This week the Department for Transport released a document entitled Transforming the North’s Railways,1 which is a summary of responses to a consultation carried out in June 2014 and the specifications in the tender documents issued to the bidders shortlisted for the Northern and TransPennine Express (TPE) franchises.

This document is important for two reasons. First and foremost, the North has experienced substantial passenger growth over the past decade, but has received relatively little investment in either infrastructure or rolling stock compared with the South East.2 Secondly, it outlines firm commitments which can be used to hold politicians to account, instead of the vague hand-wavey promises we’ve had in the past.

The main benefits promised by the document include:

  • Replacement of Pacer trains by 2020.
  • New carriages for non-electrified Northern lines.
  • Modernisation of all remaining Northern trains.
  • Big increases in capacity and service frequency.
  • Substantial sums for station improvements.
  • Free wireless.

Let’s take a look at some of those in more detail.

Replacement of Pacers

For those fortunate enough to have never travelled on this rolling stock, Pacers are effectively the body shell of a bus mounted on rail axles. Produced on the cheap in the 1980s, they were intended as a stop-gap measure to keep branch lines open, but have instead continued in use well beyond their expected lifespan of twenty years. Nicknamed ‘nodding donkeys’ due to their up and down movements (particularly at higher speeds), they are hated by everyone other than the Pacer Preservation Society.3

The replacement of Pacers is not an entirely altruistic policy, as they would have to be withdrawn or substantially remodelled in order to meet accessibility regulations which come into force in 2020.4 It’s also unknown what the plans are for other franchises which use Pacers, as this document only covers the North of England.

The key question about ditching the Pacers though is not whether or when this should happen, but what will replace them. Some Pacers may be displaced by cascaded diesel units from newly electrified lines, but with nearly 100 units to replace at Northern it’s not clear whether cascades alone will be sufficient. It has been suggested that some of the London Underground D-stock tube units could be rebuilt as diesel units (currently they use a third rail system), but that would require the interiors and engines to be substantially modified, and it’s not clear how much that would cost. I also can’t imagine Northern passengers being particularly happy if one set of 1980s rolling stock is replaced by hand-me-downs from London made in the same era.

New carriages for non-electrified Northern routes

For non-electrified routes which don’t use Pacers, the only other rolling stock currently available to Northern are the various Sprinter trains. These hark from a similar era, but are more robust and offer a more comfortable journey, though they are still only suitable for commuter routes (despite this, Northern uses them for long distance journeys). I’m not sure how new carriages will be provided in these cases, because the Sprinters are self-powered (there is no locomotive at either end), so new carriages effectively means new trains. I suspect it’s more likely that instead of new carriages we’ll get ‘as new’ refurbishments of the Sprinters (i.e. modernisation rather than genuinely new trains).

Big increases in capacity and frequency

These proposed increases are quite substantial - for example, nearly 50% more capacity at peak times on Northern routes leading into Manchester. Whilst both necessary and welcome, I can’t see how these increases will be met, and that’s for one simple reason: electrification (or lack thereof). More capacity generally means running more or longer trains, and Northern doesn’t have the rolling stock to offer increased capacity on non-electrified routes, especially when you consider that any cascaded diesel units from newly electrified lines will be used to replace Pacers.

The obvious solution to this problem of course is to build more diesel units, preferably somewhere ‘up North’ which could benefit from new jobs and apprenticeships. However, there are two major obstacles in the way: European legislation and the way the railway industry is structured.

European legislation has been gradually tightening up the requirements for new diesel units in terms of the amount of particulates they can emit and their efficiency targets. Whilst a sensible move from an environmental and public health point of view - and one I welcome in principle - these regulations are having the side effect of making it very difficult to build new diesel units for the UK market (this problem is not confined to commuter routes - freight operators have also experienced difficulties in sourcing new diesel locomotives).

The second obstacle is the structure of the railway industry. Train operating companies do not own their rolling stock, instead they lease it from the descriptively named rolling stock companies (ROSCOs). These companies make a huge upfront investment when they order new trains, and to get a return on that money they will often be looking for the assets they purchase to have a useful lifespan of thirty years or more. However, given that the regulations surrounding diesel engines are tightening all the time, and the percentage of the network which is electrified is only going to go up, rolling stock companies are understandably wary about funding a substantial asset for which the market in ten to fifteen years is uncertain.

The shortlisted bidders

The final piece of information which gives me cause for concern in this document is the shortlist of bidders. The whole point of privatisation and franchising is to encourage competition, which should promote innovation and drive down prices, but the shortlist consists of the usual suspects: incumbents on the existing franchises and companies which already have a franchise elsewhere. The worse case scenario would be if Stagecoach were awarded the TPE franchise, as they already control the West Coast Main Line, the East Coast Main Line and East Midlands Trains, giving them a dominant position in UK rail. Sadly the Competition and Markets Authority has not shown much interest in investigating and remedying this situation.

Overall, the concrete promises made in this document are welcome, but I cannot see how many of them will be fulfilled in the short term.

  1. Future of Northern and TransPennine Express Rail Franchises

  2. For example, London has benefited from London Overground, new tube trains and Crossrail - all projects amounting to billions of pounds.

  3. Yes, such a group does exist: Pacer Preservation Society

  4. Specifically the Persons of Reduced Mobility Technical Specification for Interoperability standards.