Decisive action today for a joined-up North tomorrow

False starts have bedevilled attempts to upgrade the trans-Pennine route through Huddersfield. It has long been the primary route between Leeds and Manchester carrying a mix of express, local and freight trains.
While it’s true that the route has some of the youngest trains on the network, these three-car Class 185s were to have been four-car until the Department for Transport intervened and insisted on shorter-formations. The result is that plenty of passengers must stand.
Current operator TPE is bringing new fleets. From CAF will come Mk 5 coaches hauled by Class 68 locomotives and from Hitachi a fleet of bi-mode trains. The coaches will run in 13 five-car formations. They are the first locomotive-hauled coaches since British Rail introduced Mk 4s in 1989. Hitachi will deliver 19 five-car Class 802s. (TPE is also to receive 12 five-car Class 397 electrics from CAF for services between Scotland and Manchester/Liverpool.)
Both represent a compromise. They should have been electric trains, fit to run under the wires that have long been promised for Leeds-Huddersfield-Manchester. Network Rail’s cost overruns on the Great Western Main Line put paid to the idea of wires through Huddersfield. TPE’s Class 802s will run electrically north of the York to Newcastle and eventually on to Edinburgh. They could simply switch should wires appear through Huddersfield.
Electrification to Scarborough and Middlesbrough remains very unlikely but were it to happen, then swapping Class 68s for electric Class 88s should not be difficult. So TPE has saved something of the situation created by Network Rail.
Instead of electrification, the Department for Transport is now promoting upgrade plans for the route and has asked NR for a plan by the end of the year. NR’s plan must permit six trains per hour and cut today’s 49-minute Manchester-Leeds journey down to 40 minutes, while Manchester-York must fall from 74 minutes to 62 minutes. Performance must been 92.5% PPM.
Aside from electrification, this is not the first time a network owner has looked at upgrading the route. Back in 1999, Railtrack was looking. It produced some colourful plans that explained where it planned to lay extra tracks and lift line speeds to bring a 45-minute journey between Manchester and Leeds with a regular service of fast trains every 15 minutes (RAIL 383). Little more happened, Railtrack became embroiled in the aftermath of October 2000’s accident at Hatfield and its West Coast Route Modernisation was running into major problems. Eventually, Railtrack collapsed and NR took over while the trans-Pennine plans gathered dust.
These plans included adding a fourth track between Thornhill LNW Junction (where the lines from Wakefield Kirkgate and Leeds converge) and Heaton Lodge Junction (where lines from Huddersfield and Hebden Bridge join). From Heaton Lodge to Huddersfield, Railtrack also planned an extra line to make it a three-track section. This would have given Huddersfield’s eastern approach a fast line in each direction and a reversible slow line between them. NR is now thought to be proposing a quadrupled line east of Huddersfield to Heaton Lodge Junction. There’s also talk of installing ETCS Level 2 signalling which will be a brave move given that it’s not been used on such a scale before. That’s not to say NR shouldn’t propose it. It has an alternative route between Leeds and Manchester – the Calder Valley line – over which trains can be diverted. It has to make the leap towards cab-signalling at some point but wise heads might suggest using a quieter line for its first long-distance ETCS application.
Heading west, Railtrack produced a proposal that saw two lines split into four on the approach to Marsden station with lines paired by direction. The 70mph fast lines would be on the outside with 60mph slow lines in the centre. This proposal returned Standedge Tunnel’s disused southern bore to use and would have seen trains run through a new four-platform station at Diggle before the railway returned to twin 75mph tracks.
Railtrack planned to remodel Stalybridge to pair its four tracks by direction and retain the west-facing pair in the station’s island platform. Network Rail has remodelled here, adding a second west bay with access only to and from the lines from Manchester Victoria. These lines carry a 45mph speed limit in place of the 70mph Railtrack planned.
NR added the extra platforms and capacity at Stalybridge because it planned to use the station to turn trains back here. Having introduced electric trains between Liverpool and Victoria, train operator Northern had planned to extend them the eight miles to Stalybridge to reverse there because this created more capacity to feed trains through Victoria, bringing more seats for passengers. This plan foundered on the rocks of NR’s electrification overspending which saw Victoria-Stalybridge postponed.
Postponed too are the seven miles of wires needed between Bolton and Wigan while Oxenholme-Windermere’s 10-mile single-track wiring scheme has been cancelled. For the sake of 25 route miles of overhead electrification, Northern is having to convert Class 319 electric multiple units into Class 769 bi-mode trains. This has all the hallmarks of the same crass short-termism from DfT that saw it block TPE’s fourth coach.
It comes despite the success of Northern’s Liverpool-Manchester electric services. They’ve seen growth at double the rate of similar lines, according to Northern Planning Director Rob Warnes.
Shelving these three wiring projects opens the DfT to criticism that it’s doing little for Northern England’s railways. The reality that the region is seeing more rail investment now than for many years becomes lost.
Blackpool North is currently closed while NR comprehensively rebuilds its railway from Preston. New signalling, track and overhead wires should transform services to the Fylde resort. There’s been recent work at Liverpool Lime Street to provide new platforms. Bolton once again has a fifth platform. Remodelling at Rochdale has delivered this town an extra platform and the ability to turn-back Manchester trains.
Biggest of the recent interventions has been the building of Ordsall Chord with its new bridge over the River Irwell. This allows trains to run directly between Manchester Victoria and Piccadilly and allows services to reach Manchester Airport (now with four platforms, double the number it once had) without blocking the throat at Piccadilly. More trains will be able to approach from Stockport and areas south and east of Manchester with these crossing moves removed.
All this work flowed from what was once known as the Northern Hub but is now rebranded to be the £1 billion Great North Rail Project. Next May brings a major timetable change of new and improved services. Many of these changes were planned for December 2017 but were delayed in the face of NR failing to complete its work in time. For Northern, May brings 60 extra coaches cascaded from other operators. Further changes will come when Northern takes delivery of new trains from CAF. It’s expecting 25 two-car and 30 three-car Class 195 diesels and 31 three-car and 12 four-car Class 331 electrics.
With TPE’s new fleets as well as Northern’s, the region is set for major improvements. Four-wheel Pacers will go – they may have saved the railways in the 1980s but their time has come. In their place will a mix of modern and modernised trains. It’s a far cry from 2004 when Northern was first launched as a ‘no growth’ franchise seemingly destined to run nothing but small trains.
I welcome this investment in track and trains. How about extending it to include those missing electrification links?

This article first appeared in RAIL 841, published on December 6 2017.

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Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.

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