A few words on rail in the North

Posted: August 8, 2017 in Politics, Rail, Transport


Hi, as many of you know, I currently work for Northern, the largest train operating company outside London. I saw today that a prominent liberal journalist decided to “crowdsource” ideas for a “Crossrail of the North”, and then drew some lines on a map in paint to link presumably the four or five places in northern England that he’d heard of. It’s horrible and I’m going to try and briefly give some context.

Northern is the trading name for Arriva Rail North, which took over the franchise for local services in most of the north of England in April 2016. Arriva won the bid promising a huge investment in rail services. The previous franchise holder, Serco and Abellio’s Northern Rail, was let the franchise in 2004 on a no-growth basis. There were no obligations to invest in new trains, which meant that the franchise had to make do with increasingly outdated trains for the most part. The old brand ended up with a very poor reputation for the quality of the rolling stock which continues today, even though it was a great achievement to actually keep most of the trains running reliably for that time.

The franchise this time was let on a growth basis and Arriva’s investment was mainly based around a huge order for 98 new trains. These will start entering service from December next year. At the same time, some of the oldest trains in the fleet are being released, including all of the Pacers, the 30-year-old diesel trains based on a bus chassis. Every surviving Northern train will be refurbished to as-new standards with free WiFi and passenger information screens.

The massive improvements to and expansion of the rolling stock fleet will enable huge increases in the number of services – 2000 extra services a week, including 400 on Sundays. Included in this are some brand new long-distance services called Northern Connect which will link the major towns and cities of the region. Stations are also going to be improving, it’s going to be easier to buy tickets, and there’s a big push going on to try and improve customer service more generally.

I’m not here to cheerlead for the company but (leaving aside the thorny issue of the role of the guard for now) I think these are all good things and long overdue in the North. As anyone who lives beyond the Watford Gap knows (and especially those who know where the Watford Gap actually is), public transport outside the bubble of London and the South East hasn’t been particularly good for a long time. Every region has its problems, including London and the South East, but certainly the perception is that London always gets its problems solved before everywhere else – that’s why HS1 happened, it’s why the Jubilee line extension happened, it’s why the huge investment in the London Overground happened, it’s why Crossrail is happening, it’s why the Northern line extension is happening, it’s why Crossrail 2 and the Bakerloo line extension will happen, and to all intents and purposes it’s why HS2 will happen. The funding gap is very real.

(You’ll note I haven’t just gone for “the South” – the South West suffers enormously as well and yet often gets categorised under the same generalised heading. Equally there are many public transport black spots in the South East too.)

All of those projects were to solve problems. And the thing is, there will always be problems to solve in a big city like London. But there are more pressing transport problems in other cities, and they are constantly put on the backburner. The latest evidence of this is the cancellation of three electrification projects, including the Midland Main Line from London to Sheffield, and the likely postponement or cancellation of electrification of the Transpennine line between York and Manchester via Leeds and Huddersfield.

The reason for these cancellations is twofold: a dramatic increase in the financial and time cost of electrification due to more stringent health and safety legislation about the clearance for overhead wires (which is, by all accounts, totally unnecessary and leading to huge issues in the ongoing Great Western Main Line electrification scheme), which in turn has led to a loss in government confidence (likely entirely tactical) in Network Rail; and the quick-fix solution of bi-mode trains which can run as diesel and electric trains, which has enabled to make the Secretary of State position himself as an innovator rather than the savage Thatcherite ideologue he is.

He is of course positioning for Network Rail to lose its monopoly on rail construction and maintenance and for private contractors to take over – see what’s happening in the East-West Rail project. And it’s not just the Tories too – the Welsh government are apparently keen for the Valley Lines to be handed over to private contractors when the next franchise is awarded next year, as part of a likely conversion from trains to trams.

This is a bit of an aside to the wider point of rail transport in the North, but the bigger picture is quite clear – the government is gradually pulling back funding for rail, both in terms of infrastructure improvements and subsidies for loss-making services. As a result, the private rail companies are doing what profit-making companies always do – focusing on the services that make them the most money. TransPennine Express (TPE), the other main rail franchise in the North, is becoming an intercity operator, while Northern’s new Northern Connect services are aimed at attracting middle class motorists out of their cars for city-to-city travel, as a sort of TPE Light.

I’m fully supportive of Northern Connect as a principle. But the slightly dubious thing about it is that due to the restrictions of the infrastructure, this will mean fewer services to some stations, because more of the capacity of the lines is being handed over to the direct services. An example of this is the line between Manchester Victoria and Todmorden, the western part of the Calder Valley line which runs to Leeds via Halifax and Bradford. There are seven intermediate stations along here. Rochdale will be served by the new Northern Connect services between Leeds and Chester, Manchester Airport and Liverpool, as well as a Leeds-Southport service. However, the other six stations – Moston, Mills Hill, Castleton, Smithy Bridge, Littleborough, and Walsden – are at risk of losing services to make way for the faster services. The first three in particular serve deprived parts of Greater Manchester.

Of course, this sort of decision-making is nothing new – Dr Beeching’s modernisation plan was geared around investing in inter-city services, the profitable part of British Rail, which meant the loss-making services that ran in between had to be binned to provide extra capacity. Even now, signalling decisions prioritise express trains over local stopping trains even if it’s the express train that’s running late.

Whether or not that’s the right thing is a big philosophical issue in the railways, but the fact is even if Britain’s railways were taken back into public ownership tomorrow, there would still be an expectation of at least minimising losses. We might all want to ride around on trains for free all day without ever being bothered by revenue inspectors, and have all these new lines and stations built, but it’s just not realistic.

