The Anonymous Widower

Is The Northern Hub Bold Enough?

Yesterday, on my trip to Blackburn, some of the problems that will be addressed by the Northern Hub developments became obvious.

Admittedly, my problems are slightly worse than most passengers as I’m a coeliac, so my chance of buying a decent gluten free meal in Blackburn is about the sane as finding a cold bottle of water in Hell. There isn’t even a Pizza Express, although they do have restaurants in Blackheath and Blackpool.

So to be safe, I have to go via Manchester or Leeds, where there are several good gluten-free restaurants, or at a pinch Preston, where there is a pleasant Pizza Express.

The main problem is that I’m coming up from London and I want to leave Manchester going to the North. Trains from Manchester Victoria to Blackburn are rather decrepit and cramped Class 150 Sprinter DMU or scrapyard specials as I called them in this post. They seem to run twice an hour, which is better than those from Leeds and Preston, which are just hourly.

You can get from Piccadilly to Blackburn, but it involves a change of train at either Salford Crescent or Bolton. The service is two trains per hour and is probably the best way to do it.

Linking the two main stations in Manchester is the key part of the Northern Hub and involves creating the Ordsall Chord. A plan with a similar objective from 1977 was the Picc-Vic Tunnel, but this much bolder plan was cancelled.

The Ordsall Chord won’t particularly help my journey of yesterday, as I would still do the same short journey to Salford Crescent  or Bolton for a train to Blackburn.  The stillborn Picc-Vic Tunnel would probably have had a similar effect to Thameslink in London, where for example arriving passengers from Newcastle going to say Sevenoaks dive into the low-level St. Pancras Thameslink station to get their train. So I would have probably dived into Piccadilly low-level station and got the next half-hourly train to Blackburn.

So I have to ask if the Northern Hub plan is bold enough!

But Manchester isn’t London and there is one big difference! London is very much bigger and the numbers of commuters and other rail users is substantially higher.

Another important factor is that Northern Rail runs trains, that discourage rather than encourage more users.

Because of this last point, the fact that a large amount of railway electrification and refurbishment of trains is taking place is very much a positive influence. Some voices in the North may have sniffed at refurbished Class 319 for their new electric services. But if the refurbishment is as good as it was for the Class 455 of South West Trains, no-one except the new train manufacturers will be complaining.

One great advantage of the Class 319, is that there are 86 trainsets, which would mean that electrifying further lines wouldn’t require the purchase of new trains.

We also have the problem in Europe, that there is a shortage of train building capability. So would we prefer to say buy new Chinese trains or refurbish sound trains in places like Allerton, Doncaster, Ilford and Derby? Especially, if the refurbished trains are just as reliable and comfortable, at a fraction of the cost!

In some ways though, the Northern Hub is an extremely bold project, as it is a bit like Topsy on Speed.

The idea of the Northern Hub was only first mooted in 2009 and now there a lot of work in progress like the restoration and roofing of Manchester Victoria station and the electrification of routes. I took this picture yesterday, as I travelled towards Blackburn.

Electrification In Progress

Electrification In Progress

Already the first parts of the project are in place, with new Class 350 electric trains now running from Manchester Airport to Glasgow and Edinburgh via Newton-le-Willows under newly installed wires.

Before the end of this year, you should see a new roof on Manchester Victoria and electric trains connecting Liverpool and Manchester for the first time. When you consider that both cities were electrified for important services to Crewe and the South by 1961 and to London in 1966, it is a disgrace that Liverpool and Manchester have had to wait nearly another fifty years for the electrified link to be inserted.

I described the Northern Hub project as Topsy on speed.  In some ways, a project like Topsy is a nightmare to manage, but in one way the scope of this project is expanding relentlessly. And that is in the area of electrification. When first proposed it was intended to electrify the main lines between Liverpool, Preston and Manchester.  Since then Blackpool and Huddersfield have been added. There is thought to be no connection between the fact that part of the Huddersfield line is known as the Real Ale Trail and the decision to electrify that line.

Knowing the area and its problems well as I do, I can’t believe that by 2020 there aren’t plans in place to add more lines to the electrification program.

Already the Todmorden Curve is being rebuilt, so that direct diesel services from Manchester Victoria to Burnley can begin later this year. Although Wikipedia says that services might not begin, due to lack of suitable rolling stock. Every line electrified would need new electric trains, but would also release some diesel ones for use elsewhere.

So do we have the virtuous circle, where by refurbishing Class 319 trains, we get the rolling stock to electrify lines, which releases much needed diesel trains to be used to provide a better and more frequent service on other lines to increase the passenger traffic, so that the lines are worth electrifying. And as any number of examples have shown, clean, reliable and frequent electric train services generate a momentum of their own.

In some ways, these lines are very similar to the Valley Lines  in Wales. Important to their communities, but neglected and depending on scrapyard specials to move everybody around. But the government has plans for the Valley Lines, as detailed in this extract from Wikipedia.

On 16 July 2012 the UK Government announced plans to extend the electrification of the network at a cost of £350 million. This was at the same time of the announcement of electrification of the South Wales Main Line from Cardiff to Swansea. This would also see investment in new trains and continued improvements to stations. It is thought to start between 2014 and 2019.

We should boldly go on the development of the Northern Hub. On the other hand, progress has been so good this far, perhaps we just need to ensure that it continues at this rate.

I would also suggest that those in charge of the Valley Lines upgrade, take note of what must be good practice in Lancashire.



April 6, 2014 - Posted by | Transport | , , , , , ,


  1. Reblogged this on msamba.

    Comment by agogo22 | April 7, 2014 | Reply

  2. […] from Manchester to Southport one of those extra lines that will eventually be electrified under the developing plans for the Northern Hub? It must have strong claims as Southport is a town of 90,000 people and is still a major resort for […]

    Pingback by On To Southport And Manchester « The Anonymous Widower | April 9, 2014 | Reply

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