Here’s how to fix the Leeds railway network

Leeds railway station. Image: Tejvan Pettinger/Flickr/creative commons.

Leeds has a problem with public transport. The obvious issue is absence of a tramway: years of lobbying for trams has failed and Westminster has recently blocked a trolley bus scheme.

But there is another pressing transport issue in Leeds: its railway station. Unlike most other large cities, Leeds only has the one station into which all its trains and passengers funnel every day. It’s desperate for more capacity to run more trains.

And the pressure on that station is going to get much worse when HS2 arrives. Passengers in Wakefield, Bradford, Halifax, Castleford or Pontefract currently don't need to go to Leeds to get to London: they either have a direct train or they change at Wakefield. When HS2 opens with its very fast link to London, though, changing at Leeds will become attractive, even at the expense of the convenience of a direct train.

The first option which should be investigated is a second station, something like Manchester's Oxford Road. A site east of the station between Leeds Minster and the bus station would go some way to relieve the pressure. For this to be effective, though, a significant number of trains would have to call there.

This brings me to the fundamental problem with Leeds railway station: the lines that serve it are lopsided. Six tracks enter the station's west side, yet only two tracks leave on the east: in effect, two thirds of the trains arriving at the station have to terminate there.

Terminating a train in Leeds isn't in itself a bad thing, but you can run a lot more trains when they only stop there for two minutes and then head off in the same direction they were already going – you know, like most trains, tubes, trams and buses do at most stations and stops. The key to sorting out Leeds is to rebalance the station to enable as many trains as possible run through the station rather than terminating.

A simplified map of the Leeds railway network. Some little used lines are omitted for clarity.

Looking in detail at the trains that arrive in Leeds from the east, they come on a line from Hull, via Selby, and a line from York (trains form Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Scarborough). These two lines meet at Micklefield Junction and run from there to Leeds on a two track railway. Eight trains per hour (8tph) come from the east.

Arriving at Leeds from the west there are as follows.

  • The Harrogate Line – 2tph;
  • The Leeds North Western (Ilkley, Skipton, Bradford, Carlisle, Morecambe) – 7tph;
  • Calder Valley Line (Bradford, Manchester Victoria, Blackpool) – 4tph;
  • North Trans Pennine (Huddersfield, Manchester Piccadilly, Liverpool) – 7tph;
  • East Coast Mainline (London, Birmingham, Doncaster) – 5tph;
  • Castleford Line (Nottingham, Sheffield) – 4tph;

Which looks like this:

An infographic showing the west-east imbalance of trains arriving at Leeds.

So: 29 trains per hour approach Leeds form the west. Only 8 continue eastwards. That leaves Leeds with 21 terminating trains an hour, off peak!

The simple solution is to run more of those westside trains through the station. But where would you run them to? There are already 6tph to York: I suppose you could add another, and the same for Hull, but that doesn't help much.


That second station in the city, would allow some services to terminate there or run through it to a new Park and Ride station adjacent to the M1. Doing that, you could get to 12tph on the east side, but you’d still have 29 on the west. So: to make a significant difference some of those trains that arrive at Leeds from the west need to approach from the east.

Obviously you can't move a city to a more convenient location, but it turns out that you don't have to. Look at a map, and you’ll find that many of the towns and cities whose trains arrive in Leeds from the west are actually east of the city. London is east of Leeds, by about 60 miles. In fact, Castleford, Wakefield, Nottingham and Sheffield are all east of Leeds – yet their trains past from east to west, south of Leeds to enter the station.

This is a big cause of the imbalance. Route these services in from the east and the problem is solved. Here’s how.

London First

Rerouting London trains is the easy bit – so easy, that until recently it used to happen, albeit only one train a day.

The East Coast Mainline from London to Scotland passes to the east, but London to Leeds trains leave the mainline at Doncaster and head west. Continue those trains north of Doncaster to Hambleton Junction and run them onto the line from Hull to Leeds and they would approach from the east.

Routing trains this way, rather than via Wakefield, and you get a bonus because it's a higher speed line: more capacity and its quicker. Win win.

Having reached Leeds from the east trains would continue on westward to Bradford or Harrogate. Such a route is desperately needed by Bradford, and way beyond Harrogate council’s wildest dreams. The key here is for the London trains to replace a current Leeds-Bradford or Leeds-Harrogate service, increasing the number of coaches without taking up track capacity.

The proposed London route is in red, the current route is in blue.

If the two London trains per hour could switch from west to east, the imbalance would become 27tph-10tph.

