Dear Northern Rail, Enough is Enough, Yours The Commuters

This is an open letter to the Department for Transport and Northern (Rail). They are also getting a copy directly.

Dear Minister & Northern MD,

Today I stood, one of the cattle on a northern cart, yet again. This time probably as bad as I’ve seen it ever on the Rose Hill to Manchester Line — a line I commute daily at the same time. Over 130 commuters stood on a class 142, overcrowded, unsafe and sharing so little space that it’s hard to think of any word but ‘cattle cart’ to describe it.

For many years the Northern Rail franchise (before its new franchise) was ran on a zero growth basis, one which was never really sustainable. Take a look at my home station of Hyde Central, 4 years ago the work on the station to renew it means that it now see’s 20% extra footfall — and as there are no Sunday services and not many evening services its pretty much all commuters. But let me repeat that 20% growth and in real terms that number is roughly 20,000 extra uses a year compared to 2014! and that is just one station on one small branch line!

Zero growth wasn’t sustainable, and in the new franchise does make sense to have growth — finally removing the ‘buses on steel wheels’, the ‘pacers’ or as they are actually known Class 142 trains is way over due — outdated and soon to be outlawed they require the heating on to even operate. I am also sure if you put them through most crash test they would fail today’s standards (but I will leave that for you to test and figure out when one was last tested to actual modern safety standards and actually met them in full).

My big concern with the 142’s is overcrowding. I know on my journey, which I regularly tweet about in the morning, is always over crowded with between 70 and 100 people stood up and often people unable to even board the train at stations where the next train is 30 mins later. This because Northern took the service to 2 carriages earlier this year! This in the timetable debacle and aim of growth — taadaa growth by more trains running… except it really isn’t growth is it?

Sidenote: An added effect of this overcrowding is that one morning last week (6/8) a lady collapsed due to the overcrowding of the train and 2 passengers helped her and took her off the train at Guide Bridge. It’s not the first time such an event has happened on one of these commutes.

Talking about overcrowding a little more, rail passengers get a rough deal with Northern. And I can only talk about my own route with any certainty but lets talk this through using a FOI ( from the DfT and a ‘notes’ paper published on the DfT website ( ).

The notes say: For most train operators the standing allowance is based on an allowance of 0.45m2 of floor space per passenger. However, for South West Trains a figure of 0.25m2 is used and for Southeastern’s class 376 ‘metro’ style stock and for London Overground a figure of 0.35m2 is used.

The FOI uses 0.45m2 for this — but as you will see you could double allowance this and still be well overcrowded given there are always over 70 stood on train I get of a morning to work. — The most, as you can see from their workings, is 19 people standing. As I say, lets double this allowing for 0.225m2 per person (less than London Overground) and 38 people and we are still no where near 70 people on the train to work I get each morning. Never mind the reality that it is really much more than 70 most mornings.

Whilst I appreciate that due to ‘ heavy engineering design’ (ORR — ) there is some room for wriggle on standing and capacity on trains, I do think that it is time to look at the legislation around standing capacity on trains again. Before 2020, before these Class 142’s are taken out of service, and importantly before an accident happens.

Class 142’s in my view would not meet modern safety standards, I am sure many agree with that view. I know that todays trains are much safer than they have ever been but I also know that old 142’s are getting less reliable and action needs to be taken to avoid a disaster. Just last week I was on one where the breaks jammed on leaving a station, it would be inconceivable to consider what would happen if the reverse happened with a train full of people! I hope it never does, but old trains like this are ageing and problems are regular.

With all the above, it is clear that the Northern 07.57 service from HYC to MAN is returned to a 4 carriage service — it is time that this service stops being a cattle cart where by the time it reaches Hyde it is standing room only and when it reaches Guide Bridge not all who want to board can, never mind those who want to board at Gorton who often get turned away. This service must improve — and I know its not the only service which needs improving from overcrowding because Twitter tells us all so!

Those are fairly recent tweets but this isn’t a recent issue, here are a few slightly older ones before the timetable change!

As you can see this is very much an on going issue right across the north west.

It’s time the DfT took the matter in hand and took action to ensure Northern is actually keeping to it’s franchise commitments, and working to improve based on its commitments following the timetable debacle earlier this year. This to me means assigning a single person from the DfT (NOT Transport for the North) to oversee Northern at least into next year, doing so would give commuters and all travels the assurance that Northern are being held to their franchise commitments.

To the month of July 21 they had 6.4% short formed and 4.1% cancelled services with only 77.3% PPM — hardly an amazing record or improvement from the month before since they implemented an emergency timetable (though I do give some credit for stabilisation). It is commuters that are suffering, the latest changes in a new emergency timetable mean again that Manchester Piccadilly is struggling to stack trains (as it did with the new timetable initially) leading to last minute platform changes, people stood standing on the wrong platforms with long distance trains missed and wrong tickets for travel. It seems little or no thought is given to this kind of issue, and this must now be considered again in full, stacking is clearly going to happen but the issues are huge and cause many travelers confusion when there are just a minute or two between services on the same platform. I urge a quick review of this in particular during critical periods.

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I wondered a while back with such overcrowding what the future looked like for Northern. It keeps promising ‘new trains’ and the fact is that the North is being short changed and Northern is only getting 281 new trains. With TPE also only getting 215, a total of 496 between them this is a fraction of what the southern based franchises are getting — oh and these aren’t due until 2020 at the earliest for the most part for Northern. This is very much the north being short changed. But on the upside North are getting 44 more class 150’s cascaded from Great Western at some point too (it may have started who knows — that is according to ‘the rolling stock perspective’).

So as a tally that is 341 new trains (inc 44 class 150 and 16 second hand 158s) … lets tally what Northern is going to be getting rid of according to ‘the rolling stock perspective’ before 2020.

158 — Class 142
56 — Class 144
18–Class 153
12–Class 321
20 — Class 322
51 — Class 323

That is a total of 315 vehicles lost and 341 gained, that is a real gain of 26.

Now far be it from me to say this is all smoke and mirrors, and perhaps a lovely game of media hype by Northern & DfT to make it look as though there is actually some investment and growth in this franchise. But there isn’t, not really.

The fact is that Northern in 2020 will operate 215 new vehicles (great) but 612 will be old, and second-hand (as this is how this franchise has been built). For the major franchise serving the second city of our country to be in this position to be in this position is nothing short of amazing. This is not a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ which you have delivered but ‘Northern Derailment’ where the signals have failed and the overhead lines de-energised.

It is time for real investment in the Northern franchise, and not a handful of trains or ‘hand-me down’ toy trains from the south. This government once claimed to be the ‘greenest’ yet it won’t put its money where its mouth is with one of the greenest forms of transport. Commuters across the country are forced to turn to cars and buses because of overcrowding, because they don’t feel safe and because of under-investment by this government. I ask you now to invest more in Northern and the rail franchises of the North.

I look forward to hearing back from you very soon.


Written by

SEO Consultant, From that there Manchester, UK. Social & political voice. Views are my own… — @andykinsey

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