Dramatic Changes Planned for Rail Travel in the North of England

The new Northern and Transpennine Express franchises have been awarded and the government is celebrating the changes that are promised by the successful bidders whose terms begin next April. For Northern, it will be Arriva and First will be continuing its involvement with Transpennine Express without its current partner Keolis.

So much is planned that you have to ask if all of it will come to pass even if it fits in well with the government’s Northern Powerhouse ideal. The list of improvements is so long that consulting what the government has published for Northern and Transpennine Express is worthwhile. Initially, I was going to confine myself to aspects that piqued my interest but I went beyond this to be more comprehensive. Still, there is so much to come that the linked sources are worth surveying too.

The remit of the Transpennine Express has been tweaked a bit with their routes to Blackpool, Barrow-in-Furness and Windermere passing to Northern. That leaves their Anglo-Scottish services as their sole involvement on the West Coast Mainline and some new journeys are to serve Liverpool so this is no longer solely based at Manchester Airport as its southern terminus. The southern route via Sheffield to Cleethorpes is to get extra capacity and more frequent services. The same is to come to the northern route too with an hourly service to Edinburgh via Morpeth. Train refurbishment is on the agenda and we are suppose to see new five car 125 mph trains on the northwestern and northern corridors too.

The new Northern franchise is where the improvements really mount up and it was supposed to be a no growth franchise when it was let in 2004. That is not something to be repeated so there are a lot of changes planned and I will step through a lot of these. In summary, there are more services, updated and new trains as well as newly staffed stations. There is a lot to cover.

Firstly, more Sunday journeys are to be offered. Of particular interest to me is the upgrade of  Stoke-on-Trent to Manchester route (it goes via Macclesfield) to an hourly service instead of the current three to four trains per day. Others mooted for an hourly service include the mid-Cheshire line between Manchester and Chester that goes via Knutsford and Northwich, Bishop Auckland to Darlington, Hull to Scarborough, Hull to York, Hull to Sheffield, Scarborough to York, Leeds to Bridlington, Bradford to Skipton, Bradford to Ilkley, Leeds to Doncaster, Leeds to Sheffield, Sheffield to Huddersfield, Lincoln to Sheffield, Knottingley and Pontefract to Leeds, Chester to Manchester and Leeds via Warrington and Colne to Preston. Some lines are going to see two trains per hour on Sundays with that from Buxton to Manchester being one of these. Others include Leeds to Harrogate and Knaresborough, Bradford to Manchester and Wigan to Manchester via Atherton. If this all comes to pass, it will a major increase in Sunday service level and that only can be good.

Weekday services are also set to increase with two trains an hour between Macclesfield and Manchester, Buxton to Manchester, Middlesbrough to Newcastle,  Newcastle to Carlisle, Knottingley and Pontefract to Leeds, Greenbank to Manchester and Blackburn to Manchester. There are myriad of other improvements too with more evening services on some lines and some Leeds to York via Harrogate getting four trains per hour. All this is going to boost capacity and the sooner that comes, the better.

New trains are to come too (281 new carriages in total) and the dreaded Pacers are to be withdrawn by 2019 while the remainder of the fleet is to be refurbished. Some of the new trains will be electric so existing electric ones like those on the Hadfield to Manchester, Skipton and Ilkley to Leeds and Doncaster to Leeds will be replaced to add capacity beyond what is there now. This comes alongside increased staffing of stations with 45 unstaffed stations to get staff and another 54 to have extended opening hours. Stations are to be improved too.

Northern also is to operate a network of semi-fast services with new and reconditioned (class 158) trains. The routes are: Middlesbrough to Newcastle, Newcastle to Carlisle, Hull to Sheffield, Leeds to Nottingham, Lincoln to Sheffield, Bradford to Manchester Airport and Liverpool, Chester to Leeds, Blackpool to York, Blackpool to Manchester, Barrow-in-Furness to Manchester Airport and Windermere to Manchester Airport. Some of these replace existing Transpennine Express routes and that may explain how the brand has been created. All in all, this will be quite a network once it is in place though it is disappointing to see Leeds to Carlisle and Leeds to Lancaster omitted, even if these too see their own modest improvements.

New routes are to be undertaken by Northern that are not part of what they have taken on from Transpennine Express or Northern Connect so it is worth highlighting them. These are Leeds to Bridlington and Scarborough to York. Currently, Transpennine Express are the only operator on these lines so the addition of Northern will compliment those journeys to increase the service frequency.

