Here’s why Bradford is the key to fixing the West Yorkshire transport network

Bradford Interchange. Image: Ian Kirk/Wikimedia Commons.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the problem with the Leeds’ railway network: how it has only one station, a through station where 70 per cent of its trains terminate.

By contrast, Leeds’ neighbour Bradford has two stations, both termini – yet one of them is served almost exclusively by through trains. Returning that station to its status as a terminus could enable a radical transformation of public transport in West Yorkshire.

I don’t really know Bradford: I’ve visited a few times, and passed through on the train a couple of hundred times. What I do know is that it was once a grand northern city and a railway hub, with two large railway termini, Forster Square (aka Midland) facing north and Exchange (now Interchange) looking south.

Both have been hollowed out, their grandeur long gone. They remain termini, although proposals have been made to link the two together to create a through route.

But I’m not convinced this would help. How many passengers actually interchange between the two? I don’t imagine there are a great deal of Halifax to Ilkley or New Pusdey to Shipley passengers. (Actually now I think about it, there was one occasion last year where a Pudsey-Shipley train would have been very handy, but I was on a beer fuelled day out, so I’m not sure that counts as an economic benefit.) No, Bradford should keep its termini.

A map of West Yorkshire showing the routes and places in this article.

The good terminus

Bradford Forster Square is on the Leeds North Western Metro network, which is as close to perfect as an outer suburban network can get: Skipton and Ilkley in the west and north link with Bradford and Leeds in the south and east.

Two trains per hour (2 tph) run between each pair of places (with the exception of a Skipton to Ilkley service; that would be silly), with Shipley acting as a key interchange. Every stations has either 6 tph or 4 tph, which is pretty great. And, it’s all electrified, awesome.

I suggested last September that Leeds would be well-served if one of its twice an hour London services were extended on to Bradford: that should go into Forster Square. The Nottingham-Leeds service could also continue in this way: the timetable would still work with these changes.

Bradford Forster Square may have lost its commuter train from Morecambe, with its “Club Car” in which wealthy mill owners enjoyed a drink on their way to work. But it’s still has a good, sensible service and it is a logical place to terminate a train.

So: Bradford Forster Square is fine. On the south side of the city, though, Bradford Interchange is basically nuts.


Interchange Issues

Opened in 1850, Bradford Exchange was built as a joint effort by two companies. The Great Northern Railway ran trains from Leeds and the east, while the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway’s trains arrived from Manchester and the west. It was never designed for through trains, and after “rationalisation” in the 1970s was renamed Bradford Interchange in 1983.

Today Interchange has a solid service of 4 trains per hour from Leeds, which all head on to destinations in the west. A reciprocal 4tph run in the opposite direction, giving a total of 8tph.

This sounds reasonable, so long as you ignore the fact that the station is a terminus. Each day 136 services runs “through” Interchange, except they don’t run through at all. Every train has to slowly pull up to the buffer stop, where the driver gets out of the train and walks to the back, which then becomes the front. As she does this, the guard does it in reverse. Both of them then have to perform safety checks. Only then can a “through” train continue.

This takes a minimum of three minutes, but often four or five. Worst of all, that backwards facing seat you bagged when the train was empty in York is now propelling you forwards on a full train for two hours all the way to Blackpool.

Time to Terminate

As Bradford Interchange is a terminus station, it would work a whole deal better if trains actually terminated there. This is how that could happen.

Interchange is on the Calder Valley Line. This route runs from Leeds to Hebden Bridge, before it splits into two routes to Manchester Victoria and Blackpool North.

Truncating all the services on this route at Bradford and making everyone change there is not an option: through trains to Leeds will still be required. This can be achieved by routing some of the trains that currently reverse at Interchange along the route through Brighouse and Dewsbury.

There are 2tph that run from Manchester Victoria to Leeds, via Rochdale and  Bradford. This service provides an important link to the two big northern cities for town such as Halifax, Hebden Bridge and Todmorden. Only one of these trains should terminate at Bradford: the other should continue to run to Leeds, but be routed away from Bradford, switching to the North Transpennine route at Dewsbury. Halifax would lose out but the other towns would gain a faster service to Leeds

The hourly train that currently runs between Manchester Victoria and Leeds via Dewsbury is a stopping service. This would be switched from Leeds to Bradford to maintain the 2tph service.

