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.

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Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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