One is left wondering how all these new trains and extra services are to be funded. After all, Transpennine Express has to pay a premium for their franchise and Northern needs to operate with a reduced subsidy. One would like the reality to match the intent without extra restrictions on off-peak ticketing beyond what we have now. If that could be managed, the overhaul would be both welcome and long overdue.

A mid morning gap in Argyll

Last weekend saw me stretch it to head up to Oban. It was August 2008 when I last went there so it was high time for a return to the place. Walks took me along the shore of Loch Etive and along the eastern coastline of Mull so I did spread out from my base and the weather was more obliging than weather forecasts were leading me to believe.

Because it is a long way from Macclesfield, going by train probably is best though an off-peak return is costly at £115.30. The way up saw changes in Manchester, Preston and Glasgow instead of suggested route options that oddly took in Stafford and Crewe. Though railway engineering was ongoing between Bolton and Preston, Transpennine Express continued to operate trains between Manchester Airport, Preston and the likes of Blackpool with a diversion via Wigan which involved tantalisingly slow movement through Wigan North Western station. That train was both busy and late so I was lucky to get any sort of seat on the thing with many standing. Apart from that, the other sections of the journey were fairly pleasant so I cannot issue too many complaints. The return journey involved the same changing points and was a little more enjoyable.

The changeover from Glasgow Central to Glasgow Queen Street is made to loom large on railway journey planners but in reality is something like a fifteen minute walk that I once did in around ten minutes. Doing the same between Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Victoria takes around twenty minutes so Glasgow’s main train stations are closer together and Buchanan Bus Station is of the same duration from the principal train stations so walking is viable there too.

Getting to and from Oban has improved from the three or four return journeys that I would have expected and I counted something like eight on summer weekdays. Many of these would involve piggybacking off the train to Mallaig and Fort William with train division at Crianlarich and there also are trains travelling solo to Oban and the 16:37 departure that took me there was one of those and that train left at 20:36 to return to Glasgow offering anyone living in Scotland’s Central Belt the chance of a longer day trip to the Isle of Mull while later ferries are running.

Speaking of ferries, it can feel as if Oban is better connected to nearby islands than other parts of the mainland. For instance, the ferry to Mull travels at a decent pace and offers up to seven each way sailings a day while Kerrera enjoys a very frequent largely passenger service only a mile or two down the road from Oban. Other islands like Lismore, Coll, Tiree, Barra, South Uist and Colonsay also see sailings from Oban.

Maybe it is a reality of the mountainous hinterland of Oban as much as the outcome of the Clearances but it can feel as if frequent bus services stick to the coastline. The 405 and 005 serve Connel and Benderloch from Monday to Saturday and there is the 410 on Sundays. All of these have an hourly frequency with extra schoolday journeys extending as far as Appin though the Monday to Saturday service 918 to Fort William could be a better bet for those parts so long as the timings of the three return journeys suit what you want to do. There also is an interesting if less frequent service 408 that goes all the way to Bonawe on the shore of Loch Etive and service 418 to Easdale and North Cuan with latter offering a ferry crossing to Luing.

Aside from the foregoing, Oban gets a smattering of Monday to Saturday town services going to the town’s more outlying fringes like Soroba, Ganavan and Gallanchmore but what hits me is how limit local bus connections to the likes of Dalavich, Taynuilt and Dalmally. If it were not for train and long distance coach services, the latter pair would be stranded altogether and that brings me to the title of this piece. To get to either of those places for commencing a walk, you either need to start from Oban around 08:00 or 09:00 or wait until just after 12:00. Whatever express service used to run around 11:00 is no more and I find myself challenging the idea of the 976 timetable (Oban to Glasgow) shadowing that of the trains, albeit with only three return journeys a day too. Even the summertime Citylink Oban to Dundee service only offers one journey each way when there once was two and that offered a gap filler. To be fair, Citylink did try to offer more connections in 2008 when it was embroiled in a bus war with West Coast Motors. Whatever innovation was shown at the time appears to have been lost since then and both parties did have the good sense to patch up their differences.

As it happened, the 12:11 from Oban to Glasgow was mobbed on the Saturday of my weekend away. It was if everyone was leaving at the end of the high season when Sunday’s weather showed what they were leaving after them if only they could see past the rain on the day of their departure. the inadequacy of the two carriage train was emphasised by Scotrail’s hiring of a coach to assist them in moving folk about. There also was a bother with luggage being in a wheelchair space and I could have done without one gentleman talking about the effects that lifting heavy luggage on him after a relatively recent operation. While sparing you all the details, I was glad to have a seat and to leave them on their way at Taynuilt. On this basis, having a train departure at around 10:30 would have seemed sensible and would have got me an earlier start to my walk too. However, the same train departure on Monday was much quieter and all the more enjoyable apart maybe from moments when someone started to watch something on his phone without headphones but that irritation has faded now. the weekend had been good to me anyway and I quite fancy a return sometime soon so that’s a good thing to be able to say after any trip away.

