20 April 2009

Not-so-grim 'Up North'

"Here's this useless bunch of railway services - run them as cheaply as you possibly can, and by the way don't even dream about doing anything interesting with them."

That is how the then named Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) effectively sold the Northern franchise back in 2004 when it asked operators to submit bids to run the collection of rail services covering mainly local stopping (though a few longer distance) services in northern England.

The SRA, disbanded two years later, with its role taken ostensibly by the Department for Transport (DfT), Office of Rail Regulation and Network Rail, announced that Serco-NedRailways was their preferred bidder for the Northern franchise on 1 July 2004. Comprising the British unit of Nederlandse Spoorwegen - NedRailways - and Serco, the new Northern Rail Limited replaced First North Western and Arriva Trains Northern from 1 December the same year.

Covering many depressed areas of northern England, including mining towns with unemployment in excess of 35%, and running Class 142 & 144 Pacer trains that were based on the Leyland National bus - a vehicle that had been removed from most bus fleets five years ago - it was never going to be a franchise that would be the jewel in the country's crown.

Journey times between Manchester and Leeds were - and still are - far too lengthy to make rail travel between these two up-and-coming cities seem incredibly attractive. Add to this the overcrowding problem that plagues this particular flow and yet another problem is added. Northern is to be the recipient of a large number of the DfT's 1000+ carriages to be slowly introduced from this year.

They might not give the best ride and they may have been based on a now withdrawn bus dating back to the 70s, but the Class 142/4 Pacers have given good service to Northern and look very attractive in the company's new livery.

However, comparing the last year's balance sheet with that from year ending March 2007, operating profit is up (2.6%) and profit for the year is up (2.4%). There are a few losses, such as a net annual loss of 5.0% and the company's worth took a nose-dive of 24.2%, but taken in context with exceptional year-on-year passenger growth - double figures on some routes - in tandem with new services improved frequencies on existing routes, things have most certainly been transformed at Northern Rail!

In addition, operational performance and customer satisfaction levels have both increased markedly and consistently, with profits always being made year-on-year.

The Pacers are still in service though and it is estimated that Northern's overcrowding problems will take many years to iron out since the new rolling stock will take time to fully enter service and provide the much-needed additional seating. Upgrades to Northern lines in the LEYTR area (between Bridlington-Scarborough) and the possibility of the re-opening of the Hull-Pocklington-York line, plus both the Tories and Labour pledging to look into linking Leeds and Manchester with the almost inevitable High Speed 2 line, there are many positives coming Northern's way, not least the way in which they've turned the image of their franchise around.

Sheffield is one of Northern's busiest stations. Along with Leeds and Manchester, hundreds of thousands of commuters and leisure travellers use their trains each week.

It might interest you to know that Northern operate the most parliamentary trains (token gesture services), serving either one station or line, which is far cheaper than to go through the costly closure process of a rail line and/or station. Northern's 'parly trains' are:

1. Two daily journeys between Sheffield-Pontefract Baghill-York
2. A summer only one-way train between Chester-Runcorn
3. Five Ellesmere Port-Helsby trains with 4 in the opposite direction (two extending to Warrington)
4. A Friday only one-way Stockport-Stalybridge service
5. Three Saturday journeys in both directions via the Brigg Line Sheffield-Cleethorpes
6. One eastbound and two westbound journeys 6 days per week between Knottingly-Goole (GWB)