It doesn’t matter who runs the trains. The northern rail network needs better infrastructure

The Ordsall Curve. Image: Network Rail.

Is the balloon about to go up? Speculation is rife that the government is finally about to scrap the struggling Northern Rail franchise, after Boris Johnson told yesterday’s Prime Ministers’ Question Time: “We are developing contingency plans for a replacement for Northern Rail”. He also, while on the subject, said that the government was “looking at the whole way the franchising system operates”.

In some ways there’s no new information here – Johnson is just echoing what transport secretary Grant Shapps said last week. But the fact the PM himself is saying it, and so soon, is a sign the government is seriously planning to move on this. It might not be today, or this week, or next – but Northern Rail’s current contract can’t be long for this world.

The only slight problem here is – this won’t fix the northern rail network. A large chunk of the network’s problem isn’t bad management (though there’s no doubt been plenty of that too), but shoddy infrastructure. And the power to fix that lies not with the beleaguered train operating company, but in the government’s own hands.

In 2014, then Chancellor George Osborne did what he did best, donning some high vis clothing, to announce the “Northern Hub”, a £600m programme of rail investment. Here’s a map:

When first discussed in 2009, this project had been known as the Manchester Hub, on the fairly reasonable grounds that much of the work involved was in central Manchester. But the coalition re-branded it – partly to bring it in line with the Northern Powerhouse policy, partly because fixing the bottleneck in Manchester would allow more trains to run right across the region’s rail network, from Cheshire to Tyneside.

One key element of this scheme - the Castlefield, or Ordsall, Curve, which allows trains to run between Piccadilly and Victoria stations - had already received funding in 2011, and was completed in late 2017, when I got to have a go on it. But properly fixing the bottleneck would also require two new through platforms at Piccadilly, and work at Oxford Road station so that it could take longer trains. Without this work, there’s a limit on the number of trains that can run.

And even though all this passed all the necessary public enquiries as long ago as 2015, the work hasn’t happened. Let’s hear from Jen Williams at the Manchester Evening News, writing on Tuesday, to bring the story up to date:

A pan-northern meeting of council chiefs will hear tomorrow how the delayed expansion of both stations has been a ‘key’ cause of the chaos that has been crippling the north’s network.

They will also hear that the opening of the £85m Ordsall Chord link through Castlefield, an investment regularly celebrated by ministers, has actually made the overall situation worse - because it was not coupled with the rest of the investment originally proposed.

The result of all this is:

The beleaguered Northern rail franchise, let in 2016, was designed for an improved corridor that didn’t materialise.

In other words, whatever the failings of Northern Rail management in working with its staff, ensuring there are enough trains available and so on, it was always doomed to failure: it had been given a timetable that the network couldn’t handle.

A report going before Transport for the North says there are only three choices now facing government: pay for the infrastructure, cut train services or accept ‘the very poor reliability’ that comes from running current number of services through the existing bottleneck.

So far, ministers don’t seem keen to pursue any of these options. They haven’t stumped up for the infrastructure, and for fairly obvious reasons they don’t seem likely to tell passengers that they have to lump it. Instead, they’ve found a fourth option, which won’t fix the network but will get them off the hook: talk up plans to scrap Northern Rail’s contract, and thus force the train operator to carry the can.

Treating private companies as scapegoats has a long history on the British rail network – there’s an argument, indeed, that this was basically what rail privatisation was for. The question is what the government does next. If it finds the estimated £800m needed to complete the Northern Hub project it might be able to fix this mess. If not, though, northern rail passengers are likely in for more misery – no matter who runs the trains.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.


Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.

There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

Click to expand. 

With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

Click to expand. 

While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

Click to expand. 

Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).