He admits that at first some were unsure of the trains, but that if they are still unsure after their initial training, then they will be accompanied on a journey. He says that Liverpool’s conductors have completed their training (that’s 69 staff, with a further three to be trained as they are currently off work on long-term sick leave).
Training takes one day. Wigan-based conductors are currently learning the trains, with that training taking place while they are in traffic. They travel on the Liverpool-Manchester trains to learn how the ‘319s’ work.
Says Lowe: “The role of conductor doesn’t differ. One of the biggest things is that we’re not leaving passengers at stations. Whether trains were strengthened or not, that used to be the case. Our business is happier passengers, and everything is positive.”
The introduction of the ‘319s’ has created not only happier passengers, but also happier staff. Says Lowe: “If you start the day off with grumpy passengers then it affects the day. The conductor’s morale has gone up. No conductor wants to leave passengers on stations.”
When the EMUs started work in early March, there was a spike in passenger numbers. Two weeks later, those figures had been sustained.
Says Lowe: “I know passengers at Wavertree. They were travelling into Lime Street to get TPE trains, but they don’t now - they use the EMU. More and more people are altering their travel time.
“The 0716 from Lime Street is very busy. Previously we’ve had to leave people from St Helens, but now we have more people and space. We have not had reports of overcrowding.”
Lowe says the extra capacity afforded by the four-car EMUs will be “even better for Wigan and Manchester Victoria lines” when they are introduced next month.
“The passengers are very positive. The cleanliness is a big thing. We have good cleaning time and on-train cleaning, too. It is a psychological thing - if the train is shoddy then people will drop litter. The passengers can also see out of the windows now - that’s new! The ‘319s’ look clean and smart.”
There has clearly been a psychological effect: “The ‘319s’ have perked people up. It shows it is not a lost cause here. We are making people happy with two trains, so what will they be like when there are more?
“Conductors like working the Pacers as they can see everything in the train. But obviously they are chomping at the bit for more electrics. They know the process, so we are looking forward to putting more in service.
“Another thing is that passengers are talking more to conductors. We had disruption last week, but people were getting information.”
Lowe admits that the current lack of Class 319s in use on Saturdays is frustrating, but says of the overall passenger experience: “You remember the bad journeys. You always report the bad one. But people now do tweet happy stuff. I am starting to see more of that.
“I don’t use Twitter and Facebook, because I am too old, but my son follows Northern on there and he’s commented that it is a lot more positive. You never used to see that. We never had a slap on the back - it was dross, fighting fires. But it is positive now.
“And the positive feedback is not just the ‘319s’. The general public won’t know the difference. Last week was the first full week of the EMUs and I have never had so much passenger feedback for Northern. It’s great. We are talking 200/300 comments. It makes you feel better, and it’s good to give feedback. I cannot speak for all, but I am quick to jump when there is negative, but I also am when it is positive.”
Passenger behaviour has also changed, he says: “I notice as well that people are now spreading along the platforms to get on. There’s new behaviour. It means dwell times are better, and it creates a better atmosphere.
“I dealt with the ‘180s’. They were five coaches, but it wasn’t as positive. The seating capacity in the ’180s’ was not as good, and there was declassified First Class. The ‘319s’ are quieter, too. People have to talk louder on a DMU, but not on an EMU.”
At Manchester Piccadilly’s Platform 14, the 1355 to Liverpool Lime Street is due. It is formed of 319363, one of the refreshed sets in traffic. Northern Rail Operations Manager Liam Wallis is waiting to join the train, beaming with pride at the EMUs.
“This is bliss,” he says as the ‘319’ leaves. “To get this working has been hard. But the staff have been buying into it. The initial plan moved a few times. The EMUs starting got knocked back, but we are on board now.”
He says decisions are still being made regarding the next tranche of services: “Will it be a Wigan stopper or the expresses? The decision will be determined on the number of units, and the number of crews trained. I need 40 drivers at Wigan - I need to train staff. That is the reason there could be a delay, but it won’t be an issue.”
Wallis harks back to Bedford’s comments about the specific needs for the ‘319s’. “There is a real specific train for Lime Street. You must be six feet from the buffers, and then the next ‘319’ must be six feet away from that train.” He says that this will become easier when Lime Street’s platforms are lengthened.
“I am feeling pride. There is so much work that people have put in - it’s just huge.
“This is a small piece of the jigsaw. It starts with this branching from Lime Street. Lime Street is the hub. The long-term aspiration is that there are new things you can do. The routes are easy to learn compared to competency. The options ‘319s’ give us… we can operate longer trains, and trains on longer services.”
Northern Rail Performance Improvement Manager Peter Gerring is also on board. He says: “People would rather travel by taxi at times. It is £60 each way from Southport to Manchester Airport. It is £25 return by train!
“Northern was a 0% growth franchise and look now! I caught the 0621 from Southport, and by Burscough there’s 100 people. It is full and standing. To me, with the Invitation To Tender, it is about thinking differently. We are moving people around. It is getting people onto rail.
“Wigan to Manchester is great, it is thinking about the whole industry. How do we make that work? We have stoppers, but Victoria trains run to Lime Street in 35 minutes. It is a no-brainer.
“Currently steam times are comparable to now. EMUs offer much better options.”
- This feature was published in RAIL 772 on Aprli 15 2015