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.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook

 
 
 
 

Ducks and the City: how birds thrive in urban spaces

A mandarin duck, possibly a distant relative of New York’s Hot Duck. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

New York may be well known one of the most diverse, cosmopolitan places on Earth, but the arrival of one East Asian migrant in October 2018 still managed to surprise and delight the city. One lonely male mandarin duck – a gorgeous rust-red duck streaked with white and blue, native to Japan, Korea and East China – somehow found its way to Central Park and settled down on one of the ponds among the mallards and wood ducks to become the media sensation “Hot Duck”. Although not strictly wild in the birdspotting sense as it likely escaped from someone’s collection, the duck lives as free as, well, a bird among the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

A few months later, the mandarin’s native territory was graced by a rare visitor of its own when a European robin ended up in the heart of Beijing. Having shown up just when Britain was falling deeper into political crisis, Chinese birdspotters nicknamed it “Brexit refugee” and raced in from across the country to see what Brits would probably consider an incredibly ordinary bird.

A rash of unusual birds have hit the headlines after landing in cities lately – other recent examples include Melbourne’s “Goth Duck” (a tufted duck, a mainly northern European species never before seen in Australia) and the eagle owl that divebombed bald men in Exeter – but when they do, it’s always their rarity that makes them newsworthy, along with the incongruity of seeing a beautiful wild animal among concrete and litter. Normally cities aren’t home to anything more interesting than a dirty pigeon or a bloodthirsty seagull.

Right?

Moving in

Popular myth says London’s first ring-necked parakeets were released in Carnaby Street by Jimi Hendrix. It’s probably not true, but it’s one hell of a story. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and nor was any other city. Thousands of years ago, wild birds discovered new opportunities on the edges of the first villages. Today the house sparrow is ubiquitous in just about every urban area in the world, but before the first house was built it lived in the dry grasslands of the Middle East, picking seeds out of the sandy soil. Then humans came along and started farming wheat; and whenever a grain fell from a mill or blew from a market stand, a sparrow was there to pick it up. As the technology of farming spread around the world, sparrows came along, too.

Other birds didn’t come by choice but were dragged in by humans. Thousands of rock doves, plump grey-striped birds that nest on cliffs, were caged up and brought into the new cities for their eggs, meat and uncanny ability to find their way home. Naturally, a few of these escaped, but quickly discovered that the walls of buildings were just as good for nesting as natural cliffs. The familiar pigeon was born.

More recently, many species of ducks and geese found a home in cities for the same reason, as have pets-gone-wild like the Indian ring-necked parakeets that brighten up London’s parks and the Javan mynas that chatter in Singapore’s streets.

Bohemian waxwings mainly live in the forests of Scandinavia, but in cold winters they will fly across the sea to British parks and gardens to feast on garden berries. No prizes for guessing where this one is. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

As cities have changed, so too have the birds that lived there. Back when most meat was butchered in shops and markets, piles of skin and bone attracted huge flocks of scavengers like ravens and red kites. Now city streets are mostly free of scrap meat thanks to bin lorries, supermarkets and industrial meat processing; both species fled into the countryside, where they found themselves persecuted by farmers and gamekeepers, the red kite almost to the point of extinction. Now both birds are making a slow comeback.

On the other hand, parks and gardens have lured new species out of the woods and into the town with their sweet berry bushes and seed-filled bird feeders. Blue tits – tiny birds that in the forest prefer to pick spiders off oak trees – adapted especially well to garden life: in the days of milk rounds, the birds learned how to peck open bottle caps and sip at the cream inside. The birds’ behaviour has recently changed again because of the rise of supermarkets and the fall of dairy delivery, and it certainly won’t be the last time.

What do city birds think of us?

