RAIL 798: Transforming the North

In November 2015 Alex Hynes, then managing director of Northern Rail, stated that by the end of 2019 the North would have a better railway than London. 

His claim was made prior to the announcement that Arriva would win the nine-year Northern franchise, and that FirstGroup would win the seven-year TransPennine Express deal. He quoted 44 months as the period to get it right.

There had been (quite rightly) a lot of campaigning across northern England regarding the need to improve the quality of its network. Tired Pacers were clattering along unloved railways serving unstaffed stations, carrying handfuls of passengers. Away from the cities and major towns, this was not a railway to be proud of.

Politicians spoke of the need for improvements, but even the advent of electrification in the North West (which was delayed) involved using 25-year-old electric trains cascaded from Thameslink.

Cheap fares had prevailed, of course, but that was reflected in the service quality that passengers received. It was not bad per se, but would you fancy travelling across the Pennines on a Pacer? They are good trains for short journeys, but passengers deserve better for longer distance. 

The same applies to the stations. Places such as Leeds, Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Victoria are now superb facilities that have benefited from major investment, but elsewhere it’s a different, more down-at-heel, story.

The TPE franchise has benefited in the past decade from new trains and electrification. While it operates two of the busiest trains in Britain, the route between Leeds and Manchester is slow and suffers chronic overcrowding.

Compare the investment already under way on the Edinburgh to Glasgow route via Falkirk (a similar distance linking two major cities) with the suspended animation of trans-Pennine routes. In Scotland, a fleet of new trains will operate on newly electrified railways serving rebuilt stations. Between Leeds and Manchester, trains delivered in 2006/2007 must operate on a railway that has not been upgraded in decades.

The investment north of the border is down to the determination of Transport Scotland, led by professional railwaymen who know their business. RAIL has called for the devolution of services before, and in the North of England that has now happened. Hopefully, this will bring the same standards and quality of service as we witness in Scotland.

Speaking to RAIL on April 4, Hynes said: “Whitehall sometimes regards subsidy to Northern as a cost. We provide a lifeline to towns and routes like Whitby, to getting workers to Sellafield, to serve the commuters for Manchester and Leeds.” 

He highlighted how, during the floods in December, the roads were closed but the railway carried on and was able to help residents and communities. The railway of the North is a vastly different beast to that in the South East, and this will now be recognised by being run and funded by those who need it, rather than those sitting in offices 200 miles away. 

Hynes is appointing four regional directors, each with the responsibility to lead and improve services in the region. They will work with local groups to put forward the case for improvements, which the operator is willing to fund if the case is there. Rail North and Transport for the North say these new operators are transformational. But both (rightly) want to go beyond that. 

On April 4, Hynes reiterated that the quality of rail in the North will be better than London by the end of the decade. These next 44 months will be vital, he said. New trains, faster trains, more services and more seats will be delivered. Pacers will vanish. More electric trains will run as electrification advances. 

Hynes wants Northern Connect to attract the business community “out of their BMWs and onto the trains” - brand new trains, serving routes whose stations will have been upgraded to meet the needs of the passengers. Retail outlets will be introduced, with staffing levels reflecting this. 

At the moment, because of the quality of the service, this will be a difficult challenge. But things will improve. In the coming weeks an Alliance will be formed with Network Rail. This will not be a ‘Deep Alliance’, as per Wessex, but one with the two NR regions that both Northern and TPE straddle, enhancing performance in the region. 

There is also major infrastructure investment that will benefit the regions and open up new opportunities for travel. The controversial decision to construct the Ordsall Chord has been given the go-ahead, after a legal challenge was defeated in the Court of Appeal. This opens at the end of next year, and will play a key role in unlocking growth. From December 2017, trains can run directly between Victoria and Piccadilly for the first time, and new services are already being planned to run between Manchester Airport and Bradford. TPE will also use this Chord to open up new markets and new destinations. 

The real challenge for both is the quality of service delivery and innovation. New ticketing, including paperless tickets and smartcards, is being developed. Northern plans to introduce more than 200 ticket vending machines that will reduce the number of ticketless journeys and enable the introduction of a penalty fare system.

New routes with a fleet of brand new trains will be introduced onto the TPE network. The rollout of 19 five-car, 140mph-capable trains in 2019, following 25 five-car trains in 2018, sounds like the type of investment you usually read about for London and the South East. That these trains will run alongside 98 new trains for Northern offers exciting potential. 

Last year Northern Rail introduced veteran EMUs between Liverpool and Manchester, yet the excitement generated was palpable. Passengers changed their commuting patterns to travel on these ‘new’ trains, which were faster and have more space. No doubt that will be replicated with the new ARN and TPE fleets.

It really is an exciting time for the North. Would you bet against Hynes’ claims that its network will be better than London? We have 44 months to find out.

The last words for the North’s ambitions belong to Hynes: “The last franchise was a zero growth franchise. We tore that up and threw it in the bin where it belonged. The passenger number increase was 55%. We introduced electrics between Manchester and Liverpool. We finished the old franchise with our highest ever passenger satisfaction scores in the National Rail Passenger Survey, which was above the industry standard. 

“If we did that with little investment, think what we can do with a billion quid.” 

  • Nigel Harris is on holiday. 


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