How would Our Prospectus For Rail boost heavy rail and light rail journeys in Tameside?
Make no bones about it: Manchester is a UEFA Champions League city with EFL Division 2 rail services. In spite of Northern’s introduction of new trains on the Manchester Airport to Barrow-in-Furness route, it can do a lot better.
In some parts of our city region, our EFL Division 2 rail service is at North West Counties League Premier Division level. Particularly on the Huddersfield line. There are children in Mossley that have never seen a train at Mossley railway station ever leave on time. There are entire generations that haven’t caught a train from Ashton-under-Lyne station on a Sunday due to the scourge of Bustitution. (Which, kiddies, is a polite way of saying the franchisee couldn’t be bothered running trains on a given day).
I may be exaggerating a little, but the city that gave birth to modern-day mixed-traffic rail operation has a rail service that should be in special measures. Greater Manchester’s special measures wont come in the form of an unaccountable Academy Group taking over its operations. They come in the form of The Mayor of Greater Manchester’s sparkly Our Prospectus For Rail.
In short, it aims to double daily rail passenger numbers in our City Region to 200,000 by 2040. Like Merseyrail Electrics in Merseyside, Greater Manchester could have its own franchise – similar to German-style S-Bahn undertakings. Part of the plan includes simplified ticketing, which may include the integration of Metrolink’s zonal fares into local rail services and, in future years, franchised bus operation.
Since 1972, Transport for Greater Manchester and its predecessors (SELNEC PTE, GMPTE, GMITA) have had powers to promote and support socially necessary rail services under The 1968 Transport Act. They were the first Passenger Transport Executive to use such powers. Back then, rail services were in a terrible state: there was three different electrical systems in use – two on the present-day Altrincham – Bury Metrolink line alone. The Hadfield line had an overhead DC supply, at odds with the 25kV AC standard on the Inter-City routes to London Euston.
Also, in 1972, frequencies were nowhere near as advanced as in 2019. Mossley only had peak hour trains on weekdays. Bury trains, using a third rail system, only operated every half hour (compared with a tram every six minutes). The Oldham-Rochdale Loop and Stockport-Stalybridge lines were under threat of closure.
Today, the rail network is bursting at the seams due to great expansion in the early noughties. Greater Manchester is still paying for the no-growth clause in Alistair Darling’s first Northern franchise. Even with the addition of new trains in its next franchising round by Patrick McLoughlin, the scars are still there. The whole system needs investment; the Pacer units that were inadequate in 2006 are even more so in 2019. There are still too many stations in Greater Manchester that are devoid of access for wheelchair users and mobility-impaired passengers.
The other elephant in the room is a lack of local control. Greater Manchester’s trains have been disproportionately affected by Northern’s weekend staffing compared with their peers on the other side of the Pennines. The Castlefield Curve – thanks largely to the omission of a fifteenth and a sixteenth platform – has gravely affected Transpennine Express’ operations. Recent changes to Huddersfield Line operations have resulted in more traffic jams and greater use of taxis, thanks to the chaotic skip-stop service.
In Mossley, its passengers have been worst hit, with its station having the worst punctuality and reliability statistics in the UK. Shortly after the skip-stop service was introduced, FirstGroup’s other operation in pneumatic tyre form cut the town’s 350 service from six buses per hour to four buses per hour in the daytime. A foolhardy approach given their direct rail link with Ashton-under-Lyne was withdrawn in May 2018. Which also emphasises the need for local control across all modes of public transport.
Our Prospectus For Rail
In the short to medium term, the prospectus proposes improved capacity on the Huddersfield line. At present, there are six passenger trains per hour during the daytime. Two of which, the skip-stoppers, use Manchester Piccadilly station instead of Manchester Victoria. The plan suggests lengthening platforms to accommodate eight-car trains. Right now, such work is taking place on the Hadfield line.
It also suggests reshaping present franchises in advance of a future GM Rail franchise. Also mentioned is a possible pilot for tram-train technology. The self-contained nature of the Hadfield line south of Hyde Junction makes that route a possible candidate.
