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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It’s time to rethink how the British railway network works

Nothing doing: commuters await a long-delayed train. Image: Getty.

The recent meltdowns on Northern and Thameslink not only left many passengers besides themselves with frustration about not being able to get to work on time, if at all. It also led to a firestorm of criticism and condemnation from politicians and media alike.

With the immediate shock of that first Monday morning of the meltdown passed, there’s a now a bigger debate about whether the way that rail services are provided for cities needs some far reaching reform. But before coming to that, the first thing to say – and as we set out in our Rail Cities UK report, launched today – is that the fundamentals for urban rail remain very strong.

Here’s why. All cities want to become denser, more dynamic places which attract the best people to the growth sectors of the economy (including the ‘flat white economy’ of media, communications and information). In order to achieve this, as well as to improve air quality, cities are also reducing space for motorised traffic in favour of space for people.

It’s very difficult to see how this can be achieved without expanding rail networks and their capacity. What’s more, if housing need is to be met without creating more sprawl and traffic congestion, then again its rail that will be key – because it opens up former rail-connected brownfield industrial sites, it extends commuting range, plus housing can be built above or around new or existing rail stations and interchanges.

In some ways there’s nothing new here. From Metroland to Docklands, successful cities have always grown with their rail networks. And to be fair, there is significant investment going into urban rail at present. Northern will get a lot better (the pacers are doomed) and both Merseyside and Tyne & Wear are getting a whole new fleet of trains for their urban rail networks.

However, much (but not all) of this investment is incremental, or replacing rolling stock on its last legs. It stops short of the wider vision for the rail cities that we need.


What would that look like in practice? There comes a point when the biggest cities need more cross-city routes, because running trains in and out of edge-of-centre termini can’t cope with the numbers. That explains the push for Crossrail 2 in London, but also the need for more cross-city capacity in cities like Birmingham (on the Snow Hill route) as well as in Manchester (on the Oxford Road to Manchester Piccadilly corridor, as well as a potential new underground route).

Tram-train technology can also help – allowing the lucky commuter that benefits to get on board at their local station and get off right outside their city centre office on main street in the city centre, rather than piling out at a Victorian railway terminal on the edge of that city centre.

Tram-trains aren’t the only tech fix available. Battery packs can extend the range of existing electric trains deeper into the “look ma, no wires” hinterlands, as well as allow trams to glide through city centres without the expensive clutter of overhead wires.

More mundane but equally useful work to increase capacity through signalling, station, track and junction work offers the opportunity to move to turn-up-and-go frequency networks with greater capacity and more reliability – networks that start to emulate the best of what comparable German rail cities already enjoy. Interlocking networks of long distance, regional express, regional, S-bahn, U-bahn, trams and buses, all under common ticketing.

But in talking about Germany and common ticketing I am now getting back to where I started around the debate on whether some fundamental change is needed on how urban rail networks are provided. Obviously there is a bigger national discussion going on about whether the current structure is just too layered, with too many costly interfaces and too fractured a chain of command. And in addition another, on whether the railway should be publicly or privately owned and operated.

But it’s been heartening to see the growing recognition that – regardless of how these debates are resolved – more devolution for urban and regional services should be part of any solution. That’s not only because fully devolved services have been out-performing comparators both operationally and in passenger satisfaction; it’s because local control rather than remote control from Whitehall will mean that the dots can be joined between rail and housing, between rail and the wider re-fashioning of city centres, and between rail and local communities (for example through repurposing stations as wider hubs for local community use, enterprises and housing). It will also allow for rail and the rest of local urban public transport networks to be part of one system, rather than be just on nodding terms as is all too often the case at present.

The crisis on Northern and Thameslink has been a miserable experience for rail users, affected cities and the rail industry. If any good has come out of it, it is that it shows how important rail is to cities, and opens up a space for some bigger thinking about what kind of rail cities we will need for the future – and how best we can make that happen.

Jonathan Bray is the Director of the Urban Transport Group which represents the transport authorities for the largest city regions. You can read the group’s full report here.