New franchisees’ plans

The detail is now beginning to emerge about what we can expect under the new franchises for Northern and Trans-Pennine.

First Group have retained the franchise for TransPennine, though the ownership structure is a bit different from the previous franchise. Arriva have the new franchise for Northern. It will probably still be branded as Northern Rail.

It’s fair to say that when we met the various bidders, the representatives of First Group impressed us with their willingness to listen and with their knowledge of the issues relating to Slaithwaite, Marsden, Greenfield & Mossley.

It could all have been a lot worse. The previous franchise was based on no growth, and in fact passenger numbers increased overall by about 40%, and by much more on some routes (ours included). Hence overcrowding and substandard rolling stock, and an inability to provide more or longer trains. The new franchise recognises the need to plan for growth in passenger numbers.

One of the difficulties has been that our line is full to capacity. Electrification, which might be completed by 2022 (or it might not) will create additional capacity, but in the meantime the railway industry faces a big challenge to find ways of meeting the needs of both local and long distance passengers. That’s why we’re not yet getting a half-hourly service at Slaithwaite & Marsden. The train companies acknowledge that what they have come up with is an “interim solution”.

The new franchise sees some substantial improvements, in the form of new and longer trains, and in many places improved frequencies. The loveable pacer trains are to be sent to wherever obsolete heaps of metal go to die, by 2019 at the latest.

So how does this affect us?

Initially, hardly at all. The new franchisees will take over on 1st April 2016, but retain the same service patterns until December 2017. There will probably be some new liveries on the outside of the rolling stock, for people who are interested in that sort of thing.

There is one subtle, but very welcome change, which SMART has long pushed for. Previously, when the line is closed for engineering works between Marsden and Stalybridge, the railway companies took the easy way out operationally by running extremely slow replacement buses between Huddersfield and Stalybridge. Under the new franchise they will be obliged to run trains from Huddersfield up to Marsden and back every 2 hours.

It’s at December 2017 where there will be big changes.

From that date there will be no local service between Huddersfield and Manchester Victoria. Instead, the basic hourly daytime service at Mossley, Greenfield, Marsden and Slaithwaite will be provided by TransPennine, for the most part on trains between Manchester Piccadilly and Leeds and between Manchester Piccadilly and Hull. Each train will call at two of the four stations (not sure which pairing yet), then go onwards towards Leeds. One of these will call at most or all stations between Huddersfield and Leeds, the other only at Dewsbury & Batley.  It may work a bit differently in the evenings. The Sunday service will be basically the same as the weekday service, as the DfT and the railway companies have twigged that demand for rail travel on Sundays is as great as on other days of the week.

A limited number of additional peak-hours trains between Huddersfield and Manchester (not sure whether Piccadilly or Victoria) will be operated by Arriva Northern. Awaiting confirmation of train lengths.

The observant will already have identified some advantages and disadvantages.

  1. Through trains to Leeds. For the slower of the trains to Leeds, it will be possible to change to a fast train at Huddersfield (which overtakes at Dewsbury), or stay on the same train.
  2. Initially it was claimed that trains would be faster than before, until it was pointed out that the journey time into Victoria was extended by 6 minutes in 2014. At which point this claim was rescinded!
  3. Trains now go to/from Piccadilly rather than Victoria. An advantage for some, possibly a disadvantage for rather more. Cross-platform interchange at Stalybridge coming from Victoria will be easy, but going towards Victoria it will involve quite a walk from platform 1 or 3 to platform 5.
  4. Direct travel between Marsden and Slaithwaite is unlikely to be possible at most times of the day. This is the big drawback of the changes. We did push for Marsden & Slaithwaite to be served by one train, and Greenfield and Mossley by the other, but it looks unlikely that we will get what we wanted. Operationally it’s easier to pair stations on either side of the tunnel.
  5. In the event of cancellations and delays, TransPennine are able to stop some of their other services (of which there are 6 per hour in total) at our stations, so disruption should be much easier to manage.

We did have concerns about overcrowding, particularly bearing in mind that most morning peak trains are full and standing from Mossley onwards, and with trains coming from Leeds and beyond there will be more than just passengers from Slaithwaite, Marsden, Greenfield & Mossley. We are pleased to be able to report that the railway companies have taken this on board, and it’s expected that all the new trains will be 5 or 6 carriages instead of the usual 2 and current maximum 4. Expect platform lengthening to take place at Slaithwaite & Marsden, and probably at Mossley as well, in anticipation of the December 2017 changes.

Both Arriva and First are getting new rolling stock (that’s new, not London’s cast-offs). From 2017 the trains used by First will be the same as currently used to operate TransPennine’s services between Leeds and Manchester, though they may subsequently be replaced by something newer.

One change which might catch a few people out is that the Huddersfield to Wakefield trains will no longer provide a connection to London trains at Wakefield Westgate. Instead, the Huddersfield to Wakefield trains will go to Wakefield Kirkgate and then on to Castleford. Which is handy for the one day in every year when the Giants are away at Castleford.

In the longer term, the line is to be electrified (estimated by 2022), which should facilitate further changes and in particular a half-hourly service at both Slaithwaite & Marsden.

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