So why is Northern Rail in chaos? Here are 11 reasons

The Ordsall Curve, Manchester. Image: Network Rail.

Two weeks ago, in the middle of the great CityMetric “Modelgate” scandal, I was contacted by a reader about another one of my articles. He was very impressed with what I’d written, and asked about my experience in West Yorkshire transport and whether I was an authority on the subject. I tried to let him down gently, replying that I was just a bloke who travels by train and thinks too much.

So, now you all know my credentials, or lack thereof, here are some thoughts on how the North’s railway armageddon has been 20 years in the making.

1. A lack of investment

The last major investment in the railways in the North came under British Rail. Total fleet renewal occurred in the mid to late 1980s, with Pacers and Sprinters replacing virtually all other trains.

A Pacer (left) and a Sprinter (right) at York. These, we think, are real trains. Image: Chris Sharp.

There has been nothing on that scale in the last 30 years.

2. The failure of Northern Spirit

There were winners and losers when the railways were privatised. The North were the losers.

The franchise east of the Pennines went, in 1998, to a management buyout. But Northern Spirit, as it was known, didn’t do well: shortages of drivers and trains led to endless cancellations, which led to an emergency timetable, which soon became permanent, which led to a £2m fine from the Strategic Rail Authority.

In 2000, Northern Spirit was bought out – bailed out, even – by Arriva. The trains received new liveries a couple of times, but little else changed.

3. The ongoing driver shortage

At the same time, the rail freight industry was growing. Rather than train their own drivers, which is costly in both time and money, the freight companies instead poached drivers from the passenger sector.

This created a driver shortage in the north, and drove up both wages and reliance on rest day working. Northern drivers are now very well paid and don’t need to work overtime, yet the industry is still dependent on it.

An industrial dispute is underway at Northern at the moment. The removal of rest day working is a little talked about factor in this whole mess.

4. The ‘no growth’ franchise

The second round of franchises in the North, awarded in December 2004, saw the creation of two new companies. First TransPennine Express (FTPE) became a proto-Intercity operator; Northern Rail was formed as a commuter and rural train company. Between them they ran the bulk of the North’s trains until March 2016. Both were very successful, and saw large increases in passenger numbers.

But the franchises were awarded by government on a ‘no growth’ basis: that meant there was no mechanism to encourage investment, and revenues beyond a certain point would be clawed back by central government.

In other words, the powers that be had given up on rail in the north: line closures were being discussed. Unexpectedly, these railways flourished – but with no money for additional rolling stock, more than a decade’s growth had to be contained within the same size fleet of trains.

Overcrowding wasn’t just an issue for commuters: trains between Leeds and Manchester as late as 11am were full to standing.

Packing them on a Pacer in June 2016. Image: Chris Sharp.

5. The no extra coaches

First Transpennine Express could see the direction things were heading, and made a bid to government to expand its fleet. The company’s three-car trains were filling up; it wanted to ease the crush by adding a fourth.

The Department for Transport (DfT) thought about this for a year, and then said no. Ten years on, and Transpennine Express are about to receive new five car trains – but the North has literally been standing around for a decade.

A 3 car Transpennine Express waiting at platform 10, York. When everyone told you that York has a beautiful station, they forgot about this bit. Image: Chris Sharp.

6. The lack of diesels

The reason for the DfT’s refusal was electrification. In 2009, the future was electric: there was thought to be no point buying diesel trains, when the network would be electrified within 25 years.

Only a few lines have been electrified, but fewer diesels have been built – which has left the country with a shortage of diesel trains for at least a decade. Northern Rail couldn’t run more trains even when it wanted to, because there weren’t any spare trains available. When the Tour de France came to Yorkshire, every spare diesel train in the county was chartered in, and there still weren’t anywhere near enough to meet demand.

There are plenty of good quality electric trains, which are in storage rather than in service. So many, in fact, that there are at least three projects now underway, working on adding diesel engines to them so they can run away from the wires.


7. The raid form the south

With a clear shortage of trains in the north, the Department of Transport allowed Chiltern Trains to nick 18 of First Transpennine Express’s coaches, to run a new London to Oxford service.

This left the North in a hopeless state. The DfT forced Northern Rail to give some of its trains to FTPE – and then, in a bizarre turn of events, the DfT started running services with Northern Rail. Trains on the Cumbrian Coast route were run with very old diesel locomotives and 50 year old coaches. They actually had Department for Transport stickers on them.

These trains are very popular with rail enthusiasts, but not with the locals who complain about how often they break down.

Department for Transport train at Ravenglass. Don’t ask me how I have a photo of this, it’s pure chance. Image: Chris Sharp.

8. The ridiculously old trains

Train breakdowns aren’t limited to the Cumbrian Coast. Old things tend to go wrong more than new, and Northern’s fleet of 30 year old trains are far from reliable. They need a lot maintenance. And trains that are being repaired or maintained can’t be out on the network getting passengers to their destinations.

