May 12, 2015

Northern England’s railways under election spotlight

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The economic disparity between the north and south of England has been mirrored by inconsistent levels of investment in the rail network. But with a general election this month and tendering underway for new passenger franchises, bold proposals are emerging for the north's railways, as Keith Barrow reports.

AS the birthplace of the industrial revolution, northern England was for centuries the engine room of the British economy, but the decline of mining and manufacturing industries in the second half of the 20th century coupled with the rise of London as a global financial centre have helped to create a growing economic imbalance between north and south.

 

According to government research, almost all the cities in northern England experienced average economic growth in terms of output and employment below the national rate between 1981 and 2011. A study published by the Centre for Cities last year found that for every 12 jobs created in southern cities between 2004 and 2014, only one was created in cities elsewhere.

NorthernThis gap is also apparent in infrastructure spending. According to a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research, spending on publicly-funded infrastructure in northeast England is just £223 per resident per year compared with £5426 in London. Underinvestment over decades has left northern England's rail network with poor average journey times between major cities, inadequate capacity, and ageing rolling stock.

With the economy being one of the dominating themes in the run-up to this month's general election, the need to offer a vision for infrastructure in the north - and particularly rail - has become a key focus for the political parties. Debate over the future of rail in the region is also fuelled by the competition for the
new Northern and TransPennine franchises, both of which come into effect in April 2016.

In January 2014 the Department for Transport (DfT) agreed to partially devolve responsibility for procuring and managing passenger services in northern England to Rail North, a group representing 33 local authorities. The DfT and Rail North have jointly developed the specification for the new franchises and will form a "single integrated partnership" to oversee their operation.

In addition to its work on the two franchises, Rail North also published a Long-Term Rail Strategy in August 2014, which outlines how investment in the network could deliver economic benefits of up to £50bn over a 60-year period, equivalent to an annual benefit of £900 million.

The strategy seeks to achieve three objectives:

  • supporting sustainable economic growth by providing capacity and connectivity
  • enhancing service quality, improving the appeal of rail and, by encouraging more rail use, reducing environmental impacts and carbon emissions through the provision of a coherent network, and
  • improving the efficiency of the railway.

The report focuses on the need for additional capacity to reflect demand and an easy-to-use network with closer integration with other modes. It also calls for an integrated timetable of local and express city-to-city services and a transformed fares system.

With the introduction of modern rolling stock, Rail North envisages these measures will result in a doubling of rail's market share by the mid-2020s.

Rail North suggests that greater cost-effectiveness will be achieved through infrastructure investments, notably resignalling and electrification projects; alliancing between the infrastructure manager and train operators; fine-tuning services to match demand; and the creation of cross-city services to improve rolling stock utilisation.

Rail North says the priority up to 2019 is to maximise the value of committed infrastructure investments, particularly electrification and Northern Hub, together with the procurement of the two new franchises. Between 2019 and 2024 it suggests the focus should be on replacement of rolling stock and pursuing opportunities for further electrification. In the longer-term, Rail North identifies a need to focus on integrating the network with High Speed 2 (HS2), which will open in two phases in 2026 and 2032.

The report notes that legislative change may be needed to achieve some of Rail North's objectives and it stresses the need to influence policy development. Infrastructure manager Network Rail (NR) will be another key interface and local transport authorities and Local Transport Plans will also play an important role, particularly in terms of developing intermodal connections.

Rail North says the objectives of the strategy will be met through seven key principles:

  • a harmonised and simplified fares system, including smart ticketing timetabling enhancements to improve connections between services
  • accessible and user-friendly passenger information, encompassing connecting modes
  • stations designed to facilitate easy transfers between modes
  • simplified through-journeys and improved interchanges between trains, regardless of operator, and
  • investment in infrastructure and rolling stock which is fully accessible, avoiding overcrowding, and facilitating the design of a connectional timetable.

New franchises

Rail North's principles are evident in the invitation to tender (ITT) for the new Northern and TransPennine franchises, which was published by
the DfT on February 27.

