Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

A new dawn for trains in the North

144 Crossing the River Calder

Today is April 1st – and whilst that’s normally an excuse for news outlets to publish satirical articles to wind up their audiences, today it marks a new chapter for train services in the North of England. The two key rail franchises – Northern, and TransPennine Express – both change hands today, with promises of major improvements to trains, track and stations.

‘No growth’

The previous Northern Rail franchise started in 2004, and was awarded to a consortium of Serco (to whom all your base are belong to) and Abellio, a subsidiary of Dutch state railways. Controversially, this was a ‘no growth’ franchise, awarded on the basis that there would be no expected growth in passenger numbers over the original seven year period of the franchise. As such, the franchisee was not required to make any investments in new or additional trains, or run extra services.

As it happened, passenger numbers did grow, year on year, even during the 2008-2009 financial crash. In ten years, passenger numbers at Northern Rail stations (including my home station of Sowerby Bridge) have near doubled, and services have become increasingly overcrowded. To Northern Rail’s credit, whilst no brand new trains have been introduced, some additional trains have been brought in from elsewhere in the country where they had become surplus to requirement, and it has held onto older trains rather than scrapping them to maintain capacity. Consequently, train services have more carriages, more seats, and in most cases run more frequently now than in 2004.

So whilst Northern Rail has managed to go above and beyond its minimum requirements, I think it’s fair to say that it has merely been ‘coping’ with increased demand, rather than making an effort to generate new demand. And it’s not done much for its reputation for running old, increasingly-tired looking trains – many of which, bar a change in seat covers, still sport their original, 30-year-old interiors.

In particular, Northern Rail has been well-known for having a large number of Pacer trains. These were introduced as a mostly temporary measure in the 1980s, by taking Leyland bus components and bolting them onto singe-axled freight wagons. 30 years on, and they still make up around a third of Northern’s fleet, despite having shorter carriages and poor ride quality.

TransPennine Express

Earlier in 2004, another of the north’s rail franchises was awarded to a consortium of First Group (based in Scotland), and Keolis, a French transport company partly-owned by SNCF (French state railways). Keolis was a minority partner in the joint venture and so the franchise was known as ‘First TransPennine Express‘ (FTPE), even though First Group operated its other franchises on its own (First’s Hull Trains is a joint venture but it’s an open access service, not a franchised operator). Unlike Northern Rail, this was a growth franchise, and saw the introduction of 51 brand new Class 185 diesel trains, built by Siemens in Germany. Some nearly-new Class 170 trains were also brought in, and so within a few years the entire FTPE fleet was made up of modern trains.

Whilst some growth was accounted for, actual growth turned out to be higher. FTPE was controversially denied permission to add a fourth carriage to its new Class 185 trains, nor was it able to procure any additional trains, and so overcrowding became a problem. This was eased somewhat recently, when 10 new Class 350 electric trains were introduced for its services on the West Coast Main Line between Manchester and Scotland following electrification work west of Manchester.

Northern administration

Whilst both franchises were extended beyond their original periods, ultimately the time would come to hold new open franchise competitions to choose new operators. Most franchises in the UK are awarded by the government’s Department for Transport (DfT), with the exception of Scotrail and the Caledonian Sleeper (awarded by the Scottish Government), Merseyrail (awarded by Merseytravel) and London Overground (awarded by Transport for London). The various metropolitan, district, city and county councils of the north clubbed together to form a new organisation called Rail North, and successful lobbying has meant that the new replacement franchises have been awarded jointly by Rail North and a new DfT office in Leeds. This means that control of the new franchises happens in the north of England, by staff who actually use the services, and not by ministers and civil servants based in London. Crucially, both new franchises will anticipate growth in passenger numbers, and reflect changes in passengers’ expectations.