The Rise of GHA?

In recent years, GHA Coaches and its subsidiary Vale Travel have started to make inroads to Cheshire East that the North Wales operation hadn’t done until then. It all started with school bus contracts using mid-life double decker buses seemingly based in Macclesfield and that still is their base in the area.

Next, they won the contract for the Connect 88 service between Knutsford, Wilmslow and Altrincham from Arriva who had operated it using the route number of 288. New buses were acquired for the Monday to Saturday service, which must have come as a welcome surprise to those who were regular users of Arriva’s ageing and step entrance Dennis Darts. Low floor Optare Versas have been the mainstay since then although other older buses appear from time to time.

The 289 between Northwich, Knutsford and Altrincham was another service that GHA gained and I am not sure when that happened; my first sighting of it was of a sunny Friday evening in May 2012 when I glimpse the bus to Northwich passing through Knutsford. It again is a Monday to Saturday service and has something like five departures each way a day.

In recent months, the number of services coming under their custodianship has increased with the 200 between Wilmslow, Styal and Manchester Airport being the first that I noticed. That is a seven day hourly daytime service that always seems to escape the cuts that blighted others. Is it because it only needs one bus and one driver all day? They possibly are the most cost effective so that wouldn’t surprise me.

The Connect 19 service between Macclesfield, Whirley Barn and Prestbury is yet another hourly Monday to Saturday daytime service that they operate after taking over from High Peak, who had run it for a number of years. Sunday services between Macclesfield, Alderley Edge, Wilmslow and Manchester on the 130 route became yet another contract that they won, also from Arriva, and commenced in the middle of January and I got to seeing one of the Optare Versas for the Connect 88 running on it.

That wasn’t all because the P1 between Middlewood, Poynton and Hazel Grove became yet another entry on their roster of services and fitted the Monday to Friday hourly daytime service too. Thankfully, its institution meant the 392 and 393 services still run from Macclesfield into Stockport and don’t terminate in Hazel Grove as may have been feared.

Their most recent activity has involved a little risk taking on their part since they have applied to register a service along route 27 between Macclesfield and Knutsford. There is a little confusion about this since the council were in the throes of issuing a tender for contract when GHA appear to have looked at the ridership figures and decided to go running it commercially, albeit on a largely two hourly timetable as opposed to High Peak’s 90 minute one. It again is a Monday to Saturday daytime affair with the first and last services of a Saturday being dropped. Cheshire East Council are waiting for the actual registration to go to completion before telling anyone what is happening even if GHA already have a timetable on their website. Though the risk taking is to be welcomed, it all looks confused and I hope things work out for the new service and that it gets the patronage that it needs. There have been many lost bus services in our area already and more aren’t needed.

Along the route of the X1

When I first moved to Macclesfield, there was a bus service running from Manchester all the way to Derby that passed through the town. It was called the X1 and First operated it under contract to three councils: Cheshire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire. Before First won the contract, Stagecoach ran it and nearly made it a commercial prospect too. In fact, it had been in existence at least since the Crosville/National Bus Company days and it wasn’t a commercial success even then.

When First ran the service, they used a mixture of coaches and buses and their timetable was a limited one with only four to five departures each way a day and they weren’t all that useful between Macclesfield and Stockport either since the times nearly coincided with the similarly rare 392 journeys to the same destination. There was an additional school service operated by Arriva between Macclesfield and Leek on Monday to Friday mornings too that some could use for commuting to work; getting home by bus at the end of the working day involved either an early finish or a long wait, hardly an ideal state of affair but the successor 108 timetable is even less workable than the old one was.

After First lost the contract, Trent Barton took it over and the service number became 108, one that covers part of the route even today. While I cannot tell you which depot was used to operate the route, the driver changeover took place in Macclesfield bus station so if the bus running in one direction was late, the one going the other way was made late and it hardly was the best state of affairs for maintaining on time running of buses.

Macclesfield to Stockport Bus Travel Improvements

2003 and 2004 saw Cheshire County Council spent money getting in some new buses for subsidised services. Seeing the cuts that are being made now makes those times a distant memory and I reckon it might be U.K. government cash that made this possible. Some of those buses were used by Arriva to operate an enhanced Macclesfield to Stockport bus services using the 392 and 393 routes that we still have today. These buses were stationed in Macclesfield around the time of the opening of the current bus station and then moved to a Manchester depot after that.

