers. With the delays and cancellations, how many casual passengers have been put off in favour of using other modes or online shopping?

In Tameside and Saddleworth, the notion of this year’s timetable changes being the biggest since privatisation began is an understatement. The freedom of moving between Mossley and Marsden has been compromised for the first time since 1981. As timetable changes go, a journey pattern that has been established for over a century was ruined on the 20 May 2018. Since, at least the Victorian times (apart from a period from Summer 2001 to Winter 2004), Stalybridge has had regular direct trains to York and Liverpool Lime Street. Today, no more: just change at Huddersfield or Manchester Victoria.

So far in the last fortnight we have seen and heard many accounts of passengers threatening to bin the train. Besides refraining from renewing their season tickets, stories of leisure travellers taking to their cars. Potential passengers postponing any social functions or trips out.

Though commuter woes have set the news agenda there seems to be fewer column inches for the front line staff. Where’s the point of view from the guard’s or driver’s angle? Aren’t they affected by the timetable changes? What about mental health issues from both staff and passenger perspectives?

Technical issues

As we said before, many of Transpennine Express’ cancellations on the 29 May 2018 were due to bottlenecks on the Ordsall Curve. This ascertains my previous statement of May 2018 timetable being “a half-baked timetable fit for a half-baked electrification scheme”.

Half baked in the sense that the Trans-Pennine route hasn’t seen a single overhead line mast between Collyhurst (or Guide Bridge) and Leeds. Half baked in the sense they should have deferred the Ordsall Curve’s construction till we see another two platforms added to Manchester Piccadilly station. Plus the upgrading of Manchester Oxford Road station which should have been done pre-Curve.

Then there’s the PR-friendly six trains an hour between Manchester and Leeds via the Huddersfield route. Which has seen important local links decimated in favour of express links. Hence the Huddersfield to Leeds stopping service having half of the Huddersfield to Manchester stopper train; also with the Hull service having a few stations tacked onto what is laughably known as an express train.

Instead of six trains per hour, five per hour should have been the optimum level under present conditions. This in my view is what they should have done instead:

  • Liverpool Lime Street – Manchester Victoria – Stalybridge – Huddersfield – Leeds – York – Newcastle Central (also stopping at Lea Green, Ashton-under-Lyne, Dewsbury, Northallerton, Darlington, and Durham);
  • Liverpool Lime Street – Warrington Central – Manchester Piccadilly – Stalybridge – Huddersfield – Leeds – York – Scarborough/Middlesbrough (also stopping at Birchwood, Malton, and Seamer; Middlesbrough portion detached at York also stopping at Northallerton, Yarm, Darlington, and Thornaby);
  • Manchester Piccadilly – Stalybridge – Huddersfield – Leeds – Hull Paragon (also calling at Dewsbury and Selby);
  • Manchester Victoria – Huddersfield – Bradford Interchange (all stops);
  • Manchester Airport – Manchester Piccadilly – Huddersfield – Dewsbury – Leeds (Guide Bridge, Stalybridge, Marsden, and all stops to Leeds).

Platform 5 on Stalybridge station could be an eastern terminus for the Wigan Wallgate service as of now. The addition of Stalybridge and Ashton-under-Lyne to TPE’s Liverpool to Newcastle Central trains would eliminate the need for northern’s shuttle service. Which at present runs close to the path of TPE’s express train.

This week, two franchisees had an answer to improving reliability: cutbacks. Their reasons are due to driver shortages instead of improved reliability. Cutting the number of trains to improve reliability statistics is akin to massaging the unemployment figures. Like cutting the claim period from a year to six months for Contribution-based JSA in October 1996 (to cut short-term unemployment figures).

More pertinent to our neck of the woods, northern has taken 165 journeys out of their timetable. This has seen Stalybridge’s connection with Manchester Victoria halved from half-hourly to once-hourly. Which is no good for a trip to Liverpool. Their emergency timetable has also seen the replacement of Oxenholme – Windermere trains with buses.

Where next?

From the average passenger to the Mayor of Greater Manchester, the renationalisation of our railways, or more local control has been a common call. At this moment in time, more people would like to see a change of franchise rather than a change of government.

At present, the idea of a new franchise holder is a popular one. Whoever takes over from Arriva Rail North would still be bound to enact the Department for Transport’s pet policies. Its successors may be leaned on by Messrs Grayling and [Jo] Johnson to adopt Driver Only Operation. They may be forced to introduce more ticket barriers, or accept rolling stock that breaches the 2010 Equality Act. Whilst one set of rolling stock is being withdrawn for similar reasons on another franchisee’s patch.

FirstGroup, Arriva, Stagecoach, et al, as far as rail franchising is concerned are monkeys to the real organ grinders in central government. The Department for Transport, who has a say in the budgeting of major projects under Network Rail’s watch. The same people who have a significant input in seating design – to the chagrin of commuters and franchisees. The same people who have denied Transport for the North the powers it needs for improving Northern England’s rail network.

As for improving Stalybridge’s and Mossley’s trains, well you’ve got our friends at the DfT to blame. Not only under Theresa May’s term in office but also with New Labour. Let us not forget that First/Keolis Transpennine Express wanted 4-car Class 185s in 2004; instead they got three-car units, leading us to overcrowded skip-stoppers on the Huddersfield line. Under Alistair Darling’s watch – also the same year when the Metrolink’s Big Bang was cancelled (though thankfully reinstated in most part).

Also – and this has been mentioned several times before – the original terms of the Northern franchise handed to Serco/Abellio. A No Growth franchise which has led to the continued use of unsuitable rolling stock – against a backdrop of unprecedented growth. Which in the next five years could be reversed.

We could go on and conclude that everything is due to either the DfT, HM Government, Network Rail, or our franchisees. Collectively they share the blame, some in more ways than others.

Only a change of government could change our railways for the better. Our present company seems to be hellbent on making the railways accessible to the very rich. Don’t get me started on digital railways and bi-modes either.

S.V., 06 June 2018.

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