The North of England’s slowest inter-city train route may surprise you

Once upon a time, 33 years ago, a famous female singer made a real comeback with the song If I Can Turn Back Time. Though 1987’s I Found Someone marked her return to the singles charts, it was the former song that made a greater impact. By 1991, thanks to the film Mermaids, her cover of The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss), she reached the top spot.

During Cher’s rise up the singles chart, Britain’s railways was in a state of transition. British Rail swapped Robert Reid for Robert Reid (in other words, Robert Basil Reid for Bob Reid). The InterCity sector started operated without a subsidy from HM Treasury. Regional Railways became a swish new identity for BR’s Provincial Sector. Locally, Stalybridge station’s buffet bar was under threat of closure with rumours of it becoming a florist; the Stockport to Stalybridge service was cut to three return journeys a day – still an improvement on the Saturdays Only return journey we see today.

Today, due to the pace of rail investment south of Watford, Northern English commuters are partying like its 1989 when their trains do eventually arrive. The North’s oldest trains are Merseyrail Electrics’ Class 508s (1978 vintage), but Merseyrail’s mainly self contained infrastructure means their trains are more reliable than the StalyVegas Shuttle from Manchester Victoria station.

With the Class 508s being replaced soon, the North of England’s oldest trains in revenue earning service will be Transport for Wales’ Vivarail Class 230 DMUs on the Wrexham Central to Bidston line. Though retrofitted with modern day creature comforts, the units are ex-District Line D78 trains. My experience of their third rail siblings on the Isle of Wight was a pretty good yet uneventful one.

Elsewhere, Metro-Cammell’s Class 150 DMUs are the next oldest trains, and a most common type of diesel unit in the North West of England. Like their Class 153 and Class 156 siblings in BR’s Sprinter family, you tend to see them a lot in Greater Manchester and Lancashire. They first entered service between 1985 and 1987 – back when Cher began her journey up the charts.

As well as the age of our rolling stock, the north-south divide can be seen in the line speeds of our inter-city routes. For the purpose of this article, inter-city routes can mean any journey from one city to another one, whether by express train (as in InterCity as per British Rail’s usage of the de-hyphenated term since 1979) or suburban train like today’s Transpennine Express and East Midlands Railway operations.

In our spreadsheet (please download the spreadsheet which is in Adobe PDF format), most journeys were faster by train compared with equivalent car journeys, some were marginally faster. Only three of the journeys we looked at were faster by car than train. There was also a few surprises along the way, and some not-so-surprising returns.

The North’s slowest inter-city routes

Sticking to our definition of inter-city service, you might be forgiven for thinking that Northern England’s slowest trains are between Manchester and Sheffield, or Manchester and Liverpool. Maybe Manchester to Leeds.

Though the above three routes are slower than equivalent journeys in the many parts of Southern England, the North’s slowest inter-city journey is also the shortest one.

Manchester Victoria to Salford Central

The mileage from Manchester Victoria to Salford Central is a mere two-thirds of a mile. By road, one mile via Albion Way. The journey time for such a short distance with a speed of 13.7 mph is…

Three minutes.

Under the BR Sector definition of InterCity, the journey between Manchester Victoria and Salford Central isn’t an InterCity one. It is a regional route which you can also walk or cycle, or take a short bus journey if there’s no trains. By car, the journey time is nine minutes, thanks to Trinity Way being a recommended route for motorists. The speed for that is 6.7 mph.

Liverpool Central to Chester

The next slowest inter-city train route in the North of England is Merseyrail’s Chester to Liverpool Central route on the Wirral Line. Whereas the Manchester Victoria to Salford Central route is non-stop, Merseyrail’s route is an all stations service that offer important local links. Instead of getting from Chester to Liverpool as fast as possible, it is about getting people from James Street to Rock Ferry in good time. Or Capenhurst to Chester for a connecting train to North Wales.

For the 16.9 mile journey, it takes an underwhelming 45 minutes from start to finish, at a speed of 22.5 mph. By contrast, the 55 minute car journey speed is 31 mph over 28.4 miles.

Liverpool Lime Street to Deansgate

It is the contemporary state of Manchester’s Liverpool trains that inspired this post. What is hardly surprising is that Manchester’s all stations link with Liverpool Lime Street from Deansgate is the third slowest inter-city train of our sheet. Taking in the Irlam line, it is a most interesting route with splendid views of the Manchester Ship Canal with some great bridges before joining the Liverpool and Manchester Railway line at Edge Hill.

