Thursday, 21 March 2019

Rail & the Liverpool City Region - The Track to Growth

This week I was fortunate enough to be invited to an event in Liverpool called “Rail & the Liverpool City Region - The Track to Growth”. The event was an opportunity for city, transport and business leaders to publicly give their full backing to Transport for the North's (TfN) Strategic Transport Plan (STP), and it was also an opportunity to celebrate 5 years since the formation of the Liverpool City Region, and the £340m that has been invested in rail over that period.

As part of the STP, Transport for the North have set out £40bn worth of investment in rail which amongst other things will see Liverpool connected to HS2 and Manchester by a dedicated 2 track high speed line. This is something the city has been demanding since the route of phase 2 between the West Midlands and North West was announced. Whilst business and political leaders have been supportive of HS2, with benefits coming to the region from 2026, they were never fully satisfied with Liverpool's connection to HS2 being as far south as Crewe.

Rather than seeing HS2 connectivity as an insurmountable challenge the LCR and TfN have worked together to see how HS2 could be extended and integrated with a new line which provides Liverpool with direct connectivity to HS2, but also to Northern Power House Rail heading east to Manchester and Leeds.

Also this week a proposal was put forward for a new railway station to be built within Liverpool city centre, which would be connected to NPR. The new station would ideally have platforms 400m in length to take full advantage of the new longer trains that will be used on the HS2 core network. Currently Liverpool Lime St is limited to trains of around 260m in length (the length of an 11 car Pendolino). Lime St is also about to reach the limits of its capacity, this despite the recent the upgrade to the track approaching the station and the construction of a new platform. Very soon new services to Scotland and to Chester via Halton curve will consume the new capacity created. HS2 itself will also introduce 2 new services each hour to Euston from 2026. Therefore city leaders say that it is vital that Liverpool gains a new station and dedicated connection to HS2 and Manchester via NPR.





LCR estimates the HS2 link could provide £15bn worth of economic benefits and attract an additional 3.9m visitors per year to the region. Claire McColgan MBE Director of Culture Liverpool spelled out just how important having good transport links is to the tourism economy in the region, but also how vital tourism and culture are to the region's economy. Ms McColgan made it clear that event organisers want to host events in the LCR “because they know that the city transport sectors work together”. Pointing to success stories such as the Giants Spectacular last year which attracted 1.4m visitors across Liverpool and the Wirral, and the sailing of the 3 Queens along the River Mersey, which saw 1m people line the River on both sides to see the ships sail in.

Liverpool City Region

The event wasn't focused solely on the STP, it was also a good opportunity to celebrate some of the success stories over the past 5 year, since the formation of the LCR. The LCR led by by Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram brings together Liverpool City Region’s six local authorities – Halton, Knowsley, Liverpool, Sefton, St Helens and Wirral working in cooperation to tackle issues that face the region. Not just transport for but housing, skills and Energy. In terms of transport though the LCR was able to bring together local transport plans, Network Rail's RUS and the needs of businesses to identify key infrastructure improvements that were required to help unlock the potential of the region.

The result of the collaborative approach was a £340m package of measures that would improve rail connections across the region and would help to enable new services and improve reliability. The largest of the measures was the work undertaken at Liverpool Lime St, but improvements were not focused solely on the city centre. A long held aspiration to re-instate bi-directional running at Halton Curve linking the North Cheshire railway to the WCML at Runcon has been realised, and a brand new station named Maghull North has been constructed.

Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram


Shortages of rolling stock has meant that services using the now complete Halton Curve have been delayed, but it is hoped that Transport for Wales Rail will begin to operate services between Chester and Liverpool, calling Helsby, Frodsham, Runcorn and Liverpool South Parkway in May this year.

Skills

It is clear that Liverpool transport, business and political leaders fully support HS2 and the TfN STP, but a word cropped up again which has the potential to threaten any future investment, that word was skills. Echoing the challenges outlined by the NRIL – Building New Railways report, Northern Powerhouse Rail Director Tim Wood made it clear that "the major risk to the programme is not money, it is skills” (or the lack there of). This is something I have written about for many years, in fact I first wrote about the skills gap back in 2015 when it emerged that GWML electrification was going to be delivered late and over budget, and that electrification of the Transpennine route was to be "paused".