Both buses were used to offer an hourly timetable from Monday to Saturday instead of a much less frequent one seven days a week. That’s the basis that we still have today though those buses have been with different operators since Arriva lost the contract in 2008. One went to High Peak for an improved Macclesfield to Prestbury while the other went to GHA as a backup for the main buses on their routes serving Northwich, Knutsford, Wilmslow and Altrincham.

In their place, BakerBus had to bring their own buses when taking over from Arriva around four or five years ago. The timetable remained very similar though, apart maybe from re-branding it The Shuttle. Their tenure in charge of the route is coming to an end now with High Peak set to run it from next month. It will be interesting to see if their takeover means using older buses again. The 393 has been relegated to only a few journeys a day with the 392 becoming the main route for the new service. Timekeeping will be another matter to watch with the new timetable because the alternating 392 and 393 routes left some slack for keeping buses running on time because the 393 goes along the A523 via Adlington and 392 goes around by Bollington and Pott Shrigley.

Breakup

Those 392/393 improvements meant the end of a Manchester to Derby service that went via Leek and Ashbourne. Now the course of the route was broken in four on all days apart from Sunday: Manchester to Stockport, Stockport to Macclesfield, Macclesfield to Ashbourne, Ashbourne to Derby. The very regular 192 does the first section and the second is served by the 392/393. The third one is served by Clowes 108 service, a rump of what went before. Their use of older Mercedes midi-buses appears to be a cost-saving measure and I have seen these running without ticket machines either, hardly an encouraging sign. The last section is well served with the SW1 service operated by Trent Barton with only a few Monday to Wednesday contracted services run by Arriva Midlands.

The Monday to Saturday frequency of each of these is varied. The 192 offers a 10 minute one, the highest of the bunch. It is as good as hourly for the 392/393 and SW1. The lowest of these is the 108 with only a few services each way a day and it has not escaped spending cuts either.

In fact, what brought the whole story of the X1 route to mind in the first place is a change that is coming to the 108 service. Until the weekend after the coming one, we have evening journeys such as a 18:15 from Ashbourne to Macclesfield and a 19:10 going all of the other way. The last journey from Ashbourne leaves at 20:20 and terminates in Leek. There was a Monday to Friday morning school service that got canned and the loss of the aforementioned Friday and Saturday evening journeys is next, kicking in from March 8th. It’s a far cry from a full X1 that I used to get from Stockport to Macclesfield one Saturday around a decade ago. Not only has a coherent long distance bus route option been dismantled but you have to wonder if things could get even worse than they are. After all, I have seen Clowes operate the 108 using a bus with no ticket machine and they are being left to carry on for now.

With all this dismantling, a Manchester to Derby bus travel option effectively was removed. All those changes mean that it is far from an attractive way to go anymore unless you plan on stopping off here, there and everywhere. This is nice countryside so that would be no bad idea but there’s no way of having a teaser now like the TransPeak service.

There Once Was a Sunday Service…

Even the Sunday and bank holiday route of the 108 meant a change at Leek with operators changing at the end of every council contract. BakerBus and then D&G were the custodians of the northern section while TM Travel ran the southern one. There were three departures each way and the two halves awaited each other at Leek bus station. Sadly, that service now is no more and I seem to remember a reasonable level of usage when I used it too.

The only existing remnant now goes between Derby and Ashbourne with only two return journeys extending as far as Leek, a loss of one from what went before. The service is the Sunday and bank holiday SW1 and Trent Barton is the operator. There are five journeys going each way, an improvement for the residents of Ashbourne and nearby Mayfield gains a few of the ones that don’t go as far as Mayfield too. It’s nowhere near as regular as the Monday to Saturday service but it’s good to see that it continues, which is more than could be said for the Sunday service along the rest of the route.

Any Sign of Better Times Ahead?

It seems that there has been a mixture of gains and losses along the length of the former X1 route with Sunday services decimated and the section between Macclesfield, Leek and Ashbourne seeing a reduced service on other days of the week. The continuing near hourly Macclesfield to Stockport bus service from Monday to Saturday is a bright spot though amongst the other gloom. Whenever there are bus services withdrawn, you have to ask if there ever can be a chance of some sort of return in the future. As gloomy as things appear now, it yet may surprise us though the “lost decade” isn’t over yet.

Public transport in Knutsford

Once, there was a comment from a young lady doing a school project on Knutsford bus services. Then, I directed her to Cheshire East Council’s website and I hope that she got what she needed from there. Yesterday saw me spend a few hours in Knutsford and the recent changes to the Macclesfield to Knutsford bus service reminded me of that question and got me thinking that saying a bit more on Knutsford’s public transport services wouldn’t go amiss. This information is intended for anyone who needs to make use of public transport for getting to and from Knutsford so I hope that I am not doing a school project for someone though that is a risk that I am taking with compiling what’s here.

