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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“You don’t look like a train buff”: on sexism in the trainspotting community

A female guard on London’s former Metropolitan Railway. Image: Getty.

I am a railway enthusiast. I like looking at trains, I like travelling by train and I like the quirks of the vast number of different train units, transit maps and train operating companies.

I get goosebumps standing on a platform watching my train approach, eyeballing the names of the destinations on the dot matrix display over and over again, straining to hear the tinny departure announcements on the tannoy.  I’m fortunate enough to work on the site of a former railway station that not only houses beautiful old goods sheds, but still has an active railway line running alongside it. You can imagine my colleagues’ elation as I exclaim: “Wow! Look at that one!” for the sixth time that day, as another brilliantly gaudy freight train trundles past.

I am also a woman in my twenties. A few weeks my request to join a railway-related Facebook group was declined because I – and I quote here – “don’t look like a train buff”.

After posting about this exchange on Twitter, my outrage was widely shared. “They should be thrilled to have you!” said one. “What does a train buff look like?!” many others asked.

The answer, of course, is a middle-aged white man with an anorak and notebook. Supposedly, anyway. That’s the ancient stereotype of a “trainspotter”, which sadly shows no sign of waning.

I’m not alone in feeling marginalised in the railway community. Sarah, a railway enthusiast from Bournemouth, says she is used to funny looks when she tells people that she is not only into trains, but an engineer.

She speaks of her annoyance at seeing a poster bearing the phrase: “Beware Rail Enthusiasts Disease: Highly Infectious To Males Of All Ages”. “That did bug me,” she says, “because women can enjoy trains just as much as men.”


Vicki Pipe is best known as being one half of the YouTube sensation All The Stations, which saw her and her partner Geoff Marshall spend 2017 visiting every railway station in Great Britain.

“During our 2017 adventure I was often asked ‘How did your boyfriend persuade you to come along?’” she says. “I think some found it unusual that a woman might be independently interested or excited enough about the railways to spend sixteen weeks travelling to every station on the network.”

Pipe, who earlier this year travelled to all the stations in Ireland and Northern Ireland, is passionate about changing the way in which people think of the railways, including the perception of women in the industry.

“For me it’s the people that make the railways such an exciting place to explore – and many of these are women,” she explains. “Women have historically and continue to play an important part in the railway industry – throughout our journey we met female train drivers, conductors, station staff, signallers and engineers. I feel it is important that more female voices are heard so that women of the future recognise the railways as a place they too can be part of.”

Despite the progress being made, it’s clear there is still a long way to go in challenging stereotypes and proving that girls can like trains, too.

I’m appalled that in 2019 our life choices are still subjected to critique. This is why I want to encourage women to embrace their interests and aspirations – however “nerdy”, or unusual, or untraditionally “female” they may be – and to speak up for things that I was worried to speak about for so long.

We might not change the world by doing so but, one by one, we’ll let others know that we’ll do what we want – because we can.