The Northern franchise covers most regional services in northern England and the characteristics of the network vary widely with operations encompassing rural, suburban, and some longer-distance services such as Nottingham - Leeds and Blackpool - York. The franchise is currently in the hands of Northern Rail, a 50:50 joint venture between Serco and Abellio, which operates around 2550 services each weekday serving 526 stations.

The ITT includes provision for 120 new DMU vehicles and the elimination of Pacer four-wheel railbuses from the Northern fleet. All existing trains will be modernised and equipped with accessible toilets to comply with Rail Vehicle Accessibility (Non-Interoperable Rail System) Regulations 2010 (RVAR), which come into effect in 2020.

Services on selected routes will be doubled with the winning bidder required to provide around 200 more services on weekdays and Saturdays and around 300 extra trains on Sundays. A new Northern Regional service will be launched, which will be geared to the needs of longer-distance passengers, and free Wi-Fi will be available on all trains by 2020. Smart ticketing will be introduced and the DfT says anomalies in the current fare structure will be eliminated. The franchise will also provide at least £30m for station improvements, and a £13.8m customer and communities improvement fund.

A number of services currently operated as part of the TransPennine franchise, including Oxenholme - Windermere, Manchester - Blackpool North and Manchester - Barrow-in-Furness, are expected to transfer to Northern early in the franchise.

Three bidders, Abellio, Arriva and Govia, are shortlisted for the Northern franchise and the deadline for submission of bids is June 26.

The TransPennine franchise comprises a network of inter-regional services radiating from Manchester to Liverpool, Humberside, Cumbria, and northeast England. The network also extends into Scotland, serving Edinburgh and Glasgow via the West Coast Main Line. The current franchise holder is First TransPennine Express (FTPE), a joint venture between First Group (55%) and Keolis (45%), which serves 105 stations and operates 335 services a day on weekdays. Weekday ridership is around 70,000 passengers per day, and while 60% of passengers are leisure travellers, FTPE carries a large number of commuters on routes such as Bolton - Manchester and Huddersfield - Leeds.

The DfT says it wants the next TransPennine operator to "position itself clearly as the inter-city rail operator for the north, operating fast, high-quality inter-regional services." Capacity will be increased with additional rolling stock and higher frequencies and the addition of earlier and later trains on Sundays. The DfT has asked bidders to look at options
for new services such as Liverpool - Edinburgh/Glasgow, Crewe - Manchester Airport, and the extension of Liverpool - Newcastle services to Edinburgh via the East Coast Main Line. Wi-Fi will also be introduced on all trains by 2020.

First Group, Keolis Go-Ahead, and Stagecoach have been shortlisted for TransPennine and will submit their bids by the end of this month. Both contracts will be awarded at the end of the year.

Infrastructure

NR is implementing a major programme of improvements across the region during its 2014-2019 funding period, otherwise known as Control Period 5 (CP5).

The Northern Hub project encompasses a programme of capacity enhancements which collectively will enable 700 more trains to run each day by 2019.

At the heart of Northern Hub is a project to alleviate a major bottleneck in central Manchester. At present the east-west line between Manchester Piccadilly station and Castlefield Junction is a major regional capacity constraint, the double-track line being used intensively by passenger services and freight traffic accessing the intermodal terminal at Trafford Park.

Northern Hub will address this with two new through platforms at Manchester Piccadilly and upgrading of Oxford Road station, enabling the operation of longer trains increasing capacity on the Piccadilly - Castlefield line from 12 to 16 trains per hour by 2018.

Manchester Victoria is currently being upgraded and the construction of the £85m Ordsall Curve between Oxford Road and Victoria will enable services from Manchester Airport to the northeast to cross the city without reversing at Piccadilly, eliminating conflicts in the congested station throat. A Transport and Work's Act Order granting power for construction of the Ordsall Curve was authorised at the end of March and the project will be completed in 2017, when Liverpool - Leeds services, which currently run via Warrington Central and Manchester Piccadilly will be rerouted to run on the newly-electrified line via Newton-le-Willows and Manchester Victoria.

