The TransPennine revolution

Posted: May 16, 2017 in Transport


Rail travel in the North of England is currently undergoing nothing short of a total transformation. By 2020, the fleet of regional operator Northern will have been totally transformed with nearly 100 new trains to replace the outgoing Pacers, while Virgin Trains East Coast are ditching their InterCity 125s and 225s in favour of the new Hitachi InterCity Express trains, known as Azumas. But perhaps the most interesting changes are those planned for TransPennine Express. Currently the region’s intermediate franchise, operating semi-fast regional services on the East and West Coast routes and through the heart of the North, the operator is morphing into the full express form its name suggests, with huge fleet changes and a radical shift in emphasis in its routes.

Since 2004, rail services in the North have primarily been divided between two rail franchises. The Northern franchise, currently run by Arriva Rail North, were allocated mostly local services that had previously been run by Northern Spirit (later Arriva Trains Northern) and North Western Trains (later First North Western). However, the long-distance operations of Northern Spirit were split off into a separate franchise for regional workings. The Transpennine Express brand was already in existence, having been created in the 1990s by Regional Railways, and so the franchise adopted this name.

Run by First and Keolis, First TransPennine Express evolved into a long-distance semi-fast train operator, with a core route through the Pennines from Leeds to Manchester via Huddersfield. It also inherited fast services from Manchester Airport to Cleethorpes via the Hope Valley Line, Sheffield and Doncaster, and semi-fast services on the West Coast Main Line to Blackpool, Barrow-in-Furness, Windermere, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

But the new franchise term beginning in April 2016 saw First and Keolis bid separately, the latter with the Go Ahead Group, along with Stagecoach. With the Northern franchise bidding process going on at the same time, it was revealed that the Manchester-Blackpool/Barrow/Windermere services would be transferred to Northern. This was the starting point of the shift in emphasis. First won the rights to the franchise, and eventually announced details of three new types of train.

The shape of this franchise is soon to radically alter. So what will TPE look like by 2023, when the franchise term is due to come to an end?

At the start of the franchise, TPE operated three different types of train. The Class 185 DMUs, the mainstay of the fleet, were introduced from 2005 to replace the Class 158s on the long-distance trans-Pennine routes. The Class 170 DMUs, arriving in 2006, supplemented them on trains to Cleethorpes and Hull until July 2016. The Class 350 EMUs operate on the Manchester-Scotland services.

After the start of the new franchise, First announced a transformation of the fleet. They confirmed two deals with Spanish constructor CAF – one for 12 high-speed EMUs, designated Class 397, to replace the 350s on the Scottish routes, and the other for 13 five-car sets of Mark 5A coaches to be hauled by Class 68 diesel locomotives, similar to Chiltern Railways’ Silver Trains. These supplemented an order for 19 bi-mode Hitachi Intercity Express units, designated Class 802. The Class 350s will be cascaded to other operators, along with some of the 185s. The planned total number of carriages is 308, up from the current 193.

Construction is well underway in Spain on the Mark 5As, and work has also begun on the 397s, which are based on the same Civity platform as Northern’s new Class 195 DMUs and 331 EMUs. The current schedule is for the Mark 5As to move to the Velim test track in the Czech Republic in the autumn of 2017. Driver training begins in October with 68s that are already in service here and a set of Mark 3 coaches. The full Mark 5A sets are due to arrive in the UK in early 2018 and enter service from the summer of 2018. Meanwhile, the 397s will begin testing in spring 2018, entering traffic about a year later. The 802s, which will mostly be assembled at Hitachi’s Newton Aycliffe factory, will begin testing in August 2018 and also enter traffic in 2019.

Class 397 Civity EMU

Mark 5A driving trailer

Class 802 bi-mode

With the services to Blackpool, Barrow and Windermere handed to Northern, TPE’s main focus will be on the Leeds-Manchester corridor, where it intends to eventually run six trains an hour. But the major changes come around that.

