For those of you who aren’t aware of Northern Rail, here is the intro on the company’s Wikipedia entry:
“Northern Rail (often referred to simply as Northern) is a train operating company that has operated local passenger services in the north of England since 2004. Northern Rail’s owner, Serco-NedRailways, is a consortium formed of NedRailways (the British unit of Nederlandse Spoorwegen) and Serco, an international operator of public transport systems. When it won the Northern England franchise, the consortium had already secured the contract to operate north-west England’s Merseyrail network in 2003.”
All sound okay so far? Well it didn’t get off to the best of starts. The new owners didn’t actually start to operate the franchise immediately, as they were expecting extra trains to be freed up by the extension of Manchester’s Metrolink tram service, which itself was hugely delayed.
The majority of my experience of Northern Rail is on the relatively short (15 minute) trip between Stalybridge and Manchester Victoria. A season ticket between these two stations currently costs £68 per month. I also have the choice of using TransPennine Express trains from Stalybridge to Manchester Piccadilly, but Manchester Victoria is generally a more convenient destination for me, for both commuting and social purposes.
The trains I get are typically British – old, tatty, smelly rattlers, some of which were built as far back as 1981, making them nearly as old as myself. The fleet of TransPennine Express trains used to be pretty ropey themselves in all their maroon glory, but following a complete overhaul of the fleet about four years ago, these trains are now a lovely, quiet, shiny transport heaven.
The 7.30am Stalybridge to Manchester Victoria service is my main commuter train most mornings. I am not that naive that I expect a commuter train to Manchester to be really quiet, after all it’s called rush hour for a reason. I’m also not that stupid that I would expect trains to always be dead on time. Delays happen and I’m not blaming Northern Rail for idiots jumping in front of trains or other issues out of their control. Even so, I would expect to be able to actually get on a train if I had chosen a particular one to use. But since the closure of the Oldham line (to free up the route for Metrolink development) many commuters have chosen to travel to other nearby stations on the Stalybridge line in order to get to work. Surely, the closure of this line should have freed up more carriages to compensate for the increased passenger numbers? No. The 7.30am was still a two-carriage affair which was generally full upon arrival at Stalybridge.
Obviously there are a few definitions of “full” when it comes to Northern Rail commuting; 1)’Nearly’ full – each seat is taken and there is a single line of people all the way down the aisle and a few standees in the areas near the doors. 2) ‘Still room for a few more’ full – People are smeared up against walls and doors and wedged into each others armpits. This ensures they cannot fall over due to train movement as there is no physical space to fall into.
Eventually Northern Rail seemed to learn that leaving so many people behind at Stalybridge and Ashton simply wasn’t acceptable, and so started to run one of the larger two carriage trains on this service. Even so, it still became too full. On one occasion, the train did not even stop at Ashton as it couldn’t be risked that more people may have crammed themselves onboard. This must’ve been a tough break for those who actually wanted to get off at Ashton.
More recently, four carriages started to appear on the 7.30am service. This isn’t guaranteed however, and I would estimate it only happens 75% of the time. For the other 25%, it goes back to being the two carriage nightmare, and on these occasions, I find myself not even trying to get on, preferring to wait for the Piccadilly train. And here’s the rub: why should we, as the paying customer be forced to put ourselves out due to the inadequacies of such a vital service?
So, this is just my morning commute. The trains in the opposite direction are equally as bad, if not worse. I generally have the choice of either the 17.14, 17.27 or 17.57 trains back to Stalybridge each evening, but I have recently learned that the best bet is the 17.27, as the other two are full to bursting a good five minutes before they even depart. Again, I appreciate they are going to be busy as they are commuter trains serving all stations out to Huddersfield, but when I’ve had half days off I find trains in the middle of the day with only a handful of passengers are still the same size. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that you need more carriages at busier times does it?
I have had plenty of other shambolic experiences on Northern Rail trains too. Only last night, a Northern Rail train back into Piccadilly failed to materialise, with no warning or explanation. The next one was half an hour later, meaning I missed my connection to Stalybridge and I was forced to spend a small fortune on taxis in order to get home. I will be outlining to Northern Rail that this is unacceptable. I could even try invoicing them for the taxi, but to be honest I don’t expect to get a response. The company has a captive audience relying heavily on it for a range of commuting and social needs, and unfortunately it simply isn’t up to the job.
I should be free to choose which train I get – I pay enough for the privilege. I should be free to travel in some form of comfort. There are always those more deserving of a seat than myself and I don’t necessarily expect to sit down, it’s only 15 minutes after all. I would just like to be able to stand somewhere without another commuter grinding against me the whole way.
It doesn’t just appear to be Northern Rail customers that have these issues either – during recent Metrolink work to “improve” the service, I have heard numerous horror stories about how trams disappear, or are hugely delayed, or break down constantly, or are too full to board. Again, customers have chosen to travel in the wrong direction for a couple of stops so that when the tram turns around they can guarantee they will be on it.
So, is this symptomatic of this country? I don’t think so. I have no idea why TransPennine Express seem far more capable of running a train service than Northern Rail. If the Government really want to cut car use and encourage people to take public transport, should they not step in and force companies such as Northern Rail to adopt some of the good practices that other companies (such as TransPennine Express) have taken on board?
People are so sick of the shambles that is Northern Rail that they have taken to editing the Northern Rail Wiki entry to express their disgust. A disgruntled individual has even taken to setting up the Twitter account @northernfailorg to retweet everyone else’s hatred of the company and the “service” it provides. People are posting pictures online of the shabby trains and the rampant overcrowding.
The problem is, it doesn’t seem to make any difference. Emails to the company are ignored. Comments to station and train staff are met with indifference. On some occasions, I have heard the train conductors encourage passengers to complain to Northern Rail in the hope that something is done. To reiterate, that is Northern Rail employees encouraging people to complain about their own employers. What sort of company is this that forces its own staff to take such drastic measures?
So, when will it change? No idea. Maybe if everyone refused to pay they would soon learn? But then Northern Rail would probably claim they couldn’t afford to run the services. All I want is a clean, efficient service that gets me from a to b in relative comfort. Is that really too much to ask?