Additional tracks will be constructed on the Sheffield - Manchester Hope Valley Line and between Leeds and Liverpool to allow fast trains to overtake slower services.

Northern Hub will enable the operation of two new fast services per hour between Liverpool and Manchester and six fast Leeds - Manchester services per hour, compared with four at present. New direct services will also link Manchester city centre with Manchester Airport, and journey times to Hull and northeast England will be reduced.

Alongside Northern Hub NR is carrying out a significant electrification programme in the north totalling 100-120 single track-km per year during CP5.

The first phase of the North West Electrification Programme was completed last December when the Manchester - Newton-le-Willows line was energised, enabling First TransPennine to launch electric services from Manchester to Edinburgh and Glasgow using its new fleet of Siemens class 350 EMUs.

Northern Rail launched electric services between the northwest's largest cities Liverpool and Manchester in March following the completion of the Liverpool (Edge Hill) - Huyton - Newton-le-Willows electrification, and the line from Ordsall Lane Junction to Manchester Victoria was also energised last month. This phase of the North West Electrification Programme was due to be completed by December 2014, but the £160m project was delayed due to unexpected ground conditions and technical issues with electrification equipment.

Electrification of the TransPennine route from Manchester to Leeds, York and Selby has also slipped. In March secretary of state for transport Mr Patrick McLoughlin told the House of Commons Transport Select Committee that this project, which was tentatively due for completion by 2019, will be delayed until the early 2020s because NR has identified that additional work will be required to achieve the necessary capacity improvements and journey time reductions.

Manchester - Bolton - Preston electrification is due to be completed by the end of next year and the wires are scheduled to be extended west to Blackpool North by February 2017, although industry sources suggest these deadlines are also unlikely to be met.

In December 2013 the government created an Electrification Task Force to identify future priorities for electrification in northern England. The study evaluated all 32 passenger routes in Northern England which are not currently electrified or earmarked for electrification before 2019, with the assessment considering economic benefits (50% of overall score); impact on services, costs, and the environment (20%); and providing capacity and quality, including rolling stock replacement (20%).

The task force published its final report in March, recommending that an outline business case should be developed for the electrification of 12 lines in 2019-2024. These include:

  • Leeds - Bradford - Manchester/ Preston (Calder Valley)
  • Liverpool - Warrington Central - Manchester
  • Chester - Stockport
  • Southport/Kirkby - Manchester (Salford Crescent)
  • Northallerton - Middlesbrough
  • Leeds - Harrogate - York
  • Selby - Hull
  • Sheffield - Barnsley - Leeds
  • Bolton - Clitheroe
  • Sheffield - Doncaster/Wakefield Westgate
  • Hazel Grove - Buxton, and
  • Warrington - Chester.

Progress is already being made on the development of some of these schemes. Electrification of the 113km Selby - Hull line is being promoted by operator First Hull Trains, which is planning to privately finance the project to enable through operation of electric services from London. First Hull Trains currently uses 200km/h DMUs for these services, but with plans to upgrade the southern section of the East Coast Main Line for 225km/h operation, significant journey time savings could be possible with faster electric trains. This would also improve pathing on one of Britain's busiest main lines.

Last March the government made £2.4m available to take the scheme forward to the third stage of NR's Governance for Railway Investment Projects (Grip) planning system. First Hull Trains has already spent more than £1.5m going through the first two stages of this process. Local authorities have also begun developing a business case for electrification of the Leeds - Harrogate - York line and an outline business case has been prepared for upgrading the Calder Valley route.

The study notes that if the rate of electrification planned for CP5 continues through CP6 and beyond, it will take 40 years to electrify all passenger lines in northern England. Rail North therefore recommends an acceleration of the programme in the 2020s to bring forward the benefits of electrification and to harmonise this investment with a rolling programme of rolling stock replacement.