In the longer term, plans include the successful delivery of HS2 and NPR (Northern Powerhouse Rail), and the creation of GM Rail. The GM Rail franchise will operate all services within the conurbation. This could include all Stalybridge trains via Manchester Victoria (the shuttle service and its sister route to Wigan North Western). Also the entire Hadfield line, local trains to Rose Hill Marple, and trains to Wigan Wallgate along the Atherton line.
By 2035, most of Tameside’s local trains may come under the GM Rail franchise. Some may be using tram-trains which, potentially, could allow for a tram-train from Glossop to Eccles or the intu Trafford Centre. It is also envisaged that Northern’s Random Unit Generator may be a thing of the past, with a policy of rolling stock standardisation.
The prospectus has identified four areas of focus:
- Making best use of what is available now;
- Delivering more capacity and better connectivity;
- A devolved and accountable rail-based network;
- Integrated travel between all modes.
1. Making best use of what is available now: In a Tameside context, what does this mean? For the first point, improving access to the borough’s railway stations, whether at the station or on the bus to the station. Stalybridge station has full disabled access and lifts. Ashton-under-Lyne station has ramped access and a lift, but the lift seldom works. Hattersley has ramped access but minimal staff numbers and its exposed position makes it unattractive to some passengers.
Guide Bridge is a mess. I miss the long demolished brick buildings on the station’s Audenshaw side, but accessibility is patchy. If you are travelling by car, fine for Manchester trains. By bus, better for Glossop or Rose Hill Marple. If you are a wheelchair user, access is a long winded affair: you need to wheel your way to the ticket office on the Manchester platform, then move across Guide Lane to the station’s accessible entrance (down a driveway). The case for reinstating the station’s footbridge, with the addition of lifts to each platform is a must.
As for Mossley, Hyde North, Broadbottom, Hyde Central, Newton, Godley, Flowery Field and Fairfield stations, wheelchair access is virtually non-existent. At Mossley, only possible on the Manchester platform. From Hyde North, ditto the above. At Hyde Central, there is none whatsoever unless you are willing to negotiate a steep ramp for the Marple train. Broadbottom is fine for Glossop trains, but a trip to Manchester means staying on the train to Glossop and Hadfield before getting to Manchester Piccadilly.
Fairfield and Newton stations have no wheelchair access, whereas Godley and Flowery Field stations have stepped ramps. Which are also unsuitable for wheelchairs, buggies and walking frames.
Under the first point, access for wheelchair users and mobility-impaired passengers should be a must. That as well as improving punctuality and reliability, and standardising rolling stock.
2. Delivering more capacity and better connectivity: for Tameside rail users, this includes proposed upgrades for the Trans-Pennine rail route. It recommends the full electrification of the route and the upgrading of stations along the way. This is a major priority for Mossley and Greenfield stations which badly need access for wheelchair users and improved services.
The prospectus also points towards a possible extension of the Metrolink to Stalybridge. Some space has been made on the forecourt of Ashton-under-Lyne’s new bus station for this. As yet, no route has been suggested, though it is assumed that Stamford Street may be a likely thoroughfare. Nor the possibility of intermediate stops (Tameside College outside the Beaconsfield Club and Stamford Park could be favourites).
The most exciting part under TfGM’s second area of focus entails an upgrade for the Stockport – Stalybridge line. Ever since East of the M60 came into being, there has been talk of a possible Stockport – Manchester Victoria service via Reddish South and Denton. Whether heavy rail, tram or tram-train, the map identifies the two stations as candidates for upgrading.
Along the Hadfield line, two new stations are proposed. One is proposed for Gamesley, an absolute must being as the village hasn’t had a direct bus link with central Manchester for over a decade. The second station, Dewsnap, could be Dukinfield’s first railway station since 1959.
Whereas Dukinfield’s previous station was off Wharf Street, Dewsnap may be accessed from White Bridge. We think TfGM and Network Rail might favour a two platform station with an island platform and ramp access. Parking may be limited. With its junction status, it could potentially offer direct links with Marple and Glossop – either by heavy rail or tram-train rolling stock.
3. A devolved and accountable rail-based network: Tameside is served by two rail franchisees: First Transpennine Express and Northern. The former has taken over the Huddersfield line routes, severing Mossley’s direct links with Manchester Victoria and Ashton-under-Lyne railway stations. Northern, on the other hand, runs most of the borough’s trains including the Hadfield and Rose Hill services and the StalyVegas Shuttle (which is the last preserve of the outgoing Pacer units).
