It may not have escaped your notice, dear reader, that the recent timetable changes at Northern were not the most successful endeavour. Alas, hundreds of trains have been cancelled, many more delayed, and much inconvenience has been called. From an outsiders’ perspective, it would seem that Arriva, the company who run Northern, has made an enormous mistake, and should be sanctioned. But is this really the case? Well, we shall get to that, but for now, let me take you on a tangent.
Edinburgh and Glasgow are the largest and by far the richest cities in Scotland, and the land in and around them is Scotland’s Central Belt, where most of the economic activity happens. It is therefore unsurprising that much of the rail travel in Scotland happens in this area. In Glasgow, the sleek, tilting Pendolinos of Virgin Trains arrive in the busy Central station,on the West Coast Main Line, following the journey from London Euston. In Edinburgh, the ageing but elegant InterCity 225 electric and InterCity 125 diesel trains, now under LNER control, emerge from a tunnel into the beautiful Waverley station, on the East Coast Main LIne, following the journey from London King’s Cross.
Suffice to say, both cities are well served to the South. However, between the cities, the principal service runs from Waverley in Edinburgh to Glasgow’s Queen Street, and is provided mainly by small diesel trains, a maximum of 6 coaches long, though often much shorter. To do something about this, the Edinburgh-Glasgow Improvement Programme (EGIP) has been undertaken, to electrify the railway, bring in new, longer trains, and improve the stations. Work began in 2013, and the railway has indeed been electrified, though slightly late.
One cannot, however, run a service without trains, so, after contracting the work out, Japanese manufacturer Hitachi (of bullet train fame) was chosen to produce a design. Their design, the class 385, looks very promising, with 3 or 4 coaches (with 2 normally being coupled together, to form 6, 7 or 8 coach trains), air conditioning, a 100 mph top-speed, and many other modern attributes. These trains are being built in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, England, in a new factory built by Hitachi, in so doing protecting UK jobs.
If you’re thinking this is all going too smoothly, you are definitely on the right lines. The delivery of the class 385s was behind schedule in January 2018, with only one complete train having been delivered, against a promise of services starting in December 2017. In itself, this invoked the ire of many Scottish politicians and the railway press, but worse was to come. You see, when introducing a train, it is not simply a case of showing the driver around the cab and letting him go. One must give the crew appropriate “traction knowledge” and training, and the trades unions must be consulted.
Here the wheels began to come off. The new design, perhaps in an attempt to improve the aerodynamics or styling, has a curved windscreen. Unfortunately, without proper design and manufacture, a curved windscreen will distort the view ahead, making the driver’s job difficult. Worse still, at night, with no other points of reference, the driver will see signals for the wrong line, a rather unsafe state of affairs. The unions pointed this out to the operator, ScotRail, who were obliged to pull the trains from testing, and ask Hitachi for a fix to the problem.
A new windscreen would have to be designed and tested, taking months. It was not until April 2018 that a new windscreen would be ready for fitting, and it has only recently (and by recently I mean July) been approved. Now, although this is annoying for the Scots, it is not the end of the world, as some older electric trains can be drawn in, and the older diesel trains kept a little longer than expected. Passengers will still be able to get where they want to be, a little later than they wanted to be there.
Have you ever thought, though, about what happens to the older diesels? Scrapped? Yes, some old trains are scrapped, but this is something of a waste when they are perfectly serviceable. Fine, cannibalised? Not a bad suggestion, but why strip down a working train when you could just use a working train? What actually tends to happen is that they are sent elsewhere to replace even older trains, or bolster the fleet of another operator. In turn, this causes other trains to be moved and replace even older ones, and so on. This whole process is known as cascading.
Which brings us back to Northern. After a rather ill-informed no-growth franchise, government awarded Arriva the privilege or running the new, improved Northern franchise, beginning on the 1st April 2016 (the April fool may well have been delayed). They proposed ridding the North of the horrid Pacers (deserving of their own article), by a combination of new trains and cascaded diesels from other areas, one of which was Scotland. This would also allow improvements to services.
The first phase of the improvement was to come with the May 2018 timetable change, taking advantage of newly electrified and upgraded lines between Preston and Blackpool, among many others. Elsewhere, cascaded diesel trains would upgrade services, particularly between York, Leeds and Harrogate, and reduce the need for older Pacers. Overall, hundreds of new services would be created.
Unfortunately, given the events in Scotland, Northern has been left with far fewer diesel trains than are really required, leaving no option but to cancel trains. This was realised early, and although they requested a later start to the new timetable, this proved impossible, as Northern’s stopping trains must be fitted in around TransPennine Express’ (TPE) faster ones. Since TPE were ready for their timetable change, they were unwilling to delay.
It is very true that this is not the only reason why Northern trains are experiencing problems. An entire book could be written on the various failings by the various parties involved (Network Rail, the DfT, various Train Operators etc.), and indeed a Commons’ Transport Select Committee has been hearing from many industry figures, particularly Northern’s Managing Director David Brown.
Why do I write this then? Well, dear reader, I hope that in your discussions of railway matters, that you begin to appreciate that it is far more complicated than just the Train Operator. I also hope that you have some sympathy for staff who are trying their best in the face of problems which they may know little of, and certainly cannot change.
But there we are. With that, I shall wish you an excellent day.
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