Herring gulls are as happy in a Latvian bus station as they are on a windswept beach. Happier, maybe. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

If you walk in a forest you might well find yourself absolutely surrounded by bird song but unable to see where it’s coming from. Birds are shy and, unless they grew up on a desert island, they will fly away and hide at the slightest hint of a threat. They almost behave like programmed characters from a video game – they draw an imaginary circle around themselves (known as the “flight zone”) and if anyone enters that circle, they flee.

Urban birds consistently have a much smaller flight zone and will tend to let humans get much closer to them; and the longer a species has been urbanised, the more this radius shrinks. In the most extreme instance, urban birds will hop right up to someone who might feed them and even land on their hand. (In one of the best birding moments of my life, a parakeet in Hyde Park snatched a peanut from a tourist then landed right on my shoulder to eat it, staying there long enough to pose for a selfie).

If one bird invades another’s territory, things can get messy. Here, two magpies chase off a buzzard as its partner watches. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Then again, not all birds are that friendly. Many are very territorial, especially in the nesting season. Even medium-sized birds like vicious Australian magpies can cause eye injuries to people passing their nests; really big birds like swans can seriously injure people who get too close. Others, like the larger species of gulls, are just greedy and will attack people to steal their food.

Most birds aren’t quite that bold, but living close to humans has still affected their behaviour. Many species of birds are very intelligent – European magpies might be the cleverest non-mammal on the planet – and they’ve worked out how many of the systems of the city work. Pigeons can hop on-board trains for a lazier way to travel between feeding spots. Seagulls understand how to open automatic doors in order to raid branches of Greggs. Crows use passing cars to crack tough nuts, and will even wait at traffic lights to swoop in when the cars stop.

What do we make of city birds?

The robin was voted Britain’s favourite bird in a recent poll, which just goes to show what being small, cute and surprisingly aggressive can do for you. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Although we share our cities with a whole menagerie of wildlife, most of it is either shy and nocturnal, or prefers the dark, dirty places where humans rarely venture. Birds by contrast are inescapable – on any day on any city street you can expect to at least see a few pigeons flying overhead, or hear something singing from a nearby bush. For some people, this constant awareness has morphed into affection; for others, jealousy at sharing urban spaces with other species.


Even setting aside the risk of attack, birds can come into conflict with humans. Their droppings are not only unpleasant, but they can damage buildings and cause nasty lung diseases. Not every bird has a beautiful song either – a great tit squeaking away outside your bedroom window at 5am is bad enough, but spare a thought for the Australians who have kookaburras scream-laughing on their balconies. If waking you up wasn’t antisocial enough, big birds like herring gulls and Australian white ibises (better known as “bin chickens”) will rip open bin bags and fling the rubbish across your garden. The birds guilty of these indiscretions are generally classed as pests and many cities are fighting back – either by killing the birds or by taking eggs from their nests.

Herons eat fish from ponds and occasionally birds of prey will attack small pets. Urban pigeon keepers, angry after having a prize bird attacked by a sparrowhawk, occasionally try to poison or set cruel traps to kill hawks; but in general cities actually provide a safe haven for birds of prey. Scottish sparrowhawks seem to breed significantly better in cities, likely because there are so many other birds there to hunt.

In fact, many city councils are encouraging birds of prey as a natural way to control the population of pigeons and rats. Peregrine falcons – the fastest birds on the planet – are given protected nesting sites on church spires and skyscrapers and their every move is streamed on webcams. Harris hawks – native to American deserts – have been brought across the Atlantic to scare birds away from the tennis courts at Wimbledon.

Smaller, cuter birds don’t have any such image problems, and millions of Brits put bird seed in their gardens or feed the ducks at their local park. (I should add: if you do, please don’t give them bread, which lacks the vitamins birds need and causes a horrible disease called “angel wing”; seeds, vegetable peel or little bits of fruit are better.) Cities are increasingly recognised as places where you can spot interesting birds – right now, the bird tracking portal eBird lists no fewer than 289 species that have been seen in London – and the last couple of years have seen guides such as David Lindo’s How to be an Urban Birder and even scientific journals such as the Journal of Urban Ecology dedicated to the life of the town.

