#NorthernFail – or why the Ordsall Chord hasn’t saved us

The past 14 days have been a torrid time for the North’s rail commuters – widespread cancellations, heavy delays, overcrowding, short-formed trains with fewer coaches than planned, and timetable changes that have made some journeys longer rather than shorter, or even no-longer possible.

The alleged cause is the rollout of a new timetable on 20th May which was intended to exploit recently electrified routes, and a new piece of railway in the Manchester Area, the Ordsall Chord. It was intended to help increase capacity on some key routes, and increase some through journey opportunities.

However the results have been quite the opposite.

A Brief History Lesson

For a long time, Manchester’s railways were basically broken up into a North network, centred around Victoria, and a South network, focused on Piccadilly. Drivers and Guards were similarly split, and so a driver from the North Manchester network (whether they were based at Victoria, or further out such as Wigan, Preston or Blackpool) didn’t have need to know the routes of the South network, and vice versa, because their trains didn’t go there.

Drivers and Guards knew the various routes which connected the two parts of the network, for the rare number of trains which crossed between them (mostly empty carriage moves), but that was all.

This changed in 1988 with the opening of the Windsor Link – this bridged the network from the North West of Manchester – the lines from Wigan, Bolton and Preston – with the lines into Manchester Piccadilly. It was part of the fulfilment of a long held ambition of the city to reduce the need for passengers to shuffle between Piccadilly and Victoria, the other being the opening of the Metrolink system in 1992.

This emphasised the importance of Piccadilly as Manchester’s primary station, and a significant number of trains were switched over from using Victoria over the years following the link opening. Coupled with the Metrolink taking over the Bury line, this facilitated the downsizing of Victoria from the enormous 17 platform station into the smaller 6 platform station of today, and the construction of the Manchester Arena over the remainder of the Victoria site. This was also against a backdrop of rail travel falling in popularity since the 1960s.

The Windsor Link, concentration of primary services in Piccadilly, and reduction of Victoria to a secondary station was planned against these expectations, rather than the burgeoning demand we see now, 30 years later.

Oxford Road becomes “edge of the world” for some Train Crew

For operational convenience, when the Windsor Link became operational, many services from the North side of Manchester were joined up with those from the South side. From a marketing perspective, this facilitated new “through journey opportunities”, with no need for a passenger to change train, or only change once – though actually these seemed to be of niche value (e.g. Blackpool to Buxton, or Wigan to Chester via Stockport) and seldom exploited until the opening of the line to Manchester Airport in 1993.

The through working also helped the operational railway boost rolling stock utilisation, as trains spent less time “turning around” at Piccadilly and Victoria.

However, some of the Train Crew remained quite firmly “North” and “South”, and where this was the case they changed crew over at Oxford Road if the train was to cross or had crossed the Windsor Link. This is an important point, as this arrangement somewhat persists through to the present day for a number of trains. It has changed somewhat over time with the addition of the line to Manchester Airport which opened in 1993, and some “classically North” depots such as Wigan did (and I believe still do) sign routes as far South as Crewe via Wilmslow, while “South” depots such as Buxton know the way to Blackpool North, but there are still a number of crew changes needed at Oxford Road, even today.

This 30 year old legacy explains why there have been numerous reports of all the platforms being blocked by trains waiting for relieving crew at Oxford Road.

Uncontainable Damage

The other thing that the Windsor Link enabled is for delays and cancellations to spread between the previously separated North and South networks.

Even if a train appeared to the passenger to only operate in the North network (e.g. Bolton to Manchester Victoria), the coaches could have worked in a disrupted South network earlier in the day, or have become delayed behind some other late running service off the South network.

Previously, reactionary delays could be relatively well contained to the side of the network that the root-cause originated on.

The addition of the Ordsall Curve now allows delays and cancellations from the North East of Manchester to spread toward Piccadilly and the South network, in the same way the Windsor Link allowed this to happen with the North network.

So this means it’s important to have plans and procedures in place to contain the spread of disruption to what would be otherwise unaffected lines, or minimise reactionary issues.

What do I mean by that? A good example could be a passenger left confused as to why their Preston to Blackpool train is cancelled because of snow in the Peak District. To the railway operator, this makes sense, because the train started in Buxton and discovered a snow drift near Whaley Bridge. But to the passenger on Preston station, they don’t really understand why it should disrupt them, and nor should they need to.