Both franchisees are answerable to TfGM, the Department for Transport, and Transport for the North. With Northern having the largest footprint of the UK’s franchised rail network, decision making can be remote. What might be suitable rolling stock for Thornaby at 6pm on a Monday night may be inadequate for Stalybridge at that time.
With these issues, the Williams Review came into being. This advocated city-region level devolution of railway undertakings. Similar schemes are the norm in Mainland Europe where German-style S-Bahn services complement inter-city expresses. Through ticketing with other suburban transport modes is available, allowing you to go from A to B by S-Bahn, U-Bahn, tram or bus.
The key to this is GM Rail. In the prospectus, we see a mock-up of a Class 323 EMU in a grey and yellow livery on platform 14 of Manchester Piccadilly station. The grey is close to TfGM’s house colours whereas the yellow end is used for safety as well as meaning ‘rail based transport’ (like the Metrolink trams).
Its aim is to ensure that South East England style eight-car trains become the norm. Also that of Metrolink-style (or near-Metrolink-style) frequencies at ‘turn-up-and-go’ intervals.
At present, Tameside’s rail network is far from that vision. In Mossley, it is a case of “go-and-it-doesn’t-turn-up-at-all” intervals. The Hadfield line’s half hourly service is akin to frequencies from Stalybridge to Manchester Victoria, though with better rolling stock. On the StalyVegas shuttle and the Rose Hill trains, 30+ year old Sprinter and Pacer diesel units are the rule.
From Hyde North and Fairfield, trains are only once hourly. Worse, there are no trains to Marple after 7pm. That alone should have been a case for retaining the 389’s full time Marple link in 2002. As for Stalybridge’s Transpennine Express trains, cancelled services have made inter-city travel less attractive. All the more so since May 2018’s timetable changes severed the borough’s direct links with Liverpool, Warrington, York and Scarborough.
First and foremost under its third area of focus is improving customer relations. Anyone who has had the joy or misfortune of peak hour train travel knows that unreliable trains have a draining effect on your wellbeing. Family life and trips out can be ruined by delays and cancellations. Before travelling to your office, college, factory, or university, any delay could affect your performance in the workplace or classroom.
By improving the customer experience, this could mean little things like hiring less narky ticket barrier staff, or improved real time information displays. Maybe better seating. Also improved signage and connections with other modes of transport.
As detailed in an earlier Transport for Greater Manchester prospectus, Action Stations, it supports the transfer of most of Greater Manchester’s railway stations to TfGM control. Objectives 3, 4, and 5 support placing the railway station as part of a community hub. That (under Objective 3), commercial returns could come from using part of the station as, for example, a convenience store.
Objective 4 entails “delivering regeneration through unlocking development land and onsite opportunities”. Much of this has already been done under the British Rail era. In Tameside, the area around Hattersley station (which itself is due for redevelopment) has potential for being a high quality gateway to the estate. The area around the station forecourt has potential for small business office space and a convenience store to serve residents and employees. There is scope for another entrance for the Godley Green ‘garden village’ development.
Objective 5, “engendering a sense of community ownership of stations,” focuses on the community role of a railway station. Potentially, the former station building and pub in Broadbottom, could be a good place for a community-run café or, as we said in our look at TfGM’s Action Stations report, offices.
4. Integrated travel between all modes: the compact nature of Tameside, particularly its distance between towns should make our borough attractive for short journeys on public transport. If you wish to travel from Stalybridge to Mossley, there is no sufficient reason as to why a passenger should be penalised for changing modes. As the 343, 353 and 354 routes no longer have evening journeys, our bus passenger would have to take a train after 6pm. S/he would pay two single fares as it isn’t worth buying an Any Bus and Train day saver for such a short journey.
Key to the fourth area of focus is integrated fares. If our Mossley passenger travelled a similar distance in London (i.e.: Camden Town to Russell Square), s/he could use an Oyster Card. On the tube as well as a Transport for London franchised bus route. In Greater Manchester, this could mean integrating bus, train and tram fares under the Metrolink’s zonal network.