Which takes me back to Elledge’s stupid map. The map itself is bad for many reasons – concentrating on the three main cities; ignoring most of the North, including the North East which gets virtually no public transport spending at all; bypassing two major towns in Rochdale and Huddersfield to serve Halifax which is smaller than both; running new rail lines through the middle of the Peak District for some reason – but ultimately the most ridiculous thing of all is the whole idea of a “Crossrail of the North”.

Look, Crossrail is a London thing. It’s specific to the needs of the city – London needed a heavy rail line to get from east to west. A new line across the North is not Crossrail, and people up here don’t want to be Londonised. MediaCityUK is not the centre of the North for anyone other than a few journalist types.

Yes, there should be huge investment in public transport in the North. I would argue that a lot of this is already on the way. Northern, TPE and Virgin Trains East Coast are all introducing brand new trains in the next three years and are going to absolutely transform the railways of the North. There is a lot more to be done but it isn’t a case of total ignorance – I would argue that Wales is in a much worse position because it lost a lot more rail connections under Beeching and the decision over what form the next franchise will take is totally bogged down in a bureaucracy-based power struggle between Westminster and the Senedd.

Yes, I support the basic idea of what was previously known as HS3 but has seemingly been downgraded to “Northern Powerhouse Rail” – a new line linking Leeds and Manchester. The fact is TPE trains are amongst the most overcrowded in Britain and even expansion to larger new trains in the next few years may not fully alleviate that. However, I don’t think it will happen – at best I think what you will see is just the current Leeds-Huddersfield-Manchester line upgraded. In some ways, that may not be a totally bad thing, even if it is indicative of wider issues.

BUT BUT BUT there are a lot more things that can be done on a local level. It’s great that there’s going to be an inter-city network linking Edinburgh, Newcastle, York, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool in a massive loop. It’s great that Northern Connect links some of the slightly more peripheral towns and cities with faster services and trains with such luxuries as WiFi and power sockets. But why are some areas still going to be lacking good services?

Why is it that Ashington and Blyth – combined population 65,000 – have a freight line running through the middle of them without passenger services which could be brought back at very little cost?

Why is it that Washington – population 67,000 – has a derelict freight line running through the middle which is seemingly not going to be brought back into use for passenger services for little cost?

Why is it that no moves have been made to reinstate the short link between Skipton and Colne, with the possibility of having an electrified through route between York and Blackpool via Leeds, Keighley, Blackburn and Preston, vastly improving what is currently a long diesel-only cross-country route?

Why is it that the town of Haxby isn’t going to have a railway station built despite the fact that it would allow hundreds to commute into York without clogging up the roads into the old city?

Why aren’t the two former main lines through the Peak District to Manchester from Derby (via Bakewell) and Sheffield (via Woodhead) being reopened to improve capacity?

Why isn’t the active freight line from Crewe to Northwich via Middlewich being reopened despite local demand for services?

Why isn’t the East Coast Main Line being upgraded to 140 mph running, which would totally negate the need for HS2’s Leeds arm?

I could go on. I’m not one of these rail user group-type bods who sit around thinking about how great it would be if some station in the middle of nowhere got a half-hourly service to attract people who don’t exist – that’s not pragmatic. But these are all realistic projects that local people and transport experts have been calling for for decades. They would all be cheaper than the Borders Railway in Scotland.

But the whole point with the current rail system is that it’s not on the train operating companies to do this – it’s on Network Rail, which is given its funding and instructions by the Department for Transport. Ultimately, it’s on the government to invest – and all the signs are they are cutting costs rather than investing.

Labour talked a lot in their 2017 manifesto about investing more in rail, but how much are they actually committed to it? Parties in the past have talked about increasing investment, but the nature of building railway lines is that they aren’t cheap, and grand figures often amount to very little in terms of infrastructure improvements. Corbyn may be a rail enthusiast, but does his government-in-waiting have the vision to properly revolutionise rail in areas that aren’t London?

It’s not about big glamorous projects, the sort that usually attract politicians so that they can make easy political capital out of them. It’s not about “Crossrail of the North” or “Northern Powerhouse Rail”. It’s about local level improvements – four-tracking, re-signalling, changing junctions, smoothing out curves. Only enthusiasts seem to understand, but they are actually very important projects. That’s why the most important ongoing rail project in the North is the Ordsall Chord, linking Manchester Victoria with Piccadilly by heavy rail for the first time.

So I think it’s worth having some patience – big improvements are coming in the next three years. But it’s also worth taking the time out to understand what the real issues with our rail infrastructure are, rather than just drawing big lines on a map between cities. You have to remember the towns that fall by the wayside, and the people who live there. And it’s important to maintain a realistic perspective – because of the way the network is set up, it’s not possible for trains to solve all public transport problems. But then the rural bus network is being savaged too. There are much more important battles to be fighting than linking the big cities with shiny new railway lines.

  1. Nick says:

    What’s wrong with “rail user group-type bods who sit around thinking about how great it would be if some station in the middle of nowhere got a half-hourly service to attract people who don’t exist” 😉

    Seriously though, great essay!

    • Ah, it’s just that we deal with a lot of them and some have a very idealistic view of what we should be doing, with lots of ideas that aren’t practical. I’ve learned to be a bit more pragmatic since working here, but there are a lot of really easy changes that can be made, and there are good groups out there campaigning for them. You do need lobby groups to keep the pressure on.

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