Slip Sliding Away: Hobbled by Hand-me-downs

The long-awaited electrification of lines in the North West of England is finally happening, some would say over 40 years overdue. Why it wasn’t done as a “follow-on” project to the WCML electrification to Glasgow in 1974 is a question for the politicians of that era.

With the extra overhead wires comes a fleet of “new” trains – except they aren’t really new, they are “cascaded” from their previous sphere of operation to the North West, given a lick of paint and a tidy up. These are the Class 319 “Northern Electrics” – based on a 1980’s design. These trains were up until recently used on the Thameslink network around London, where again they were largely inadequate for the work they needed to do, and built by BR on a limited budget, thanks to a Government who’s usual reply regarding investment in rolling stock was “You need three trains, but you can only have the money for two.”

The biggest problem with the Class 319 units seems to be they simply can’t keep time on schedules which contain a number of station calls. This is demonstrated by their introduction on the Manchester to Crewe local trains with the timetable change. These contain frequent stops, and the timekeeping is poor. Here the Class 319s actually replaced newer and more advanced Class 323 units, which were proven on the route.

The big difference between the Class 319 and the Class 323 (or a Class 319 and a diesel unit) is the rail equivalent of “rubber on the road”.

In the Class 319, all the traction equipment, and all the powered wheels, are situated under a single coach – one of the two middle coaches. This gives the train 4 powered axles for a 4-coach train, compared to the 323 where it’s the two end (Driving) coaches which contain the powered axles – giving a total of 8 powered axles for just 3 coaches on the 323. In this respect, the 323 is already superior in poor rail conditions by having the driven axles more evenly distributed along the train. That’s without the more advanced features of the Class 323 such as better wheelslip control and regenerative braking.

Even on a 2-car diesel unit, the power is more distributed, there being a total of four driven axles spread throughout – one powered axle on each bogie.

Basically, the Class 319 has long suffered from problems with rail adhesion, even when used in the South of the country.

The unit is basically unsuited to the frequently damp conditions found in the North West of England and frequent stops and starts.

It may be able to keep time on more “express” level journeys, such as Manchester to Blackpool via Wigan, but it presently seems a dubious performer on all-stations work. Things may improve as staff gain handling experience, but it’s doubtful.

This is a situation which may only get worse as Northern were planning to release all their Class 323 trains back to the leasing company at the end of 2018.

Squeezing a Quart into a Pint Pot

This is happening on a number of fronts.

Firstly, infrastructure.

The Ordsall Chord helps in some respects – it removes some of the criss-crossing of trains across the main station throat just south of Manchester Piccadilly. Since the timetable change, fewer trains cross all the way from one side to the other – several of these were TransPennine Express trains between Manchester Airport and the line to Huddersfield, Leeds and beyond. These trains now operate through Oxford Road, take the Ordsall Chord to Victoria, then route up Miles Platting bank and via Ashton to regain the route at Stalybridge – in effect back to “classic” North TransPennine route.

However this does increase some pressure on the the twin-tracked section between Manchester Piccadilly’s platforms 13 and 14, through Oxford Road to Deansgate. At Piccadilly, as there are only two platforms, this limits trains to a bare-minimum of a 4 minute headway – that’s how long is allowed for a train to slow down, arrive at Platform 13 or 14 at Piccadilly, unload and load passengers, and depart. Realistically, this allows a maximum of 12 trains per hour between Piccadilly and Oxford Road if and only if everything is running on time.

This is also why some services from the Deansgate direction are planned to terminate at Oxford Road. There isn’t the space for them on the infrastructure further along.

Secondly, planning.

A number of the detailed working timetables for this timetable change were not available until very late in the day. This is because Network Rail are reportedly under-resourced in the train planning department, especially when a significant “recast” of the plan is requested, as with this timetable change, caused by the delays in completion of the various North West Electrification schemes – Blackpool to Preston was handed back late, and Euxton Jn to Bolton remains incomplete.

Also, the planning on the part of Northern seems to have gone awry. They don’t appear to have enough Drivers or Guards available to provide the booked service, even if they work those they do have as intensely as possible.

Thirdly, Train Crew.