If you need to get the all stations train, the journey time from Liverpool Lime Street to Deansgate is 73 minutes long at 25.6 mph over 31.1 miles. If you take the M62, it is 55 minutes between the same points and 35.9 mph.

Also of note is that today’s journey is one minute slower than an equivalent journey in 1997. In the Summer 1997 edition of the Great Britain Passenger Railway Timetable, the 2055 train from Liverpool Lime Street arrived at Deansgate for 2207. It is worth noting that today’s journey has one more stop than its 1997 equivalent in Liverpool South Parkway.

Newcastle Central to Sunderland

Since the extension of the Tyne and Wear Metro into Sunderland, the number of Newcastle trains (operated by NORTHERN) has been cut back. Like Altrincham, its light rail service has substantially more journeys than its heavy rail sibling.

From Newcastle Central to Sunderland, the journey time on NORTHERN (their capitals, not mine) is 28 minutes over 12.2 miles at 26.1 mph. By road over 13.2 miles, 24 minutes at 33 mph.

Bradford Interchange to Leeds

Up until the late 1980s, the city of Bradford used to have direct London trains that didn’t reverse at Leeds station. Just outside Yorkshire’s most populated city was Whitehall and Wortley Junctions, which enable Bradford inter-city trains to avoid Leeds Central and Leeds City stations. Today’s passengers, wishing to go beyond Manchester or Rochdale, are at the mercy of NORTHERN’s stopping services.

Taking in New Pudsey and Bramley, the journey time is 20 minutes for 9.1 miles (27.3 mph). If there is any consolation, it takes twice as long by road: 44 minutes for the 11.3 mile journey at a supersonic 16.9 mph.

Salford Crescent to Deansgate

Whereas Salford Central serves the traditional city centre of Salford, its sister station Salford Crescent is a boon for its university. Not so good is how the city of Ben Kingsley and Robert Powell has two slow inter-city routes!

As with the journey from Central to Victoria, this too is well served by local buses. It is a nice distance for cyclists and physically fit walkers. By train, the Windsor Link connects Crescent with Deansgate. Over its 1.5 mile journey, a neat three minutes at 29.4 mph (quite nippy compared with peak hour road traffic to be honest). By road, 17.1 mph for the two mile journey.

With a quarter of Manchester Piccadilly’s trains using Platforms 13 and 14, it is an inter-city route that gets a lot of footfall and – thanks in no small part to the botched up Ordsall Curve project – bottlenecks.

Chester to Manchester Piccadilly (via Northwich)

There are two ways of getting to Chester from Manchester: the Mid Cheshire Line via Northwich or via Warrington Bank Quay and Runcorn East. The slowest and, arguably, more scenic route is via the Mid Cheshire Line.

The Mid Cheshire Line takes in Delamere Forest, the industrial setting of Northwich, and Altrincham before going to Manchester Piccadilly via Stockport. Before Metrolink conversion of the Altrincham line finished in 1992, Mid Cheshire Line trains used to begin at Manchester Oxford Road before stopping at Deansgate and Sale, followed by Navigation Road and Altrincham. Though today’s route is longer, it provides a most important link between Stockport and Altrincham – one that may be enhanced by the reopening of Cheadle station.

As for the journey time, a laid back 88 minutes along its 44.8 miles at a speed of 30.5 mph. By car, 22.4 mph via the A556 and the M56.

Bradford Forster Square to Leeds

Since the electrification of the Airedale and Wharfedale lines, Bradford’s InterCity station moved from Bradford Interchange to Bradford Forster Square. Despite taking advantage of the 25kV catenary, its facilities were a bit of a comedown compared with Interchange, even with the closure of several platforms and some refurbishment work. In the last 50 years, Bradford’s stations have moved further away from the Town Hall, in the name of modernisation.

Like Manchester with Liverpool, Bradford has two train routes to its nearest significant city which happens to be Leeds. The second all electric route takes in Frizinghall and Shipley stations, before continuing to Leeds via Apperley Bridge and Kirkstall Forge stations.

Over its 13.1 miles, the journey time is 25 minutes at a speed of 31.4 mph. This is almost half the same journey time by road (44 minutes to do 11.3 miles at 16.9 mph). Therefore as local stopping trains go, it is probably not too bad. What is even more interesting is that today’s trains are faster than their 1997 counterparts. Though the journey time was exactly the same as now, it called at two fewer stations.

Leeds to Lancaster

For many passengers, the easiest way of getting from Leeds to Lancaster by train is via Preston or Manchester Piccadilly. Easier still, if you can work around its two hourly frequency is the direct train from Leeds to Lancaster via Skipton and Bentham. It takes a scenic route where part of its line is known as the Little North Western.

