This was my view at about 3pm today:

That’s the front carriage of the 2.51pm Northern Rail service from Greenfield to Manchester Victoria. This isn’t rush hour. It’s 3pm on a Saturday. Admittedly, a Saturday four weeks or so before Christmas, when the Christmas markets are on in Manchester, but still. The train was busy at Greenfield, full at Mossley, overloaded at Stalybridge, and if you wanted to get on at Ashton you were basically SOL. In the evening, when I went to Victoria station in Manchester to catch the train home, there were so many people waiting for it on the platform already – 15 minutes before it was due – that I gave up, turned around, and went to catch a bus instead. The bus home takes about twice as long as the train.

Why are these trains so crowded? With very few exceptions, they’re only two carriages long. This is a busy commuter route running into the centre of the third largest urban area in the country, and the trains are only two carriages long. They run, outside rush hour, only once an hour. You can see, above, what it was like this afternoon. Imagine what these trains are like at 8am on a Monday.

Anyone familiar with Britain’s rail network, of course, will not be entirely shocked to learn that this line is not anywhere near the London area. Overcrowding, apparently, doesn’t exist in the north. Local trains, aside from on a very small handful of lines (the Merseyrail Electrics in Liverpool and the Airedale and Wharfedale lines in West Yorkshire), are routinely made up of just two carriages, three if you’re lucky (that’s as opposed to between four and twelve on lines running into central London). At any busy time, these trains will probably be overcrowded. The service is unreliable (Northern have recently been running an ad campaign claiming that 93% of their services ran on time last year – but one, that means that 7% of their services ran late, and from experience I have to assume that most of those were on the Huddersfield line, and two, ‘on time’, as defined by Northern’s performance figures, simply means that a train arrived at a given station within five or ten minutes of the time shown on the timetable, depending on the line). The trains themselves are unpleasant – on the line I use, mostly Pacers, built on the cheap in the 1980s (they’re essentially bus bodies on a railcar chassis), with feeble heating, painfully uncomfortable seats, a semi-functioning toilet if you’re lucky, no luggage space, and not enough doors.

For added fun, there are no ticket machines on the stations, aside from in the city centre. In the (miniscule) ticket office at Greenfield (which closes at 2pm on weekdays, 3pm on Saturdays, and doesn’t open at all on Sundays), there is one employee. When the ticket office is open outside peak hours, you have to buy your ticket before you board the train in order to get the off-peak fare (which is about half the peak rate). You can imagine the queues. Every single National Rail station I’ve ever used in the London area has ticket machines… but this isn’t London, this is the north.

It gets loonier. This line, like every other railway line in the country, is privatised, with service provided by a franchise operator. You’d think, therefore, that the franchise operator would be able to see a certain level of demand and add additional services as required. Nope. The carriages – crappy diesel multiple units, in this case – are leased (from private companies, natch). In order to lease more carriages, a franchise operator would have to petition the Department for Transport for additional funding, because this isn’t really a privatised system with free competition between operators, it’s a nationalised system in which the state subsidises shareholder-owned private companies to provide a level of service that it specifies. This effectively means that Northern – a company whose management, in any case, largely appears to hold their customers in something resembling contempt – couldn’t boost service levels on the busy lines they operate even if they wanted to. This week, the government announced significant investment in new carriages and electrification – but if you read closely you’ll see that only 650 or so of these 2000 new carriages are destined for use on the network outside of London. The really interesting bit comes near the bottom of the article – the 650 carriages destined for use outside London will be allocated, essentially, according to which franchise operator makes the most cost-effective bid, rather than to the lines where the overcrowding is worst. And to pay for the new carriages, fares will keep rising faster than inflation. Welcome, once again, to post-Thatcher public services.

The system, on one level, more or less works. The trains are unpleasant, uncomfortable and unreliable, but they usually get you where you want to go within a few minutes of when they’re supposed to (unless things really go wrong, in which case vaya con dios). But really, two carriages only, when you get the kind of loadings you see in the photo above on a Saturday afternoon, and when fares go up, every year, by two or three percentage points above the prevailing rate of inflation? That’s not even a joke. That’s an insult.

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