Are challenges growing over Harrogate's public transport hopes or are improvements still on track?

Harrogate’s MP has spoken of the huge challenges posed to the future of public transport as the after-effects of the pandemic continue to bite.

By Graham Chalmers
Thursday, 31st March 2022, 5:03 pm

Andrew Jones said he believed the Government was still “backing public transport very strongly” but it was vitally important that investment in trains and buses was maintained.

The former junior transport minister has welcomed news of Government financial support for a new all-electric bus fleet for Harrogate.

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A Northern train arriving at Harrogate Station. (Picture Gerard Binks)

But this week also saw Mr Jones raising concerns with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps over fresh cuts to the timetable on the Harrogate line planned by Northern Rail.

“It was important to make the minister absolutely clear on my thoughts on Northern’s timetable reductions to Harrogate’s rail line,” said Mr Jones. “It is my view that these services should be retained for commuters to Leeds and for those making onward journeys to other destinations, particularly connecting to London services.

“But the Government is backing public transport very strongly. This is shown by its announcement this week to provide £7.8m in welcome funding to help Harrogate Bus Company transition to an all-electric bus fleet.”

Despite the financial boost for Harrogate Bus Company, recent months have seen a series of cuts to Government programmes which had been designed to enable public transport to ‘bounce back better and bigger’ after the end of Covid lockdown.

So much so that Harrogate Bus Company boss Alex Hornby, who is also chief executive of the company’s parent firm Transdev, warned the Government’s Bus Back Better strategy risked falling victim to insufficient funding.

The days of the hated ‘Pacer’ trains may be over but the fear is that massive investment programmes for public transport announced by the Government during Covid - including some with direct consequences for passengers in the Harrogate district, may now face a double squeeze:

The failure of passenger numbers to return fully to normal on buses and trains thanks to continued working from home and a fear of rising Covid figures; both of which are serving to undermine transport revenues.

Rising inflation and soaring energy prices are creating a ‘cost of living crisis’ for potential passengers, ‘cost of doing business crisis’ for companies and a worsening economic situation for the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Whatever the pressures, Mr Jones says now is not the time to take the foot off the pedal on public transport.

“The importance of transport investment to economic progress and meeting our environmental goals remains as high as ever,” he said.

Doubts over the prospects for the sort of public transport that everyone wants to see are not being eased by driver shortages resulting from staff self-isolating in the latest wave of the virus.

Harrogate and District Green Party spokesperson Shan Oakes argues matters are now in the balance.

“I think things are sliding backwards on public transport. From a bus user’s point of view; I use the bus regularly, they are now constantly late or even cancelled due to lack of drivers,” she said.

“Bus operations should not be solely dependent on the bus companies themselves. There should be proper regulation via

local authorities.”

Harrogate and Knaresborough’s MP Andrew Jones says he is aware of the gloomy signs but remains positive the Government is still on track to deliver on its pledges.

Mr Jones said: “The pandemic presented huge challenges for public transport.

“Taxpayers have spent billions and billions of pounds keeping largely empty services running. That is not sustainable. We have seen passenger numbers bounce back significantly but not to pre-pandemic levels. Overall, I am optimistic.

“But we need services and investment maintained as the economy bounces back, and we also need to see passengers back on public transport in big numbers.”

The conflicting signs over future of buses and trains in Harrogate

Good news: North Yorkshire County Council has been awarded £7.8million as part of a £20m project, including £11.5m from Transdev, to make Harrogate Bus Company’s fleet all-electric with 39 new zero-emission buses.

Bad news: North Yorkshire County Council says it is unlikely to get “anything near” the £116million it bid for after the Government announced recently it was reducing the funding from £3billion to £1.4billion for its own Bus Back Better programme.

Good news: The introduction of Azuma bi-modal trains in 2019 has allowed LNER to run up to seven services a day direct to London via Leeds.

Bad news: Northern Rail’s timetable changes on the Harrogate line from May will make it difficult for business people and leisure customers to get to London Kings Cross before 10am.

Good news: The Government has reaffirmed its commitment to making ‘step change investment into bus services’ via Bus Back Better.

Bad news: The Government recently told local authorities involved with Transport for the North it would be reducing its budget for major transport improvements in the region from £101million in 2020/21 to £81million in 2021/22.

The new timetable cuts facing Harrogate rail passengers

Harrogate rail passengers were left reeling by last week’s announcements of timetable cuts by Northern Rail, as reported in the Harrogate Advertiser.

Northern Rail explained the changes by saying they had made decisions based on the levels of resource it had available and prioritising the routes with the highest customer demand.

Northern stakeholder manager Pete Myers said the operator was also trying to adjust to changing demand.

““We’re seeing fewer commuters travelling each day. Whereas commuting was once very much what Northern was all about a few years ago, the commuting part of the market is only 40 per cent of what it was.

“I do emphasise these are short-term changes and these services will come back when we have the resources to allow them to do so.”

But, there's no denying that, after a couple of years when services seemed to be heading in the right direction, commuters now face the prospect of less regular trains on the Harrogate-Leeds line.

Among the most significant services to be cut on the Harrogate line are:

The first train of the day - the 06:07 Harrogate to Leeds service.

The 06:59 Leeds to York - stopping at Hornbeam Park, Harrogate, Starbeck, Knaresborough and Cattal.

The 16:29 Leeds to York - stopping at Hornbeam Park, Harrogate, Starbeck, Knaresborough and Cattal.

The 22:39 Leeds to Harrogate - stopping at Hornbeam Park and Harrogate.