How Covid may hit Harrogate passengers' hopes of improvements to railway service

There has been much progress from the torrid pre-Covid days of timetable chaos for Harrogate rail passengers but there are warnings that the pandemic may have an impact on major planned improvements for services.

Thursday, 4th November 2021, 12:48 pm
Updated Thursday, 4th November 2021, 12:49 pm
Passenger numbers on the Harrogate-York-Leeds line continue to rise as post-lockdown life slowly returns to some semblance of normality - Northern’s slogan “travel with confidence” serving as a welcome invitation to passengers.

Passenger numbers on the Harrogate-York-Leeds line continue to rise as post-lockdown life slowly returns to some semblance of normality - Northern’s slogan “travel with confidence” serving as a welcome invitation to all with passenger numbers rising to 75% of pre-Covid levels.

Leisure travel looks strong with numbers at 85% of 2019 levels, while commuter statistics are much weaker at 40% as many people continue to work from home.

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The steady rise in train usage clearly offers positive signs for our ongoing recovery from the pandemic, but it also raises the question of whether our services can cope in a post-Covid world.

It was back in March 2020, shortly before Covid really took hold in this country, that failing Northern Rail was taken under the control of the Government’s Department for Transport with a promise of better things to come.

Now, after 20 months of sporadic lockdowns and calls to stay at home, trains are beginning to play a greater role in every-day life, and as a result eyes are starting to focus on whether the Government will live up to its pledge of a better rail experience for Northern passengers.

The mood from local politicians and local passenger groups remains positive.

But concern is mounting over how things are likely to pan out for the Harrogate-York-Leeds line and the railways in general in 2021 and beyond in the context of the economy and Covid.

Harrogate Line Supporters Group’s (HLSG) chair Andrew Whitworth said the picture had brightened, but time would tell if the old complaints of late trains and poor service had been rectified by the new owners.

He said: “There have been some useful infrastructure improvements delivered in the past 18 months - better signalling between Knaresborough and York, a new crossover south of Harrogate station and, finally ‘Platform Zero’, at Leeds.

“It’s also fantastic news that two trains an hour will be starting this December between Harrogate and York, and the other changes will have reduced delays occurring at Harrogate and Leeds.”

As things stand, it’s hard to judge the performance of the line since the Government was forced to take control in 2020 just before the deadly onset of the pandemic. With commuter numbers having been a long way from normality, Harrogate’s rail operators Northern are yet to feel the full weight of pressure on punctuality and

reliability.

Mr Whitworth added: “Figures have actually been better during the pandemic, but are being helped by a reduced number of trains running and by delaying promised service improvements so represent an artificial situation.”

HLSG acknowledges that Northern has continued to invest in stations along the Harrogate line, with works having included:

Cattal, Starbeck, Pannal and Weeton receiving new CCTV, new LED lighting and new ticket machines;

Knaresborough getting a new ticket machine and a new tenant with a micropub;

Harrogate has new LED lighting, ticket machines and improved accessibility;

Hornbeam Park has new LED lighting and ticket machine.

All welcome improvements, granted, but ensuring the services themselves improve in terms of punctuality and reliability is another matter entirely.

Northern admits its performance is being undermined by staff absences caused by Covid or the need to self isolate.

A situation which is unlikely to improve in the short term and which could cause greater problems if passenger numbers continue to climb.

Such staffing concerns, coupled with the nation’s bleak economic picture post-Covid have left question marks over some planned improvements.

The HLSG says it has been told that extra local “fast” trains - once an hour between Harrogate and Leeds - first introduced in 2019 but withdrawn during lockdown will not be reinstated until the end of 2022.

The long called for electrification of the Harrogate line now seems to have fallen down the pecking order in terms of preference, while LNER services between Harrogate and London Kings Cross - which would have seen a planned earlier start for services to deliver Harrogate passengers into London Kings Cross by 9.30am each day - are likely to be deferred until at least May 2023.

Brian Dunsby OBE of Harrogate Line Supporters Group said: "I believe that the service on the Harrogate line is running well with the updated Class 170 Turbostar rolling stock being used almost all the time.

