Rail transport is set to transform in the Harrogate district over the next three years with Arriva investing more than £1billion on the Northern franchise.
Last week, the Department for Transport announced they had awarded the Northern rail franchise to Arriva and by doing so ushering in a raft of changes on the Harrogate line.
After years of stagnation under the Northern franchise, despite a significant growth in customers, the Harrogate line looks set to finally transform into a ‘world class rail service’.
Arriva’s winning bid includes four daytime trains per hour each way to Leeds with a minimum 50 trains per day promised in addition to Virgin’s proposed six each way.
Faster journey times for some trains between Leeds and Harrogate will also be possible as additional Northern services will not be required to call at all intermediate stations.
However, the substantial investment in new and refurbished trains will be the most exciting feature for most customers, signalling the end of the dreaded Pacer trains.
Within three years all Pacer trains will be replaced by 281 new carriages with the full refurbishment of the remaining fleet guaranteed.
Junior Transport Minister and Harrogate and Knaresborough MP Andrew Jones has been campaigning for improved transport links in the district since winning his seat in 2010.
He has now welcomed Arriva’s ambitious plans to drive improvement on the Harrogate line and said the announcement further reflects how transport is at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse.
He said: “Historically the Northern Franchise was seen as a no growth business and that was a mistake because there has been significant growth in customers.
“We are now trying to correct that mistake and usher in a proper world class rail service in the North of England. That’s why we published our invitation to tender earlier this year with our objectives for the franchise.
“Arriva won the franchise and we have seen how much of a success the process has been as we will now see a huge and unprecedented package of investment that goes way beyond the tender.
“We’ve now gone from zero growth to £1.2billion worth of investment. This is a significant upgrade of our rail service that will give us brand new modern trains and more services.”
Arriva will take over the franchise on April 1 next year with the promised improvements being introduced on the Harrogate line over the next three years.
More evening and Sunday trains from Leeds to Harrogate and Knaresborough will also be welcomed with free WiFi, on-board passenger information screens and smart ticketing systems of the modern trains.
Chris Burchell, Managing Director of Arriva’s UK Trains division said he was excited to bring in the improvements, not just on the Harrogate line, but across the North of England.
He said: “We are proud to be given the opportunity to transform rail travel for passengers in the North of England and to work closely with our partners to connect towns, cities and communities like never before.
“We will be investing more than £1billion to deliver a step-change in quality for customers and dramatically improving services, stations, information and ticketing.
“Our aim is to be the communities’ local railway and to leave a positive lasting legacy for the North of England.”
For many years, customers on the Harrogate line have been forced to endure limited services on overcrowded trains travelling into the town and on to Leeds and York.
Mr Jones has admitted that Harrgoate has not had the rail service that it needs and, indeed, neither has the North of England, but is hopeful the franchise announcement will usher in an era of change.
He said: “Our line is a success. If we measure that success by passenger growth it’s been huge so this is not a reactive measure, it’s a proactive measure.
“I’m very pleased, indeed , to be able to do this and I think it will improve our service in two ways. It will now be much easier to travel to Harrogate because of increased frequency and better rolling stock.
“It also sends a strong message out about the area. We have a strong visitor economy both in leisure and business tourism but our transport has not been up to the same standard.
“The message now is that our transport is good and our facilities at the rail station are good with the ongoing improvements. So the range of benefits are quite broad indeed.”
The town attracts more than 350,000 visitors per year to its conferences and exhibitions held at the Harrogate International Centre (HIC) with an estimated £160million spent by organisers and visitors.
Since its completion in 1982, the conference centre has grown to become a leading European destination and HIC director Simon Kent believes the franchise announcement will only improve its standing.
He said: “Better and more frequent rail services between Harrogate, York and Leeds is excellent news, not just for HIC Yorkshire but for the whole town.
“A late service between Harrogate and York is long-overdue and means leisure visitors who want to see a show at the Royal Hall or have a night out in Harrogate will have the option to do that. It also takes the strain off our roads and car parks.
“Making it easier for people to get to Harrogate means the town can continue to grow its economy. We now need to market the district and HIC Yorkshire to the hundreds-of-thousands of potential visitors in our neighbouring towns and cities.”
As well as the visitors attracted to the HIC, more than 135,000 people made the journey to visit the town’s museums, galleries, and Turkish Baths & Health Spa last year.
Mike Newby, director of Visit Harrogate, stressed the importance that improved and more frequent rail service had on visitor tourism as well as the district’s economy.
He said: “The easier it is to get here the easier it is for us to sell the district so the increase in services can only be a good thing.
“New rolling stock will also make the journey a lot more pleasant, it’s a great journey with some lovely countryside so it’s part of the attraction so it’s great to have more regular trains.
“We are trying to promote Harrogate as a nice place to come to but, currently, the way they are getting here is not very pleasant.
“So, to have more comfortable journeys and more up to date rolling stock prepares people for their visit here for, not only for leisure but for business as well.”
With electrification still being sought for the line and new services between Harrogate and London promised under Virgin trains, Mr Jones believes the future looks promising for the rail transport across the district.
He said: “The key factor here is ambition. We are very ambitious for rail in the North, we want the industry to be just as ambitious to make rail better. This is a very positive story for our local economy. We know that transport investment is key for economic growth and we are now seeing significant transport investment.”