The report highlights one of the key challenges already facing NR's electrification programme, specifically the shortage of skilled electrification engineers, a symptom of years of inactivity in this sector of the industry. It warns that much needs to be done to ensure the resources are in place to sustain or increase the rate of electrification over the next decade and beyond. With current projects facing cost overruns and delays, greater stability is needed to deliver an accelerated programme of electrification in the north in the 2020s, and NR will need to convince the government that it can still deliver electrification schemes on time and on budget before its CP6 funding is allocated in 2017.

Rolling stock

Rolling stock is a contentious issue and one which has dominated the headlines since the DfT launched the competition for the new franchises.

The current Northern franchise was let in 2004, and despite sustained increases in ridership across the network, the DfT infamously tendered the contract on the basis of "zero growth." Consequently, no provision for was made for new rolling stock and the franchisee was expected to make do with its existing ageing fleet.
Zero growth turned out to be woefully wide of the mark - over the last decade ridership has soared by nearly 50% and Northern Rail is carrying over 30 million more passengers per year than it did in 2004. Northern Rail has improved utilisation and obtained a limited number of additional trains, but lack of fleet capacity means overcrowding remains a problem, particularly on peak services around Leeds and Manchester.

The issue is exemplified by the reinstatement of the Todmorden curve, an £8.8m project which will enable the reintroduction of direct services between Manchester and Burnley. Even though the infrastructure was completed last May, the shortage of available rolling stock means passenger services will not begin until this month.

The age and quality of rolling stock is also a concern. More than a third of the Northern Rail fleet is made up of Pacer railbuses, which have come to symbolise underinvestment in the region. The Pacers were developed by British Rail in the 1980s, uniting a bus body with a four-wheel freight wagon underframe mounted on two wheelsets to produce a stopgap replacement for life-expired DMUs on regional and suburban lines. Thirty years on and the stopgap endures with 214 Pacer vehicles (102 sets) remaining in service with Northern Rail.

The ITT for the Northern franchise specifies that all rolling stock must run on bogies, effectively excluding the continued use of the class 142 and 144 Pacer units. The franchisee will be required to provide a minimum of at least 120 new multiple unit vehicles for use on non-electrified routes and these must enter service no later than January 2020.

While Pacer replacement may placate critics of the new franchise, the DfT is less comfortable with the requirement for new trains. In a letter to McLoughlin on February 26, DfT's permanent secretary Mr Philip Rutnam expressed concern about the business case, stating that analysis gives a benefit:cost ratio of 0.35 for new trains for Northern over 30 years and argues in favour of Pacer life extension with accessibility modifications for RVAR compliance.

McLoughlin stated in his response to Rutnam: "The use of Pacers has a negative impact on the reputation of rail services in the Northern area. I do not consider that the continued use of these uncomfortable and low-quality vehicles is compatible with our vision for economic growth and prosperity in the north." McLoughlin also notes that the latest forecasts predict a shortfall in DMU vehicles in the coming decades.

According to the ITT the new vehicles will not be a direct replacement for the Pacers as they will be used on fast or semi-fast services, releasing Sprinter DMUs to displace the Pacers. While in itself this will not provide enough vehicles to completely eliminate the Pacers, electrification will release more Sprinters, helping to reach the objective specified in the ITT.

Northern Rail has already received four four-car class 319 EMUs for Manchester - Liverpool services, and a total of 20 trains will ultimately be transferred to the northwest as they are released from London's Thameslink network by the delivery of new Siemens class 700 trains.

However, with the ITT specifying increased frequencies it is clear that in addition to fleet renewal, the new franchisee will need to focus on fleet expansion. Electrification in central Scotland is expected to release a number of DMUs from the ScotRail franchise from 2018. Another option, which the ITT does not rule out, is the use of rebuilt former London Underground D78 stock on suburban and rural routes. The D-Train DMU concept being developed by Vivarail may help to answer the need for increased frequencies, and Vivarail says it has had strong interest from bidders for the Northern franchise.