On the east side, TPE services currently start at Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Scarborough and Hull. The Newcastle services will soon be extended to Edinburgh, allowing TPE to run trains between the Scottish capital and Manchester via two different routes, encircling the whole of the North of England. This will give Leeds three trains an hour to Edinburgh, with two from TPE and one from CrossCountry.

In the west, services currently head in different directions at Stalybridge. Most services head to Manchester Piccadilly, approaching from the south of the hub. Some of these reverse to head to Manchester Airport, while others continue through to Liverpool Lime Street via Manchester Oxford Road and Warrington Central. Some services also head to Liverpool via Manchester Victoria and the former Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

The construction of the Ordsall Chord, linking Victoria with Oxford Road and Piccadilly, will dramatically alter rail services in Manchester. This will lead to TPE rerouting many of its services to run through all three Manchester stations to the airport. Another major change is that services from Manchester to Liverpool will solely run via the former L&M, with the current semi-fast service running via Warrington Central being transferred to Northern, as one of their Northern Connect services run with brand new trains.

There will also be additions to the network. A major new service will run from Liverpool Lime Street to Glasgow Central, and Manchester-Scotland services will be diverted via Bolton once electrification work is complete. TPE will also begin stopping at more intermediate stations – after adding Cross Gates already, they will soon add calls at Morley, stations between Huddersfield and Stalybridge (where they will essentially replace the hourly Northern all-stops service), and some stations between Liverpool and Manchester.

One final further addition may soon emerge, with rumours that the new East Midlands franchise may sacrifice the Liverpool-Sheffield/Nottingham section of its long-distance Liverpool-Norwich service to TPE. This would make sense as the trains run via the Hope Valley Line, essentially serving as an extension to the current TPE services on this route. This line is likely to retain the Class 185s on services.

Route modernisation
Though it is the responsibility of Network Rail, the franchise improvements go hand-in-hand with modernisation plans for much of the network covered by TPE. The Ordsall Chord is a major part of this, providing an electrified link across the city to bridge a gap that has always been a major constriction.

Beyond this, electrification is a major aspect of the modernisation. Work is currently ongoing to electrify the route between Manchester and Preston via Bolton. TPE services have been diverted to run via Parkside Junction, which links the Liverpool and Manchester line to the WCML near Earlestown, but once electrification is complete, services will resume the more direct Bolton route, while Northern Connect services from Manchester to Barrow and Windermere will inherit the path via Parkside.

Future plans for more electrification are currently taking shape. The next section of route to receive wires will be from Manchester Victoria to Stalybridge via Ashton-under-Lyne. This is a prelude to the planned electrification of the main trans-Pennine route throughout from Manchester to York and Selby. The delay to these scheme, and the cutting of electrification between Selby and Hull has led to modifications to the Class 802’s diesel engine, as it was originally intended to have been a brief stop-gap. It is also believed to be the reason why TPE ordered loco-hauled coaches, as it would allow a smooth and cheap transition from diesel to electric locomotives – possibly the new Class 88 bi-mode locos – in the future.

The electrification works may run beyond the end of the current TPE franchise but eventually the vast majority of the network will be under the wires, with the exception of the Hope Valley Line.

Express by name, express by nature
The addition of modern high-speed trains similar to those being introduced on established intercity operators, and a growing network covering major intercity routes, strongly demonstrates the direction TransPennine Express is taking. What was once a major part of the Regional Railways network is being upgraded in several ways so that TPE services will be on a par with those of the former British Rail InterCity services.

Even compared to the services now, it will be a massive upgrade. The look and feel will be very different – out will go the boxy three-coach Class 185s and four-coach 350s, and in will come the streamlined five-coach Hitachi Intercity Expresses and Civity EMUs, with a top speed of 125 mph allowing them to run toe-to-toe with Pendolinos, Azumas and Voyagers. The striking silver, pink and turquoise livery provides a stark contrast with the old First blue.

Once the trans-Pennine route is electrified, the North will finally have a modern intercity service between its major towns and cities. HS3 is still desperately needed, and capacity is still constrained, but it is at least significant progress. Combined with the transformation of Northern, it’s the change that the people of the North have waited a long time for.


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