What was true in 2015, unfortunately is still true today, we simple do not have enough skilled engineers in the UK to undertake the work that is necessary to get the North moving. It is frustrating in a number of ways, one because it seems as if people read on a daily basis in the main stream media, that the government should cancel HS2 and invest in the North and how it will solve all of our problems, but it just wont. And it's frustrating because we should be getting on with building infrastructure in the North, but we can't, not yet.

Let me give a example of why cancelling HS2 today would not improve railways tomorrow. In simplified terms HS2 is new railway and as such is moving towards the heavy civil engineering phase in which earth is moved, tunnels are excavated and structures are built. This requires a certain type of engineering skill set, such as earth work contractors and tunnelling experts. If they stopped work today and were moved up north to build something, what would it be? There are no detailed plans for NPR, no shovel ready civil engineering projects for them to begin work on.

What people might be thinking when they say “improvements” are upgrades, which is understandable, but those tunnellers and earth work engineers aren't correctly skilled to then start upgrading the railways. Most of the egineers who are correctly skilled to upgrade our railways are already doing so. Tens of thousands of them working tirelessly usually at night to improve Britian's railways.

Now I know it is probably a bit over simplified, but it does demonstrate that you simple can't down tools on one project and start another, and especially not by just throwing money at it.

The skills gap is going to take years to fill, and while good progress is being made with universities working in cooperation with TfN and NRIL and the formation of National High Speed Rail college, there is still a long way to go. Getting children ready to become the engineers of tomorrow needs to begin in primary and secondary schools.

We cannot allow there to be another lost generation like mine, which was told university is the only avenue available to you if you want any sort of career. I know in my school careers in science, education and IT were promoted, but the idea that you could have a successful career in engineering just never came up.


One last word on HS2, it was clear from yesterday's event that the LCR and TFN who represent 19 local transport authorities from across North thoroughly reject the notion that we should scrap HS2 and invest in the North instead. Tim Wood spelled out the message from TfN again "Let me be clear, we absolutely need HS2". The simple fact is we need both HS2 and NPR.





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Friday, 8 March 2019

Northern's new electric trains will enter service before 2021

Not the most eye catching of titles I grant you, however it is (I hope) accurate. Because, as far as things stand the new class 331 EMUs which are being introduced by Northern will begin to enter service this year. This is despite yesterday's announcement that longer platforms at Leeds station will not be completed until 2021. This means unfortunately that Northern will not be able to operate 6 car formations formed of 2, 3 car trains working in multiple. However Northern will be introducing it's new trains as they complete testing, which means that the first new units should start to enter service this year.

I wrote on Wednesday how I feel that the mainstream media usually only ever seems to focus on the negative and this story certainly wasn't any different. What drove me to write this blog though is the choice of wording used, headlines like “Longer six-carriage trains won't be arriving” and “Northern's long six-carriage trains delayed by two years”, I feel seemed to suggest that Northern's new trains won't be coming into service until 2021.

I don't think I can hold the mainstream media fully responsible for the misleading headlines however, as “6 car formations formed of 2, 3 car trains working in multiple” would not make for a catchy headline, and to be honest it took several attempts for me to get it to read correctly. What's more organisations who's job it is to represent the rail industry, or at least those who work within the industry didn't help the situation with their response either.

The train driver's union ASLEF chose to start the title of its response with “Failing Grayling“. Now come on! ASLEF is supposed to be a professional organisation who's job it is to represent train drivers. Rather than explaining why Northern will not be able to work 6 car trains in or out of Leeds until 2021, ASLEF General Secretary Mick Whelan instead used his response as an excuse to attack Grayling, the DfT and at one point almost seemed to suggest it was somehow Northern's fault. Not once was Network Rial mentioned, despite the organisation being responsible for carrying out the platform alterations.

The DfT also appeared to try to shift the focus to Northern by stating that Network Rail had informed Northern as early as 2017, that it would not be able to operate 6 car trains until 2021. I'm not sure how this helped to bring any clarity to the situation, but it does underline the fact there seems to be a culture of finger pointing within the DfT and the unions.