When trains aren’t maintained properly, they are also more likely to break down. And a train “sitting down” can cause a lot of disruption to other services. On top of that, the fleet of trains is being made to work harder and longer, as passenger demand has grown. This all adds to the unreliability of the fleet.

Old trains are also a poor experience for the passenger. Often they are less comfortable, and tend not to be as water tight as they should be. Some of Northern’s fleet have built in showers, which operate automatically whenever it rains, whether you want them to or not.

One of a small batch of Pacers without bus seats. The black rubber mat on the floor shows the location of the shower facility. Image: Chris Sharp.

9. The new franchisees promise big…

Northern Rail and First Transpennine Express were successful. They both delivered large increases in trains services and passenger numbers, even though their franchises were awarded on a no growth basis.

New franchises were due in 2016, and the same mistakes would not be repeated: this time it was all about growth, growth and more growth. A minimum of 200 extra carriages for Northern. All Pacers to be scrapped. Longer trains for Transpennine. Quicker journey times. The Northern Powerhouse was thrusting forward, and electrification would spark over the network.

Arriva won the Northern Rail franchise, and confusingly rebranded it as, simply, “Northern”. First won Transpennine, and rebranded as Transpennine Express. Both promised big things. Probably too big. But what else could they do? Investment in the North was 20 years behind where it should be, and the Chancellor and the Transport Secretary wanted that to change.

Old train with a new coat of paint. A Sprinter in Northern livery. Image: Chris Sharp.

10. …but don’t deliver

We’ve now reached the point where those big promises are being delivered on – and it’s not going well.

Last month’s major timetable change wasn’t just about rescheduling trains, but was designed to deliver more services between Leeds and Manchester, Manchester and Liverpool, Newcastle and Leeds, Lincoln and Sheffield, and so on and so on. All these service improvements need more trains – and those trains haven’t arrived yet. New trains are being built, and the inevitable delays to their arrival have yet to be announced. But delays to new trains in London and Scotland are causing problems in the North.

Second hand trains from Bristol and Edinburgh can now been seen at work in Yorkshire, but not nearly as many as there should be. And delays to electrification in London means diesels haven’t been released to Bristol, which in turn has kept Yorkshire bound trains in the South West. Brand new electric trains in Scotland have unsafe curved windows in their driving cabs, so haven’t entered service, which means Scotland’s diesels haven’t headed south of the border.

This new timetable should have seen even more changes, but many service improvements have been held back until December. Even without the introduction of these more frequent schedules, there is a big shortage of trains, resulting in the trains that are running having fewer coaches than demand requires. Passengers are being left on platforms.

A Turbostar at York on May 22nd working a Northern service, still in its Scotrail Livery. Image: Chris Sharp.

11. The creaking infrastructure

The other company which needs to deliver on promises is Network Rail – not that it has promised much in the North.

Leeds and Manchester are booming rail hubs. They have seen massive increases in passenger numbers, yet there has been little (Manchester) or no (Leeds) investment in the railway infrastructure. Widespread electrification was promised and then unpromised. It hasn’t been cancelled, but it won’t happen. The short lengths of railway that are being electrified have been massively delayed.

The Ordsall Curve in Manchester has created more demand without creating any new capacity. Manchester Victoria is full, and yet more trains are running through it. The result is that trains from the west can’t terminate at Victoria, so either have to run though to Rochdale and onwards, or are routed to Piccadilly and on. Yet Piccadilly’s two through platforms are already at capacity, too, and the two additional ones that were promised have been cancelled by Chris Grayling. Ordsall Curve was hailed as the big blessing of the Northern Powerhouse: it’s becoming a curse.

I don’t have a picture of the Ordsall Curve, so here’s a picture of some old infrastructure. A Sprinter crossing the Knaresborough viaduct. Image: Chris Sharp.

Conclusion: We shouldn’t be here

In the late 1980s, West Yorkshire had the biggest non-electric rail network in Europe. The railway from Doncaster to Leeds was wired in 1989, and the Leeds North Western network followed in the 1990s.

A rolling programme of electrification should have continued. By now, all the routes between Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, York and Hull could have been under the wires. This would have led to a steady stream of new electric trains which would have not just kept pace with demand, but stimulated it.

But the North has been starved of this investment – and as we scramble to catch up, this mess has finally caught the attention of the country.

During the last two decades we have seen rolling programs of railway improvements requiring massive investments and delivering major improvements. The London Overground is ow 10 years old. Chiltern Railway’s Project Evergreen has transformed the route out of Marylebone. Thameslink, with its four major station reconstructions and £5.5bn budget, has already transformed rail travel on its routes. These show that it can be done.

But, apparently, only in London.

The North is kicking off – and it’s about bloody time.

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To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.