TransPennine also includes a requirement for additional rolling stock to boost capacity and increase frequencies, and with the spread of electrification across the network during the franchise term, electric trains will be needed.

High-speed future

In October 2014 Transport for the North (TfN) was established by local authorities in Liverpool, Greater Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle, and Hull with the initial objective of developing a transport strategy for the region by March 2016. TfN will work with the DfT, Highways England, NR, and HS2 Ltd to develop a multi-modal transport strategy, which will build on the £15bn package of investments proposed by the authorities last year in their One North report.

On March 20 - just eight weeks before the general election - the national government published an interim Northern Transport Strategy (NTS) setting out its long-term vision for a rail network which would help to strengthen the economy of the north by significantly improving connectivity between key cities.

This report advocates the creation of a high-quality TransNorth network to drastically increase capacity and reduce journey times across the Pennines with a mixture of new and upgraded infrastructure enabling speeds of up to 225km/h. Based on the High Speed 3 proposals put forward by the government last year, TransNorth would connect Liverpool with Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle and Hull. Preliminary studies have been carried out by Network Rail, which give indicative costs for new build and upgrade options.

Work on the development of these options will be carried out jointly with HS2 Ltd, the company responsible for building the London - Leeds/Manchester high-speed line, and the use of the Sheffield - Leeds section of HS2 by regional high-speed services will also be considered as part of this process.
A memorandum of understanding between NR, HS2 Ltd and TfN is due to be signed soon setting out the respective roles of the three parties and how they will prioritise options for investment. An independent chair of TfN will be appointed by the autumn and an updated Northern Transport Strategy will be issued in the second quarter of next year.

In line with recommendations made by HS2 Ltd chairman Sir David Higgins, the government plans to bring forward the construction of the Lichfield - Crewe section of the Manchester branch of HS2, currently due for completion in 2032, in order to bring the benefits of the new line to the northwest sooner (with the caveat that the current government retains power after the election).

If nothing else, the bold TransNorth proposals demonstrate the national government understands that the economic status of northern England will not improve without vastly enhanced infrastructure links between its major cities, and after decades of underinvestment this is perhaps something of a breakthrough. But such an ambitious goal cannot be attained overnight and the long-term needs of rail investment often fall foul of much shorter political cycles. National and local governments will need to maintain a political consensus over a period of decades if they are really going to transform rail transport in northern England.

 

Tram-train on trial in Sheffield

WHILE a number of heavy rail lines in Manchester and Newcastle have been converted to light rail or metro operation, the potential use of tram-trains in northern cities is still to be fully evaluated. Sheffield is to host Britain's first tram-train line under a £58m pilot scheme led by South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive with the backing of Network Rail, the Department for Transport. Northern Rail, and the city's light rail operator Stagecoach Supertram.

The project involves linking the Sheffield Supertram network with Network Rail's existing Meadowhall - Rotherham freight line via a 400m connection at Meadowhall north of Sheffield. This will enable the through operation of tram-trains between Sheffield city centre and the Parkgate retail park in Rotherham, with a
20-minute interval service throughout the day.

Network Rail will install 11.5 single track-km of 750V dc electrification and one 600kW substation, together with additional signalling and a 200m turnback facility
at Rotherham Parkgate. Vossloh is supplying seven CityLink tram-trains for the project.

The project was approved in 2013 and originally due to be completed this year, but design issues relating to the link between the light rail and heavy rail networks have delayed the launch until 2017.

Sheffield is not the only northern city looking at tram-trains. In January proposals for the introduction of tram-train routes serving the south of Manchester were published by Stockport Council as part of a broader rail plan for the area, which has been developed in consultation with Transport for Greater Manchester.

The plan, which was drawn up by Atkins, envisages conversion of the Manchester Piccadilly - Marple/Rose Hill heavy rail suburban service to tram-train operation, with a link to Stockport town centre via Belle Vue.

The report also identified a number of other potential light rail lines in south Manchester, some using tram-trains to take advantage of little-used heavy rail infrastructure in the area.

 

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