"Harrogate residents and business people are using the trains almost as much as before the lockdown. Visitors are also increasing again.

"It would be nice to reinstate the extra local “fast” trains once an hour between Harrogate and Leeds but I can understand that the reduced level of demand makes it sensible to delay their reintroduction until May or December 2022

"The LNER services six times a day between Harrogate and London Kings Cross are happening now, which is what we argued for.

"The proposed new timetable for May 2022 did have a Harrogate-Kings Cross train scheduled to run at 06:35 departing Harrogate arriving at London Kings Cross at 9.30am which That would have been very welcome for business people and overseas travellers on route to London Heathrow.

"But this change has been deferred until at least May 2023."

Harrogate and Knaresborough MP Andrew Jones, a former rail minister who is now co-chair of the Transport Across the North All-Party Parliamentary Group, says however that recent progress gives cause for hope.

Mr Jones said: “In the 11 years since I became the Member of Parliament I think it is fair to say that our train services have seen a dramatic improvement.

“This improvement has been across the entire picture of track, rolling stock and services. We have more and faster services to Leeds, later York services, the despised Pacer trains are gone and there are more direct London services than ever.”

But, amid question marks over the Government’s commitment to funding its own promises on improving rail services across the north as part of its "Northern Powerhouse" and 'levelling up' agenda the message is a little less emphatic despite the current efforts to achieve significant change by Transport for the North, the all-party body consisting of the North’s local transport authorities, politicians and business leaders.

Mr Jones said: “There are very promising signs about overall northern transport funding although I think there is some way to go.

“The fact remains there has been historic underinvestment in our rail services and, particularly, Northern. I have spoken to the Chancellor and ministers about the importance of backing up words with cash and I know they understand this.”

Brian Dunsby of HLSG believes what matters to rail passengers in Harrogate and Yorkshire, is not the much-vaunted and potentially hugely expensive HS2b line from Birmingham to Leeds as part of improved links to London and the south but railway services within the north.

He said: "The highest priority in my opinion is the need for Northern Powerhouse Rail – linking the north east to the north-west via Yorkshire – including Leeds and Bradford with a much faster more frequent electrified service all day long.

"Whilst the HS2b eastern leg from Birmingham to Leeds will certainly be beneficial in the long term, I would place it in second priority after the construction of NPR.

While Harrogate passengers dream of days of electrification to come and trains running at 100mph between Harrogate and Leeds, a senior figure at North Yorkshire County Council lends a voice of caution over the timescale of such possibilities.

North Yorkshire County Council's executive member for transport Coun Don Mackenzie said: “The electrification of the Harrogate Line is something we would all like to see. It would bring more modern rolling stock, faster journey times and environmental benefits.

“But my expectation is that other proposals to electrify may be further up the priority list - not least the trans-Pennine route between Leeds and Manchester.”

Improvements, it seems have been forthcoming, but the greater test for this ‘New Northern’ awaits.

Back on track? What Harrogate’s rail operator says

The rail company running the Harrogate line accepts it is still facing obstacles to delivering better services.

In particular, cancellations remain a concern for Northern, caused by relatively high absence figures for staff.

But trains are undoubtedly fuller now than at any time since the first lockdown and the train operator is proud of its record in making significant improvements to its network during the past 18 months.

Recent weeks have seen it trialling a mobile phone-based flexible ticket; an E-Season ticket, which has now been expanded to cover the Harrogate line.

Tricia Williams, Chief Operating Officer at Northern, said: “We have delivered a programme of investment during the past 18 months that has seen the full introduction of 101 new trains, the completion of the refurbishment of our older trains, and significant improvements at stations across the North - including the installation of more than 170 Amazon and InPost lockers to provide more convenience for our railway customers.”

“We’ve also transformed the way in which customers can pay for their travel.

“Great value fares - and Flexi Season tickets which reflect changes to people’s commuting habits - are available through our mobile app.

“Whether you’re coming back to the railway to get to your workplace, a meeting or to study, we’ve made fantastic improvements to make sure that, whatever the reason for travel, you can go do your thing.

“Our message continues to be ‘travel with confidence’.”