Outrage as staffing issues sees cessation of train services at Tameside railway station
Prior to seeing its franchise being taken over by the Department for Transport’s Operator of Last Resort, Arriva’s Northern operation was noted for its staffing issues. Tameside’s rail passengers were at the sharpest end of Arriva’s staffing issues, as Stalybridge to Manchester Victoria trains were cancelled and replaced by buses.
Before then, Northern guards went out on strike over concerns about Driver Only Operation. Thankfully, for the foreseeable future, DOO is dead in the water. During these strike days, Fairfield lost its rail service with passengers being advised to catch the 219 to Piccadilly Gardens. (Which, if you have a rail season ticket, is a big ask due to its inferior journey times and additional expense, unless you buy a CountyCard).
Shortly after Northern’s nationalisation, we could be forgiven for thinking that everything would be rosy for Northern’s beleaguered rail passengers. In the last four months, reliability and punctuality has improved dramatically. The back story behind its improved performance is a pandemic and – due to reduced demand for trains as a consequence – service cuts.
For some passengers, Northern’s unreliability was almost a good advert for car ownership and taking up driving lessons. Then came the small matter of a pandemic. One that was grossly underestimated as a flu like virus, though turned out to have claimed the lives of nearly 60,000 Britons. With regular rail passengers most likely to work in offices, day-to-day tasks can be done from home. The straw that broke the camel’s back was broadband access and Zoom.
From the 23 March, anybody who could work from home was encouraged to work from home. Bus and train frequencies were cut to Sunday service levels at best. In the last month, we have been encouraged to return to work, subject to social distancing measures. Local Education Authorities and Academy Trusts have also been chivvied by central government to reopen their schools in September. It is assumed that ‘significant normality’ will be place come November.
Meanwhile, outside the Trough…
The Tories’ Significant Normality – expected to arrive in December – will not be calling at all Tameside stations by then. From September (in the words of Rod Stewart) we really should be back at school. Or work.
If you travel from Fairfield, Hyde North, Hyde Central or Woodley stations, working from home may be a viable option till next year. In a letter sent to Denton and Reddish MP Andrew Gwynne, Northern announced the temporary withdrawal of its Manchester Piccadilly – Guide Bridge – Rose Hill Marple service. From the beginning of September up to the middle of December 2020, Hyde Central, Woodley, Hyde North and Fairfield stations will be closed. Mothballed. Without consultation with passenger groups.
In the letter, it states that passengers could use alternative services between Guide Bridge and Godley stations. The biggest pain in the proverbials is the lack of bus replacement services from Fairfield to Rose Hill Marple. Fairfield passengers can take a peak hour 219 or 221 to Piccadilly Gardens. Passengers continuing east of Guide Bridge are in a much worse position: travel to Hyde means changing at Godley and transferring onto a 201 bus.
If you travel by train from Hyde to Marple and have no alternative means of transport, you will either be stranded or see a substantial increase in your journey times. The severance of Hyde’s Marple link on the 389 route in 2008 (weekdays and Saturdays) and 2009 (Sundays and Bank Holidays) means a change of mode in Bredbury. A case of taking a 330 down to Bredbury then changing to a New Mills Central train. The result would be more traffic chaos on Stockport Road and missed connections.
Northern’s Regional Director Chris Jackson said: “It will not be possible for us to restore service levels to pre COVID levels for some time due to the number of colleagues who are classified as vulnerable; the amount of training still to be completed on both our new trains/Class 769 fleet and the natural attrition of operational staff (with their replacements still to be trained).
“Like other train operators, we paused all training where social distancing could not be maintained from the start of the pandemic. This has affected our training pipeline for drivers in particular; and we are currently working with our trade union colleagues at a local and national level to risk assess how we can safely switch this training back on.”
The problem is, his statement wouldn’t wash with the Rose Hill Marple line’s regular clientele. Some of them have survived overcrowded and soggy Pacer units, that have been reinstated to allow for social distancing. Passengers paying for an annual rail season ticket wouldn’t want to take the bus; they’ll drive all the way to their destination instead – or work from home.
Northern’s move isn’t an unprecedented one in the Tameside area. Shortly after the lockdown was announced, Ashton-under-Lyne lost its train services for three months. This denied its passengers a world-beating 10 minute link with Manchester Victoria station. Before nationalisation, the StalyVegas Shuttle was at the sharp end of Northern’s Sunday bustitution programme.
For the sake of those passengers travelling between Fairfield and Rose Hill Marple, the least that Northern could have done (as DfT Operator of Last Resort) was lay on a bus replacement service. What difference would it have made if Fairfield was an additional stop on the Glossop/Hadfield line trains? Back when Class 506s ruled the roost, that was the case 45 years ago as seen in British Rail’s 1975 timetable – and Greater Manchester Transport’s Central Area timetable.
On one hand, we are given a perception of the Department for Transport spending money on Trans-Pennine electrification. On the other hand, we see a DfT that seems to be giving us a 1960s revival of service cuts and (dare I say it) station closures on less glamorous routes.
How temporary is temporary?
If the letter is to believed, the temporary mothballing of Rose Hill Marple services via Guide Bridge is expected to last three months. Quite rightly, we need to hold them to that as ‘temporary’ in British rail operations speak could vary.
A recent precedent is the ‘temporary’ closure of Norton Bridge and the suspension of local services between Stafford and Stoke-on-Trent. Due to engineering works, the local service which called at Barlaston, Wedgwood, Stone and Norton Bridge stations was replaced by a bus replacement service in 2004. This lasted till 2017, following a consultation on its withdrawal the previous year. After ceasing to be part of the rail timetable, it continued as a bog-standard bus route till March 2019.
Whereas Stone, Barlaston and Wedgwood stations stayed open, Norton Bridge was formally closed in 2017 following 2016’s consultation. Could Fairfield follow suit in 2033?
In 2006, this nearly happened to Fairfield station. It was one of three Greater Manchester railway stations proposed for closure (the other two were Ardwick and Clifton). Whereas Ardwick and Clifton had (and still has) peak hour trains, Fairfield would have been a bigger loss. Especially so given recent housing development, proximity to the M60 motorway and potential for cycle connections.
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Fairfield station is in great need of investment. Other than Denton and Hyde North stations, it seems to be the poorest relation of Tameside’s railway stations. It doesn’t have real time information screens nor access for wheelchair users. At one time, it had six platforms and a junction with the Fallowfield Loop Line. Unlike many unstaffed stations, it lacks a ticket vending machine and CCTV cameras. Yet the space for accessible ramps on both Manchester and Marple platforms is plentiful.
Whether during a lockdown or otherwise, running it down for eventual closure should be out of question. After the three-month furloughing of services, confidence in the station’s already derisory service provision will be stifled even more. The station has potential for interchanging facilities with cyclists using the Fallowfield Loop cycleway. It could form part of a Tameside cycleway into Hollinwood, via Droylsden, Littlemoss and Crime Lake – along the Fairbottom Branch Canal towpath for part of its route.
What are your opinions on Northern’s furloughing of the Rose Hill Marple to Manchester Piccadilly service via Guide Bridge? Is there a case for Metrolink conversion or the restoration of the 389’s Marple link? Will you be working from home into the New Year? Feel free to comment.
S.V., 24 July 2020.