Buses

The town’s bus connections do not operate on Sundays but provide a useful level of service on other days of the week. Until the start of October this year, the 27/27A/27B provided an hourly service to Chelford, Henbury and Macclesfield. Now, it’s been reduced to departures running every ninety minutes and Monday to Friday calls to Alderley Edge have been reduced considerably also. Most of the journeys taken by the current service diverts from the A537 to pass Radbroke and Over Peover. The service once was operated by Bakerbus before Bowers Coaches, now part of High Peak, took it over. Until last year, there was a summer Sunday and bank holiday service on offer too with extensions to Tatton Park and three journeys each way a day. Council funding cuts have seen to the end of that and may explain the recently curtailed frequency on other days of the week too.

The largely hourly Connect 88 service to Wilmslow to Altrincham remains though. Once the 288 operated by Arriva, this now is run by GHA’s Vale Travel mainly with Optare Versa single deckers dating from 2008. These fresh new buses were a far cry from the ageing step-entrance Dennis Darts that Arriva had been using. The service extends from around 07:00 until around 19:00 so covers a good part of the day goes by Ilford’s site at Mobberley and passes not far from Manchester Airport’s cargo handling facility either, offering something of use to anyone needing to go to work at either place.

The Connect 88 isn’t the only service going from Knutsford and Altrincham because there’s also the 289 that has Northwich as its other terminus. There are five services each way a day with the overall period of operation starting before 07:00 and finishing after 20:00, making for a long day.

After those, there’s the town service 300 to mention and it’s shared by High Peak and Tomlinson Travel with a decent spread of service from around 08:00 until after 23:00 and the frequency largely is half-hourly too so Knutsford residents cannot complain too much, especially it is escaping the planned council spending cuts unlike its counterparts in Macclesfield.

The mention of Tomlinson Travel brings me to the last service on the list: the Tuesday and Friday only service 47 from Holmes Chapel to Warrington. Knutsford gains two services to Warrington from this while Holmes Chapel only has the one. Saying that, the service finishes up in the early afternoon so it looks like a weekday shopping bus for some folk.

All of these services call at the town’s bus station, an unfussy but not grotesque annex to Booth’s supermarket. It’s away from the town centre though and a busy road needs crossing to get there. Like Knutsford’s train station, you have to go uphill to reach it too so that’s another consideration. It’s just as well that there are public toilets there and I saw a bus driver making use of them yesterday too. The adjacent Booth’s also operate a cafe so that could be a handy way to spend some time while awaiting a bus so it’s far from bad.

Trains

The town sits on the mid-Cheshire line that connects Chester with the likes of Northwich, Altrincham and Stockport. Northern Rail is the sole operator here and there is a staffed ticket office at Knutsford’s none too shabby train station; it looks as if the main station building got a rebuild in the eighties or nineties but I have not been able to find anything about it so far. Service frequency is two-hourly on Sundays and that’s a vast improvement on the three services each way a day that it used to get. Apart from Monday to Friday peak times when additional services run, the frequency is hourly on other days of the week.

Other Thoughts

It’s a pity that Knutsford gets a bit more cut off from the world in terms of public transport of a Sunday since it’s a pretty place to visit and oozes plenty of character too. It started out as an estate village owned by the Egertons of Tatton Park and mercifully escaped the industrialisation of places like nearby Macclesfield. Tatton Park passed into National Trust hands in the middle of the last century with Cheshire East Council now managing it on their behalf. That was what drew me to Knutsford yesterday and I untidily tracked down a walking route around Tatton Mere; finding its source first wasn’t too bright.

What amazed me yesterday were the streams of slow moving cars in the two narrow one-way streets in the heart of the town: King Street and Princess Street. That made me wonder if it wasn’t possible to pedestrianise these but the need for car parking probably puts paid to that one. Shops were busy with folk too so those narrow footways in King Street could do with a bit more girth.

Maybe if we could persuade more folk to visit by bus, then the Sunday service situation could be sorted but council finances do not permit our testing that out again and there were a few years of half-heartedly trying too. Some of those Macclesfield Sunday services got extended as far as Manchester Airport’s viewing for some reason so there were some efforts made, as odd as they might seem now. For now though, train services are that little bit more dependable so they’ll need to be the public transport backstop until the economy and the public finances both improve enough for the bus travel option to be enhanced again.