So perhaps in this instance the MSM can be forgiven for slightly misleading headlines?

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

The End of Pacers (And 'that' documentary)

Pacers (class 142/144s) have become the trains that passengers love to hate and the mainstream media loves to use as a weapon to attack government policy with. Now however the end is in sight for the units which are now over 30 years old. By the end of this year (2019) the entire fleet of Pacers operated by Northern will have been phased out. In order to achieve this new trains are being built and some existing trains are being delivered as they come off lease from other operators.

The good news for passengers is brand new trains are on the way, the introduction of which will see the phasing out completely of Pacers on routes operated by Northern. It is unfortunate however that the introduction of the class 195 DMUs has been delayed. The first class 195 was delivered to Northern for testing in June 2018, and it was expected that it would enter service in December 2018. Unfortunately during testing faults were found, and it wasn't until December 2018 that the units were cleared for passenger use. As far as I can tell driver training on the class 195s didn't begin until February this year, with Northern now saying the new trains will begin to enter passenger service in early 2019.
  
[Click to enlarge]
Northern class 142 at Chester Station

Class 195s aren't the only new trains being delivered to Northern, the operator is taking delivery of new class 331 EMUs which should also begin to enter service this year. Although Northern will eventually have 98 new trains in service, that doesn't mean that Pacers are to be replaced by the new trains. Some older units such as class 150/6/8s, 170s and 319s will remain in service with the 150s replacing Pacers. However Northern's train refurbishment programme which had refurbished the 100th train in February is completely transforming these units. Existing trains will feature upgraded seating, disabled access controlled emission toilets (to comply with PRM TSI rules which come into force in 2020) new floor coverings and LED lighting which will provide “a lighter and brighter on-board environment”. In total 243 units operated by Northern will be refurbished.

Refurbished class 319 interior 

All this is great news for passengers who have been waiting a long time for improvements to materialise. Delays in the arrival of new trains and the May 2018 timetable fiasco has meant that passengers have had a tough time and have rightly felt annoyed. However change on this scale is never easy and Northern can't be held fully responsible for the May time table chaos, which was down to a catalogue of failures rather than the fault of one organisation.

'That' documentary.

The fact that brand new trains are on the way hasn't stopped some in the media from using Pacers to attack government policy, specifically over the construction of HS2. I couldn't bring myself to watch the now infamous Dispatches documentary, however the premise as far I could gather was, that the government should invest in the North rather than building HS2. Now I could go on at length why this is wrong on many levels, but I'm more interested in the fact that it seems as if the old Pacer was again used as an example of under-investment in the North. Had this “documentary” been made just 12 months later, say mid-late 2019, the one weapon that was eagerly wielded would no longer exist, at least not on routes operated by Northern. Instead what Liam Halligan who wrote and presented the documentary would have found was a mix of brand new trains and existing trains which have been refurbished to a high standard.

Recently refurbished class 150 at Liverpool Lime Street

Even in late 2018 Halligan could of stood in Liverpool Lime St and explained that it had recently undergone a huge upgrade (part of a wider £340m investment in the Liverpool City region), next to a recently refurbished electric class 319 with 4 cars, which are quiet and spacious, and a world away from the Pacers which are being phased out. But no, the focus was on the old Pacer and the unhappy passengers who have had to endure them for decades.

Longer platforms at Liverpool Lime St
 

I didn't really want to get drawn into writing about the Dispatches documentary, but it is programmes and news stories like this that really annoy me. Forget the tenuous HS2 or Northern investment argument, what gets my back up is mainstream media's continued insistence on focusing only on the negative when it comes to the railways despite of the facts, which are clearly there for all to see.

Refurbished class 319 at Liverpool Lime Street 
Now I know new and refurbished trains won't make up for the lack of investment in the North but they will go a long way to providing passengers with the modern, fast and reliable service that they deserve. With Pacers gone, maybe class the class 150s, which despite being fully refurbished, will themselves be over 30 years old, will be the mainstream media's next target. One thing is for sure attacking train operating companies over the how old their trains are and calling for HS2 to be cancelled will not mean that Northern Powerhouse Rail is built any faster.






Below are just a few links to blogs that I have written about improvements in the North that are already, or will soon be benefiting passengers


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