The London trains cross to the east.

Progress.

New Classy Route

That was easy – Castleford is trickier, because it requires building new railway.

The Cass line runs east-west through South Leeds, before taking a handbrake turn into the station. Well, it should do: more accurately, the train takes a handbrake turn and then parks outside the station for five minutes waiting for platform and you miss your connection to York, for f-

Sorry, where was I? Oh, South Leeds. What is required is a couple of miles of new railway line in south east Leeds. A link between Stourton and Neville Hill through what is mainly post industrial wasteland would enable Castleford trains to approach Leeds from the east. The service could continue to terminate at Leeds or run on to Bradford Foster Square and terminate there. Once again, the result is a shorter and quicker route into Leeds, another win-win.

Along with the local trains that run via Castleford, regional trains from Nottingham and Sheffield enter Leeds on this line. They would also benefit from switching to this route and continuing on to Bradford Interchange.

 

Four trains would switch from west to east, making the score 23tph-14tph.

With a new East Leeds Link line in place, a route between York and Leeds via Castleford would be possible. The hourly Blackpool North to York service could be routed this way. Between York and Leeds and this is a stopping service, which eats up capacity between the Micklefield Junction and York. Route this Blackpool service via Castleford and you get another big win: a direct train each hour from Castleford to York would link up the cheap homes in Castleford and Sherburn to the growing economy of York and its overheated housing market.

The proposed East Leeds Link line in red. Possible new route from York using freight lines in grey.

Is that enough?

Rebalancing the lines in this way will provide Leeds with the capacity needed for the arrival of HS2. If further capacity was required, then it would be worth investigating the reopening of the Harrogate to Leeds line via Wetherby. This would join the Hull to Leeds line at Crossgates.

However, doubling the number of trains approaching Leeds from the east will mean that two track line reaches maximum capacity. Quadrupling the line from Neville Hill to Leeds will almost certainly be required.

Extending that four tracking all the way to Micklefield Junction would be a very sensible investment. This is actually easier than you would think, because a forward thinker in the first half of 19th century decided that a four track railway will be needed one day. He stipulated that all bridges over the railway between Leeds and Selby must give clearance for four tracks.

I propose that the new tracks are built on the north side of the current two. These should be built as the fast lines without platforms at the intermediate stations. In effect this would be the eastern leg of HS3, creating a true intercity route (125mph) between Leeds and York.

Oh yeah, it goes without saying, this route needs to be electrified through to York and Selby.

 

At some point the twin track from Leeds to Mickleflied (in blue) will need to be quadrupled.

Will it happen?

Rail investment in Yorkshire, the Humber and the North East has been non-existent for the last decade and a half – so I don't hold out much hope for any projects like the ones I've set out.

That said, electrification of the Leeds to York and Selby lines should be a top priority. It is the easy bit of the Transpennine Electrification Project and it will be put to use straightaway by TransPennine’s new bi-mode trains and Northern’s new electrics.

The last five years have seen significant improvements in the North West with electrification, capacity improvements and re-signalling. East of the Pennines all we have received are three small stations on the outskirts of Bradford and the addition of a new entrance at Leeds station.

It's time for huge investment around Leeds to make rail a viable option for the city region. What I’ve proposed here is only the start.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook

 
 
 
 

You’ve heard of trainspotters and planespotters. Now meet Britain’s growing army of busspotters

Some busspotters in action. Image: Damian Potter.

In the summer of 2014, with too much time on my hands and too little to do, I found myself in the middle of an incredibly active, 200+ person Facebook group. How I ended up here (record scratch, freeze frame) is a little too convoluted and stupid to explain – but what I found was a world that I a) could not have imagined nor b) had any clue even existed.

The group I tumbled into was what I now understand to be a very, very small example of a “busspotting” group – that is, a Facebook group full of dedicated bus enthusiasts which exists to share pictures of buses they see on the road. This group had members from all over the country, with a concentration on northern buses, and was predominantly filled with young, white men.

What I expected to see was a range over relatively interesting buses, holding some significance or another, that were tough to find in your average day-to-day life. This was, largely, not the case. What fascinated me was that the vast majority of the group was not focused on unique buses, new buses, historically significant buses, and so on – but simply on the average bus and or bus route you might take just to get around your city.

What was even more bizarre to me was that people from across the country were meeting up in small towns (Morpeth, Livingston, Stevenage) to take seemingly mundane bus rides to other equally small places (Washington, Gloucester, Grimsby). The busspotters would travel hours on end to meet at these locations simply to ride this bus, often for three or four hours, and experience a bus route they’d never been on before or one that they just particularly enjoyed.

