Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Getting Transport Policy Right: The Harrogate Line Blues

Since August, my new job in Harrogate has meant a daily commute on the York – Harrogate – Leeds line, a secondary route in need of some TLC. But before I explain the problems, here are four things I love about my daily train journey:
  1. The fantastic view over Knaresborough and the Nidd gorge from the Nidd Viaduct.
  2. Mist rising gently over the flat fields of the Vale of York between York and Knaresborough (ie before it gets into the hills).
  3. Poppleton station is pretty with flower beds and Christmas decorations provided by the community-run Railway Nursery next door, one of the only remaining rail nurseries in the UK.
  4. Getting the train from Poppleton is not only closer than going into York (with a handy new underpass just finished in August to sail past the traffic on the A1237 roundabout… although this morning it was out of action due to drainage problems), it’s also friendlier. You see the same group of people every day and talk to each other. 
But it’s fair to say that the Harrogate Line is currently underused and unloved, which is something that the Rail Users Group and the local Chamber of Commerce is keen to change. This is a summary of the issues as I see them:
  • The hourly frequency of trains between York and Harrogate is inconvenient and inflexible as a commuter, and a half hourly frequency or better would make this a much more viable commuter route.
  • The current system of single-line working between Poppleton and Hammerton and between Cattal and Knaresborough is very inefficient. It restricts capacity and requires considerable ongoing costs for five manned signal boxes to operate level crossings and transfer the token from one train to another (most people are amazed when I explain to them how the line currently operates). The second line needs to be restored and the legacy signalling system replaced with modern signalling and automatic level crossings as soon as possible. I hope this forms part of the intended electrification.
  • The timing of the last train from Harrogate to York at 9pm is crippling to the evening economy in Harrogate, because it makes it impossible to attend evening events other than an early dinner. I want it to be possible to live without a car! But the way the system currently works, I have to either leave early or stay over in a hotel. This is particularly damaging for a town which markets itself for tourism and conferencing, not least the Harrogate International Festival, and our friend performing in the Gilbert and Sullivan Festival a few months ago.
  • Rolling stock used on the Harrogate line is some of the oldest on the network, which results in an uncomfortable and noisy ride for passengers and restricts the opportunity to do other activities while travelling, for example I cannot easily do any work as there is usually no tables on the way home. 
  • I usually take my folding bike with me on the train, but every day we have a different set of carriages so I cannot predict where the luggage rack will be. Even the staff hate it: one ticket inspector told me that when Northern had issued all the staff with lanyards saying “Proud to work for Northern”, half of them had thrown the lanyards straight in the bin, saying “How can we be proud of rickety old rolling stock like this?” 
  • It also creates a bad impression of the railway: why would you take the train when it is unreliable, infrequent, noisy and uncomfortable? Train travel can be none of these things, but lack of investment makes the Harrogate Line feel like it’s at the bottom of the heap, ignored and unloved. With luck, the electrification programme elsewhere in Northern’s patch will result in some newer rolling stock being cascaded to Harrogate over the next few years. 
In my next post, I’ll cover the work being done by the Harrogate Line Users Group to turn the situation around and get the investment we need to have a great local railway service!

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