Arriva Rail North

The Northern franchise was won by Arriva – originally a British bus company that now operates several other rail franchises (CrossCountry, Arriva Trains Wales, Chiltern Railways, London Overground and the Grand Central open access service) and was taken over by Deutsche Bahn (German state railways) a few years ago. Arriva operated one of the predecessor franchises to Northern Rail – Arriva Trains Northern – but this new franchise will not resurrect the old brand. Whilst the franchise will still be called ‘Northern’, there’s a new logo and I expect that trains will get new liveries in due course.

As part of the new franchise, there’s a commitment to withdraw the old Pacer trains by the end of 2019. They can’t be disposed of straight-away, as it will take time for replacement trains to be brought into service, but December 2019 is a practical deadline as well as a tactical one. From the 1st January 2020, all revenue-earning passenger trains in the UK must meet accessibility regulations; the Pacers don’t, and the cost of modifying them is likely to be prohibitive. Whilst withdrawing them from the Northern network is a franchise commitment, if some vehicles can be modified, they could end up elsewhere in the country.

To compensate for the loss of Pacers, some additional trains will be transferred from the TransPennine Express, Great Western and Scotrail franchises, but there will also be over 90 brand-new trains introduced. A contract for these was given to Spanish manufacturer CAF, and will see new 2/3 carriage Class 195 diesel trains, and new 3/4 carriage Class 331 electric trains being introduced from 2018 onwards. CAF built Northern’s existing Class 333 trains in a joint venture with Siemens, as well as the Class 332 trains used on the Heathrow Express services. The trains will be built in Spain, rather than Britain, but Britain’s two trainbuilders (Bombardier in Derby and Hitachi in County Durham) have nearly-full order books and so there’s little spare capacity for them to be built here, even if this might help Britain’s beleaguered steel industry.

Arriva Northern’s remaining trains will be deep-cleaned and refurbished, with free wifi available on all trains once the equipment has been installed. Currently, just a handful of Northern’s trains offer wifi, and these all operate on electric commuter services in the Leeds area. Some services will be branded ‘Northern Connect’ – these will be the ‘intercity’ services and will offer seat reservations and the newest trains – something I hoped for in a blog post back in 2014.

Same old brand new you

The TransPennine Express (TPE) franchise was won by First Group outright this time, rather than as a joint venture. I expected there to be very little change from day one, but there’s a new logo and livery being launched today. The first two trains have already had the new look applied to them overnight. Interestingly, despite the franchise being awarded to First outright, the ‘First’ branding has been dropped, although this is in line with Great Western Railway (another First franchise) and Hull Trains, where the overt First branding has also disappeared.

Whilst FTPE invested in new trains around a decade ago, this new franchise will also see new trains, in the form of 19 Hitachi AT300 bi-mode trains (which will probably be Class 802 when delivered). Sporting five carriages, these will be much longer than TPE’s existing trains, and have a faster top speed of 125 mph (200 km/h). As bi-mode trains, they will use electric overhead wires where available, but will be able to fall back to diesel engines on lines which have yet to be electrified. These should arrive by the end of 2019, and will be built at Hitachi’s Newton Aycliffe plant in County Durham.

Whilst TPE have only ordered 19 new trains for now, they will have the ability to order extra trains should the need arise, as long as there is a business case for them. This should avoid the issue with the previous franchise, where FTPE were not able to order extra carriages despite issues with overcrowding.

New stations and infrastructure

Infrastructure like stations, track and signalling aren’t in the remit of train operating companies like First and Arriva, but changes to these will have an effect on the new franchises. In West Yorkshire, two new stations are under construction – one at Kirkstall Forge near Leeds, due to open imminently, and another at Low Moor, south of Bradford and just off the M606 motorway which will open this summer. Further new stations are likely, including one at Elland, one of the largest towns in the region without its own railway station.