A critical part of any journey is the “first and last mile” to and from your desired station or stop. In Tameside, many “first and last mile” journeys to railway stations are taken in taxis or private cars. Due to, for example, the shortcomings of the 343 service (two hourly frequency on Sundays and no evening service), Uber or Tameside Taxis is the only way of getting from Dukinfield to Stalybridge or Flowery Field stations. On the other hand, service frequencies, plus punctuality and reliability of bus services, may stymie rail connections (hence the taxi or lift to the station coming out on top).
As well as integrating fares, a substantial upgrading of local bus services is necessary to the success of Our Network. Especially where there is no space for car parking other than a lay-by for picking up and dropping off (Flowery Field is a classic case in point).
Besides being good for private hire companies, Tameside’s compact nature is good for cyclists. Our canal towpaths make for effective cycleways, as does the linear park along the former Park Bridge line. With the aim of boosting Greater Manchester’s cycle network, one short to medium term deliverable is the Bee Network. As stated on the TfGM website by Chris Boardman, there is a fifteen step plan towards an 1,800 mile cycling and walking network.
The final part of Our Prospectus for Rail is the all-important delivery timeline. First of all is its aim to offer integrated fares and multimodal ticketing. This is followed by plans to reshape National Rail franchise services. By 2035, we should expect to see a High-Capacity Metro System with a Picc-Vic Project style metro tunnel.
In between this, forthcoming deliverables (in that order) will include:
- The delivery of committed infrastructure improvements: hopefully the construction of Platforms 15 and 16 at Manchester Piccadilly station.
- The formation of GM Rail: whether in silver and yellow or orange and brown, Merseyrail Electrics style local control will benefit Tameside and the other Metropolitan Boroughs that make up the City Region.
- Longer Trains: if you have tried commuting from Manchester Victoria to Stalybridge on a two-car Pacer unit in the PM peak, they cannot come soon enough.
- Tram-Train testing: the possibility of tram-train services which use the 25kV a.c. and 750V d.c. overhead supplies over Metrolink and Network Rail metals.
- Turn-up-and-go frequencies: the success of Greater Manchester’s Metrolink system is based upon this maxim. With an upgraded bus network to boot, that could be the cherry on top of the allegorical Bakewell Tart. On trains as well as tram-train services.
- The construction of the HS2 and NPR schemes: constructing the former will improve the accessibility of Manchester Airport with Manchester city centre, by means of new stations.
- More frequent trains on key corridors: the conversion of the Hadfield and Rose Hill lines to tram-train could see the cascading of electric trains to, for example, South Manchester commuter services. Or, if the Trans-Pennine electrification work is ever completed, local services from Stalybridge. Whether heavy rail or tram-train, Metrolink style frequencies could be the norm.
Our Prospectus For Rail offers a clear, accessible vision for Greater Manchester’s rail network in 2040. Many of the plans (thanks to the government’s inertia) should have been done years ago. Hence the reliability problems that our franchisees and its hapless passengers face.
The plans build on some existing projects, particularly the Bee Network and the Mayor of Greater Manchester’s powers to regulate the bus network. I am happy to see that first and last mile journeys haven’t been ignored.
Reading between the lines, its model for bus/rail/tram integration is similar to Tyne and Wear PTE’s methods in the early 1980s. That of the bus being a conveyor towards Tyne and Wear Metro stops. Also with transferable ticketing for single and return journeys (whether by bus, train and tram). Though the coordination has ceased due to the free market model of bus deregulation, Tyne and Wear passengers make more journeys per head on public transport outside London.
All of this thanks to clear multimodal ticketing. A journey from Cullercoats to Bede may be taken by bus, the Shields Ferry and the Metro on a single ticket. Without a penalty for changing modes on a NEXUS Pop Card.
For Tameside, the improvement works to the borough’s railways is a long time coming. The opening of a new station in Dukinfield will be a godsend, especially as travelling to Manchester means changing at Ashton or Stalybridge outside the weekday peaks. Any improvements to the Stockport-Stalybridge line is a welcome development.
The success of Transport for Greater Manchester’s and the Office of the Mayor of Greater Manchester’s proposals depends on three things. One of them is funding, another is the wherewithal of central government. The third and final one is the successful integration of ‘first and last mile’ travel modes. We hope this gets off the ground.
S.V., 26 September 2019.