Order. Counter-order. Disorder. They might be the makings of military disasters but they apply firmly to railways in Northern England.
Most of the disorder flows from governments changing their minds. Privatisation started by keeping British Rail’s organisation of a passenger operator on each side of the Pennines. They later merged while express services were split into a new company.
The Pennine split remains under the surface of today’s Northern, not least because drivers on each side still have very different terms and conditions and receive different pay despite driving similar trains on similar services. Combining the two will surely make the railway more expensive because there’s no union that would agree to ‘level down’ pay. There’s little point in trying because you could be sure that the next reorganisation would split Northern in two once more.
The unified Northern started in 2004, launched as a franchise that would run little trains and see no growth. Leeds and Manchester had different ideas. Their economies boomed and people flocked to trains because they were the quickest way into city centres.
The north’s express operator, TransPennine Express, tried to turn itself into an inter-city operator, ordering new trains from Siemens. They came as three-car units and quickly filled. Government blocked moves to add a fourth coach in a short-sighted decision that made crowding worse.
Pressure continued growing and so the Department for Transport hatched plans in 2008 to replace part of Northern’s fleet of Pacers and Sprinters with new diesel trains. It promised an extra 158 diesel vehicles.
They never arrived which justified Transport Focus Chief Executive Anthony Smith’s comment about the original announcement in RAIL 585’s news coverage. He said DfT’s work looked like it had been: “pasted together overnight”. He added: “It might be a strategy but it’s not a plan.”
It wasn’t even a strategy because the DfT soon turned away from diesel to embrace electrification. In 2007, DfT’s Rail Technical Strategy said of the future: “Many trains will be capable of ‘bi-mode’ operation, drawing electricity from the wires where available but running on portable fuel where not. Battery technology will have advanced and may be capable of supporting rural services in combination with discontinuous electrification, avoiding the infrastructure costs associated with electrification in tunnels and in complex areas.”
By 2012, it had reversed this position and planned to electrify the trans-Pennine route between Leeds and Manchester via Huddersfield and onwards to York as well as a triangle of lines between Manchester, Liverpool and Preston.
It wasn’t long before DfT dropped that plan. It had badly underestimated the costs and difficulties of embarking on a massive electrification programme from a standing start. Network Rail and the industry couldn’t cope and projects began to run late. NR’s failures with its Great Western programme grabbed most of the headlines, and did most to extinguish ministers’ enthusiasm for overhead wires, but it did deliver Liverpool-Manchester to let Northern run Class 319 electric trains cascaded from London. London’s commuters were pleased to see them gone but they were a revelation for Northerners used to Pacers.
Today, we’re back to 2007 and that quote from the Rail Technical Strategy could easily pass a minister’s lips today with Windermere’s electrification shelved and other schemes pushed back to far as to be invisible.
Subtle changes marred plans. NR remodelled Stalybridge to form an eastern terminus for electric trains to relieve pressure on Manchester Victoria. DfT then cancelled the plan to erect wires to it, increasing Victoria’s pressure because it would now have to receive terminating trains from two directions.
NR found poor ground conditions when wiring Manchester to Preston via Bolton which delayed progress. This became a key factor in Northern’s recent timetable meltdown (RAIL 854) when Northern had to ditch its timetables that assumed NR would deliver this scheme in line with its latest promises.
Yet these are tactical problems. Above them all is DfT changing its mind and changing its strategy. Northern’s passengers could have had new diesel trains years ago had DfT stuck with 2007’s plan. These trains could have provided extra capacity, helping solve the overcrowding that’s blighted the operator for over a decade.
There is some good news ahead. Northern and TPE are receiving new electric and diesel trains. They’re being tested now and will be in service soon. They should make a big difference.
I’m sure passengers will welcome them. So will ministers. Not least because they’ll disguise the years of order, counter-order and disorder that have blighted Northern England’s railways. RAIL readers will know better.
This article first appeared in RAIL 855, published on June 20 2018.