Save the birds

An American robin has a rest in Boston Common. American robins are in a completely different family to European robins, in case you ever wondered why the robin in Mary Poppins looked so messed up. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Although cities offer food and shelter, they also contain many threats. Glass windows are invisible death to birds flying at full speed – the exact number killed isn’t clear, but it might be as many as 30 million a year in the UK alone. Vehicles can also kill, especially in suburban areas where dense gardens meet busy streets.

Although city birds are protected from some of the predators that they would encounter in the countryside, there are still plenty of animals looking for a meaty meal – not least pet cats, which the RSPB estimates kill 55 million birds in the UK every year. 


These threats aren’t necessarily having an effect on bird populations as a whole – most birds lay more eggs than needed, and if one young bird is killed by a cat a sibling can take its place. The bigger risks come from changes to the environment itself. Pesticides, patios and over-neat lawns have reduced the number of insects crawling around, and therefore the amount of food available for birds like thrushes, starlings and sparrows.

In spite of how easy they are to observe, urban birds tend to be understudied compared to their rural cousins. The fact pigeons are so widespread means researchers often overlook them, but their ubiquity means that observing the birds can help scientists to track environmental changes and to compare cities that otherwise have little in common. Citizen science can help here – the bird tracking apps Birdtrack and eBird let anyone submit their bird sightings, and actually need more coverage of urban and suburban areas.

Thankfully, the idea of creating urban bird sanctuaries is now being taken seriously. Parks have a role to play, but many birds actually prefer the wild roughness of building sites and industrial land, where bare soil crawls with bugs and wildflowers grow gloriously high – ironically, brownfield sites can be as important to the ecosystem as pristine green belt. Perhaps the most spectacular example is the London Wetland Centre in Barnes. Just across the Thames from Hammersmith, this Victorian waterworks has been converted into marsh land and attracts huge flocks of water birds, many of which can’t be found anywhere else in London. In fact thanks to the reserve, a few birds such as the reed-dwelling bittern – which almost went extinct in the UK – are now easier to spot in London than in the countryside it.

Flying into the future

This blackbird probably doesn’t understand its rural cousins. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

In his book Darwin in the City, the biologist Menno Schilthuizen suggests that we’ve been looking at blackbirds all wrong. European blackbirds were originally forest-dwellers eating berries and bugs from the ground. For this, they needed long, probing beaks and the ability to migrate in the winter when the soil froze hard. However, a few blackbirds – possibly initially those living in the hills around Rome – made their way into cities and found plentiful supplies of food year round.

Since they no longer needed to pry into the earth or the bark of trees, their beaks started to get shorter. Because food was available year round, their migration instinct was switched off. And because they needed to compete with traffic and the other noises of city life, their songs got louder. The city dwelling birds became incompatible with their forest dwelling ancestors; the changes to their beaks meant that their songs changed too, until they were effectively speaking different languages. There is a compelling case to be made that there isn’t just one species of blackbird, but two: the forest blackbird, Turdus merula, and the city blackbird, Turdus urbanicus.

Where the blackbird has led, other birds are sure to follow. British great tits are evolving bigger beaks that help them dig around in garden bird feeders and many urban birds have started singing the dawn chorus earlier to avoid traffic and aircraft noise and to take advantage of artificial streetlighting. City-dwelling pigeons even seem to be evolving darker feathers, probably because the dark pigment captures the toxic elements pigeons accidentally ingest when they peck at paint.

Nesting in coated metal gutters like this exposes pigeons to dangerous chemicals in the paint, and this pigeon’s dark feathers are likely an evolutionary response to that threat. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Birds are no longer just accidental wanderers into cities, nor are they just greedy opportunists: they are an integral part of urban ecosystems. Not only do cities need their birds – Increasingly, birds need their cities.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets at @stejormur. Many of the birds mentioned in this article tweet in a tree near you.