The proposed changes to the Manchester Victoria trains.

The next train to consider is the hourly Blackpool to York. This is one of those hard-to-believe-it-takes-so-long trains. It’s less than 100 miles, yet takes 2h50, an average of less than 35mph. It’s not fit for purpose.

This should become a Blackpool to Bradford train. A new hourly Blackpool to Leeds train routed via Dewsbury is required. The aim should be a Leeds-Preston timing of 1h15, down from 1h42

Proposed changes to the Blackpool service.

The fourth train each hour to pass through Bradford is a slow train linking Huddersfield to Leeds via Halifax and Bradford. This snakes it’s way through Kirklees and Calderdale, stopping at every available station.

There is an argument for keeping this as a through service, to keep Halifax’s direct train to Leeds. But for reasons that will become clear I’m going for the full house: all trains terminate at Interchange. This becomes a truncated Huddersfield–Bradford stopper. A new all stations Interchange to Leeds service is added, routed via Halifax, Brighouse and Dewsbury.

Proposed changes to the stopping trains.

A New Opportunity

With all services from the west terminating at Bradford, the Interchange to Leeds via Pudsey and Bramley service becomes a separate route and a service can be drawn up on a blank piece of paper. This 10 mile route would become a prime candidate for electrification with a minimum high frequency shuttle of 6 tph.

It would also be suitable for a more radical transformation. In the last 25 years Manchester Metrolink has shown that a world class urban transit system can be created when you start converting heavy rail lines to light rail. Bradford Interchange to Leeds could be the first line in a West Yorkshire Tramway.

Extra stations/stops would be main benefit that light rail would bring to the current line. For 90 per cent of its length, it’s flanked by housing and light industry. The West Midlands Metro between Birmingham and Wolverhampton is a comparable route: it is 13 miles long, and has 26 stops.

Bradford Benefits

Look beyond the current line and the benefits of light rail really add up. A conversion from heavy to light rail in layman’s terms is a switch from trains to trams. Trams run on streets – so at Bradford, the buffer stops could be removed and trams could continue through the heart of the city to Forster Square Station.

Proposed tramway form Interchange to Exchange on Google Maps.

Trams have the advantage of taking people much closer to where they want to go: the University and The Royal Infirmary would be good targets for future extensions.

Bradford would not lose out on its rail services. Both Forster Square and Interchange would continue with their trains to Leeds, London,  Manchester and the rest.

Leeds Link

Trams and trains shouldn’t mix: this means a new route into Leeds would be required.

A mile west of Leeds station, at Holbeck Junction, the new tramway would need to bridge both the A643 and the Leeds to Bradford Forster Square railway. The tram tracks could then cross the Leeds Liverpool Canal and River Aire using the abandoned railway viaduct that once approached Leeds Central Station.

The abandoned great northern viaduct. Image: Google.

Switching to on street running, Leeds Station would be reached via Whitehall Road and Aire Street.

Route of proposed tramway to Leeds station on Google Maps.

But why terminate at Leeds station? The obvious answer to that question is that going any further gets really expensive, but I’m going to ignore that due to the massive benefits that come from pushing on.

The 1990s Leeds Supertram scheme proposed three routes, to the south, north and east of the city. Similar routes were put forward in 2005 for a trolleybus scheme.


These route should be the long term aim. To start with I would propose a short route up to the Universities and/or a route through to the Bus Station and Quarry Hill. The recent short extension of the West Midlands Metro along less than a mile of Birmingham’s streets has produced a disproportionally large 35 per cent increase in ridership. On street running to places people actually want to travel makes trams visible – and this leads to much greater usage.

The key is that the conversion of a railway line to light rail would be a gateway for trams in West Yorkshire. For the last decade, most of the modern tramways in England have expanded, while no new systems have been approved by Westminster. Replacing the trains from Bradford Interchange with trams could be the foot in the door that Leeds needs to open its streets to 21st century public transport.

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Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.