From Long Preston, the train turns left onto the LNW line via Giggleswick and Bentham. At 2 hours 10 minutes, the line speed is 32.4 mph over 70.3 miles. For another ten minutes you could change at Manchester Piccadilly for the Lancaster train. By car, 2 hours 30 minutes on average for the 68.6 mile journey at 27.4 mph.

Manchester Piccadilly to Sheffield (via New Mills Central)

There are two ways of getting from Manchester to Sheffield by train, and both of them are slow yet scenic. If you’re travelling into Sheffield from Marple, you will approach the Hope Valley Line via New Mills Central. From Sheffield to Stockport, the Hazel Grove Chord.

The journey time via New Mills is 80 minutes, calling at nearly all stops along the way. Its sedate speed is 31.6 mph over 42.1 miles. By road, substantially slower at 1 hour and 55 minutes – hitting the traffic at Hyde Road, The Gun Inn traffic lights and possibly the worst excesses of either the Woodhead Pass or Snake Pass. The pitiful journey times of both modes reflect the lack of investment this corridor has ‘enjoyed’.

The North’s slowest inter-city InterCity route

As seen above, our slowest ten inter-city routes are stopping services. What is the slowest InterCity route in the sense that they were (or still are) InterCity routes in the express train sense of the word? That honour goes to a Transpennine Express route.

Manchester Piccadilly to Leeds

Today, most of Transpennine Express’ Yorkshire routes from Manchester go from Manchester Victoria station. Only two of TPE’s routes begin at Manchester Piccadilly: one is the stopping service to Huddersfield (all stops from Stalybridge), and the other one is its Hull Paragon service.

If you go from Manchester Piccadilly to Leeds, the journey time is six minutes slower than travelling via Manchester Victoria. The average speed of TPE’s Piccadilly service is 42 mph, with the journey time taking 61 minutes over 42.7 miles. From Manchester Victoria, 47.1 mph with a journey time of 55 minutes.

By contrast, TPE’s sister route from Manchester Piccadilly to Sheffield takes 51 minutes at 51.3 mph for its 43.1 miles. The Manchester Piccadilly to Leeds route is their slowest express train. NORTHERN’s Leeds to Carlisle route over the Settle and Carlisle Line is 42.4 mph over 113.1 miles on a 2 hour 40 minute mainly all stations journey.

Under the present timetable, the five minute difference between the trains from Victoria and Piccadilly stations is a stop at Stalybridge that trains from the former station lack. Compared with 1997, today’s Manchester Piccadilly to Leeds trains are two minutes slower.

Compared with 1972, today’s trains along that route are ten minutes faster. Back then, Trans-Pennine services that called at Stalybridge like TPE’s train to Leeds and Hull Paragon came from Manchester Victoria station. The modern day Manchester Victoria to Leeds route (which eschews Stalybridge in favour of Dewsbury) is fifteen minutes faster. Hence:

  • 1972: 1 hour 10 minutes (37 mph) – Class 40 locomotive hauled Mark 1 coaches from Manchester Victoria;
  • 1997: 59 minutes (44 mph) – Class 158 DMUs from Manchester Piccadilly;
  • 2022: 55 minutes (47.2 mph) – Class 800 bi-mode DEMUs from Manchester Victoria over a diesel only section of the Transpennine Express route;
  • 2022: 1 hour 1 minute (42 mph) – Class 185 DMUs from Manchester Piccadilly.

Should next month’s timetable changes come to fruition, there will also be a slower almost all-stops train from Manchester Piccadilly to Leeds. This will make its first stop at Stalybridge, merging two separate local routes into one.

The glacial progress of improving Trans-Pennine line speeds would be seen as a national scandal if this was a line south of Birmingham. We as a country have taken 50 years to shave sixteen minutes off a popular inter-city journey. At this rate, it would take us to 2122 to catch up with present-day line speeds on the West Coast Main Line, or around 2150 to keep up with the East Coast Main Line.

That is why investment in Northern Powerhouse Rail and boosting capacity on local schemes really matters. Our present day line speeds would be seen as slow in 1950, never mind 2050. If we are serious about levelling up, even getting line speeds up to South East England levels would be life-changing.

Before we do, we need to improve the experience of rail travel by making it a more inclusive mode of transport. At present there are still too many stations without access for wheelchair users; the direction of travel towards Driver Only Operation and rumours of Uber style dynamic pricing is anything but inclusive at all. As they say on platform 1 at Manchester Piccadilly station, waiting for the 1930 to Hull, that’s another story for another time.

S.V., 04 November 2022.

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