Ooooh. Image: Damian Potter.

After a couple of weeks of silently watching and one semi-ironic post, I left the group. And, for the next three years, I gave barely a thought to bus enthusiasm, as no busspotter group/page/person crossed my path. Unlike similar enthusiasms like planespotting and trainspotting, it didn’t seem to me that busspotting had any significant following.

But, as is the way of these things, a weird thread on Twitter three summers later sparked my memory of my short time in this group. I wanted to see what busspotting was actually and about and if, in fact, it was still a thing.

So I spoke to Damian Potter, an admin on several popular busspotting groups, about what it’s like to be deep into the busspotting scene.

“I used to sit upstairs on double decker buses and 'drive' them, including the pedal movements!” Damian announced right off the bat, speaking of his childhood. “I've been driving coaches at home and abroad since I passed my PCV test in 1994. I've been driving for Transdev Harrogate and District Travel since 1998.”

Damian, as you might have gathered, has been a busspotter since his early youth. Now, at the age of 50, he manages four different busspotting Facebook groupsm, mostly based around the Harrogate area (Transdev Enthusiasts, The Harrogate Bus Company, iTransport Worldwide and Spotting Bus and Coach Spotters). Some of them have over a thousand members.

He also participates in busspotting IRL, travelling around the country participating in busspotting meet-ups and events and co-organising trips along different bus routes. When I asked him what busspotting was to him, he explained that it can manifest in different ways: some people focus on makes of bus and routes, other focus on particular bus companies (National Express is particularly popular). Of course, bus enthusiasm is not solely a British phenomenon, but busspotters can certainly be found in practically every corner of the UK.

“People tend to think that spotters hang around bus stations furtively, with a camera and some curly cheese sandwiches, but this isn't really the case,” Damian continued. That said, he also mentioned some particularly hardcore bus nuts who have been known to trespass on company premises to be the first to snap a picture of a new bus.

“They really do produce some brilliant pictures, though,” he added.


Although much of busspotting culture happens online, predominantly on Facebook, groups often have what are called ‘running days’ which involve meet ups having to do with particular routes. Damian mentioned one particularly popular day following the London Routemaster buses that happen periodically. Not only do these routes draw in enthusiasts, he noted, but also draw huge numbers of tourists who want to claim they’ve ridden on the original London buses.

“I reckon the general public miss the old Routemaster buses. There is only one 'heritage' route in London which still uses Routemaster buses and that's the 15 service between Trafalgar Square and Tower Hill.”

Despite this widespread interest in buses and bus history, though, busspotters often find themselves treated as the lesser of the motor enthusiasts. This became clear to me almost immediately when speaking to Damian, and continued to strike me throughout our conversation; without my saying anything sarcastic, malicious, or snarky, he became instantly defensive of his fellow enthusiasts and of his hobby.

When I asked him why he felt this immediate need to defend busspotting, he explained that people often ridicule busspotters and bus enthusiasm generally, arguing that bus drivers are the most common attackers. “However,” he noted, “if I bring a load of pictures into the canteen they're the first to crowd around to see bus pictures...”

Aaah. Image: Damian Potter.

Despite being perceived as an often-mocked hobby, bus enthusiasm is expanding rapidly, Damien claims. “The bus enthusiast culture is growing, with younger generations getting more involved.” Drawing in new, younger enthusiasts has become easier thanks to social media, as has creating real personal connections. Social media has made it easier for bus enthusiasm to not just stay afloat, but actually thrive over the last several years.

It’s so widespread, in fact, that a national competition is held every year in Blackpool to mark Bus Driver of the Year (Damian himself came in 34th out of 155 back in 2002). This event draws in everyone from the bus world – drivers, manufacturers, tour companies, and enthusiasts alike. Here is one of the many places where great friendships are forged and busspotters who’ve only known each other online can finally meet face-to-face. “Personally I have made some great friends through Facebook,” Damian told me. “I have even stayed over at a friend's house in London a couple of times.”

Busspotting may be less well-known than motor enthusiasms like planespotting and trainspotting, but that very well could change. Thanks to active social media groups and regular in-person meet-ups, people have been able to use busspotting forums as not only a way to find lifelong friends, but also spend more of their free time exploring their hobby with the people they’ve met through these groups and pages who share their enthusiasm. For all the flack it may receive, the future of busspotting looks bright.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.