Over in Manchester, work has started on the Ordsall Chord, a new link that will allow trains heading west from Manchester Victoria and Salford Central stations to loop back towards Deansgate, Manchester Oxford Road and Manchester Piccadilly. This will allow services from the Calder Valley to continue to Manchester Airport for the first time, and link Manchester’s two major railway stations. The Calder Valley line will also receive capacity improvements, allowing trains to run more frequently, and the TransPennine route via Huddersfield and Stalybridge to Leeds is due to be upgraded and electrified over the next 8-10 years.

High Speed 2 and High Speed 3 are also due to come into play over the next few years, although plans are not as progressed as the other upgrades.

No Subsidy

Some explanation as to why the previous franchises had lower levels of investment (or none at all) are to do with taxpayer subsidies. Northern Rail was one of the most heavily subsidised franchises in Britain, and FTPE was also in receipt of a small level of subsidy. The subsidies were required as income from fares (i.e. passengers buying tickets) would not be sufficient to cover the costs of running the trains. Whilst there’s an argument for withdrawing services that are not commercially viable, there’s also an argument that some services are important even if they lose money, and in any case, withdrawing train services has been very controversial ever since the 1960s.

Government policy is to try to shift more of the burden of train running costs to passengers, rather than taxpayers, and the aim with the two new franchises is that, by the time they both end, neither franchise will need a subsidy. In TPE’s case, the opposite is expected to happen, and so First will have to pay a premium to the government, rather than receive a subsidy. With Arriva, it should roughly break even, or receive a drastically reduced subsidy.

This is where Rail North’s lobbying has been effective. Their aim is to break the subsidy cycle – train services have been subsidised because they can’t attract enough passengers to be commercially viable, but there hasn’t been enough investment to make them commercially viable. I hope they’re right, and that investment in services will unlock latent demand. That way, both passengers and taxpayers will benefit, especially if there are no major rises in train fares.

Driver-only operation

An appropriately-timed press release by trade unions suggests that there are plans for some of Arriva’s trains to lose their guard. Currently, guards are responsible for opening and closing train doors, ensuring that the train is safe to depart stations, and for checking and selling tickets. It’s possible that, to cut costs, some services will move to ‘Driver-only operation’, where the driver takes over the safety and door operations. This will require trains and stations to be modified, with door controls installed in drivers’ cabs and CCTV cameras on trains and stations so that the driver can see the doors. But it means that guards can be replaced by less-qualified (and therefore cheaper) revenue protection officers on trains, who are freed up to just sell and check tickets. Some trains may not even have anyone else on board other than the driver.

Driver-only operation is widespread on commuter services in the south-east, and, as well as being cheaper to run, it’s arguably better for train reliability. I’ve experienced trains being stuck at stations with the doors shut for some time (up to 30 seconds) because the guard has been busy selling a ticket when the train has arrived; if that happens at multiple stations, then it can add up. But, trade unions are right to lobby to protect their members jobs (and I speak as a trade union member myself), and there are benefits to having a member of staff available to help with passenger concerns. It’s an issue that I feel neutral about.

Day 1

So, today was day 1 of the new franchises. Whilst TPE are rolling out their new brand very quickly, I gather that Northern are taking a steadier approach. It’ll be a couple of years before the major changes in Northern’s train fleet take effect, so in the meantime it’s likely that the trains will retain their current liveries (but with the new operator logo). The old ‘Northern Rail’ logos have already been removed from trains and stations, but staff will still wear their existing uniforms for the time being.

Travelling to work this morning, there was very little to show for the change in franchise, apart from the guard having a name badge in the new brand, and drawing attention to the new Low Moor station as we passed it at speed. As old trains get refurbished, and new trains arrive, I expect that the rebranding exercise will ramp up.

After being neglected for so long, it’s good that Northern rail users will finally see some decent, large scale investment in their railways. My only worry is that these improvements may not be enough – whilst the new trains are welcome, by the end of this franchise, Arriva Northern will have only made a net gain of around 16 trains, unless more are sourced from elsewhere. We shall see what happens.

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