Shortages here seem to be the major cause of the cancellations since the introduction of the new timetable. Part of the reason is that Northern are trying do more, but with the same number of people. It was part of their franchise bid, that they could deliver these new services with no significant increase in the train crew complement.

It’s a common mantra in a lot of companies, you may hear it in your own workplace.

However the fact is that a train driver can only be one place at once. To squeeze the extra trains out, Northern Train Crew diagrammers have had to work the existing crews harder. This has meant cutting back on allowances built into the crew diagrams to handle out-of-course situations – for instance where a driver might get relieved from one train, and have 20 to 30 minutes to wait for their next train, maybe now they only have a few minutes between their trains. Of course, you can now see how if the incoming train is late, the driver might be delayed getting to their next booked train, which then departs late. Eventually this will have reactionary effects with crews and trains out of position.

The other issue which may also be rearing it’s ugly head is route knowledge. We’re back to the Oxford Road “boundary” thing again, for instance the Liverpool Lime St – Crewe trains have to change crew at Oxford Road, as Liverpool drivers don’t know the route to Crewe, while Manchester Picc drivers don’t know the route to Liverpool via Chat Moss.

Employee relations also play a role here. If you think your relationship with Northern as a passenger is currently bad, don’t think it’s all rosy for the employees either. I believe there is currently no valid Rest Day Working agreement in place between the drivers’ union (ASLEF) and Northern.

For a long time, it’s been common for Train Crew members to work some of their days off (Rest Days in rail-speak) to cover for colleagues who were unable to do their booked duty. Maybe it’s due to holidays, sickness, or sometimes it’s because they are at work, but it’s their turn to be in the classroom, learning new routes, learning new trains, or just part of their regular training and assessment processes to ensure they are competent and safe to do their job. It’s some welcome extra cash for the person covering the work, and it ensures service levels are maintained without having to employ too many standby or reserve staff. Sometimes a driver might work a Rest Day in order to attend training sessions.

The lack of an agreement for RDW is no-doubt partially behind the lack of Train Crew and in particular Drivers, and I’m almost certain that any negotiations will be a game of chicken and seeing who flinches first.

What could have been done differently?

The impression I get is that the various management entities, Network Rail, Northern, GTR down South, and even the DfT, chose to doggedly press ahead with rolling out this timetable when clearly there hadn’t been enough preparation, the planning was of dubious quality and appeared to have been rushed, while some things basically just weren’t ready – whether that’s infrastructure or driver training – to deliver the new timetable.

What would have been the most sensible thing to do in these circumstances would be to delay rolling out the new timetable, probably by 8 to 12 weeks, and instead extend the validity of the old timetable.

This has been done before, back in BR days. There was a similar significant change in timetabling and rolling stock disposition enabled by the East Coast Main Line electrification in 1991. The May 1991 timetable change was to herald introduction of electric services to Edinburgh and the cascade of a number of HSTs to cover more “Cross Country” work – i.e. those Intercity services which avoided London.

However, because of the tightly-coupled nature of the various projects, things weren’t ready. The decision was taken by BR to extend the validity of the 1990 timetable through to July, rather than take the risk of the sort of disruption we see now.

So there is a precedent for delaying rollout of a new timetable, however in the privatised railway, I suspect it is more complex than in the days of BR.

Finally, lightning does strike twice!

Remember we started with the Windsor Link?

The 1989 timetable which brought that line into full use became known as the “timetable that failed” to the operators. The service collapsed then for several similar reasons, in particular the over-dependence on good time keeping and maintaining planned station dwell times to keep the core Piccadilly – Castlefield section moving, and little in the way of wiggle room for recovery. Sound familiar?

How was that solved? Basically shifting more services back to Victoria and reducing some of the off-peak services in order to provide a “fire-break” between the morning and evening peaks.

Neither will work in this case – Victoria doesn’t have much spare capacity, the station being massively reduced in size since the early 90s, and there is little scope for reducing service, as many of the paths over the congested Piccadilly – Castlefield section are provided by other operators, such as TransPennine or East Midlands Trains, or used by freight trains to access Trafford Park. They won’t want to give up paths.

It seems that very little in terms of lessons learned from the 1989 experience got applied in the development of the disastrous May 2018 timetable.

Finally, a bit of humour, because if we didn’t laugh, we’d cry…

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