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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Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.