Robert Hampton

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28th March 2015

Together in Electric Dreams
Posted by at 8.16pm | 3 responses | Trains

Bigger, Better, Electric

Amidst the hustle and bustle of Lime Street station, something new was lurking. Northern Rail’s latest toy, a Class 319 electric, decked out in sleek shades of pastel purple, stood at the buffer stops. In contrast to the burbling engines of the diesel trains on the adjacent tracks, this one sat in dignified silence, pantograph raised, ready for action. The future is electric, and it’s finally here.

319363 at Liverpool Lime Street

I have been waiting years for this moment. It was way back in July 2009 that Labour’s Lord Adonis announced the Liverpool-Manchester electrification would go ahead. A year later, in 2010, it looked like the scheme could be cancelled, as the new Tory government seemed to believe that no money spent by the Labour party could possibly have been spent wisely.

Fortunately, wiser counsels prevailed, and the plan, although delayed, finally went ahead. Electrification masts stated sprouting at the lineside between Newton-le-Wilows and Manchester. Then, tangible signs of progress started to appear at the Liverpool end of the line, including the total remodelling of Roby station, to allow express trains to overtake the stopping services.

Then, there were further delays. First with the transfer of the trains, held up because their replacements on Thameslink were not ready. Then with the electrification itself, which was supposed to be finished by the December 2014 timetable change. A rush of last-minute Sunday engineering closures enabled Network Rail to get the last bits of wires in place, with the first passenger trains running on Thursday 5th March.

Pantograph Northern Electrics

Unfortunately, the electrics are currently restricted to a few services running Monday to Friday only, which meant I had to wait for a week off work before I could sample them. On Friday I turned up at Lime Street for the 1215 departure, with Scott in tow.

(If you want to ride a 319, they are currently booked to work the 0616, 0716, 0916, 1215, 1416, 1516, 1713 and 1814 services from Liverpool and the 0735, 0840, 1040, 1340, 1540, 1640, 1840 and 1940 services from Manchester Airport (not Saturdays or Sundays) – a tip of the hat to posters on RailUK Forums for this info)

We found 319362 waiting to take us to Manchester Airport. It’s been named Northern Powerhouse, not to be confused with the gay nightclub in Newcastle. This is a slogan very much favoured by George Osborne, who hopes that you won’t remember this scheme was actually started by the previous Labour government.

You might wonder whether it’s wise or proper for Northern Rail to have a very political slogan plastered on the side of one of the their trains in the run up to a general election. I couldn’t possibly comment, but I will point out that 319362 broke down on its third day in service with Northern, and spent almost a week undergoing repairs. Not so much Powerhouse as Rumbelows. Oh well, such teething problems are to be expected, and I’m sure once the trains bed in they will give sterling service.

Northern Powerhouse

We climbed aboard and took our seats in the somewhat revamped interior. As you can see from the photo above, I was thrilled by the experience. Scott was rather more stolid.

Northern 319 interior Merseytart on Tour

The eagle-eyed amongst you may have spotted that these trains are not new. They are in fact the Class 319 trains which have plied their trade on the Thameslink route from Bedford to Brighton for the last twenty years or so, and which are now being cascaded northwards as new trains arrive in the south-east.

Some people are not happy about the north of England getting “pre-owned” trains from London, but the trains have plenty of life left in them (they’re only being replaced because the revamped Thameslink route needs a uniform fleet). They have been given a minor facelift before entering service, so (for now at least) they look good as new. At the end of the day, it’s a 4-car train replacing a 2-car train, providing much needed extra capacity. A 100mph train replacing a 75mph train, so journeys will be faster. It’s an actual train, rather than a bus body bolted to a freight wagon. If you’re still moaning about “London’s cast-offs”, those feelings will evaporate as soon as you get on one and zoom through the Lancashire countryside at 90mph.

In contrast to its days ferrying commuters into the City of London, our lunchtime train was lightly-loaded. The auto-announcer (whom Scott had already decided was “a bit Lorraine Chase”) stuttered slightly, choking on the words “Northern Electrics” and at one point forgetting we were supposed to stop at Manchester Oxford Road.

And then we were off. A slow run up the inclines to Edge Hill and the first stop at Wavertree, then we rapidly picked up speed. I was pleased to see us easily outpacing cars on the adjacent M62 as we rushed through Broad Green.

Huyton station passed in a blur. I couldn’t resist a massive grin. Scott looked at me like I was crazy, but… I’m used to that.

My fellow passengers seemed very blasé about the whole affair. Didn’t they know they were travelling on the WONDER-TRAIN OF THE FUTURE? I wanted to stand up and shout at them about how ace the train was, but I thought better of it.

A nice fast run was frustrated when we got to Ordsall Lane junction (where the line from Bolton joins ours) and had to wait for a TransPennine Express to get out of our way. Then the traditional crawl through central Manchester, including another pause at Deansgate. As we waited at the signal here, a man got up and pressed the door open button. Of course, it failed to open, so he pressed it again. Then he pressed it 300 more times. Eventually he stormed off down the train, only to return a minute or so later as we moved forward into Oxford Road. Serves him right for having his feet on the seat.

Out the other side through Manchester, and a nice fast run saw us arrive in the airport at 1321. No flight for us today, just a quick chance to look at the new Metrolink station before getting back on the same train we’d just alighted from.

Manchester Airport Metrolink Stop 319262 Manchester Airport

The return journey was busier, with a lot of passengers from incoming flights joining the train. A lady with a European accent was joking with her travelling companions about the foibles of Britain’s railway system.

“Yes, in this country they have to have notices to tell people not to put feet on the seat. Now, this train is fairly modern, but I once took a train from Liverpool to Southport and it was so dirty I didn’t want to sit down.”

I bit my tongue. Fortunately, I didn’t have to listen for long, as we bailed out at Piccadilly for a drink and a browse in the Ian Allan shop (and yes, they have the sexy model figures that the newspapers got so upset about the other week).

Liverpool and Manchester are not particularly far apart, but this hasn’t always been reflected in the quality of the train service between them. With the new electrics, combined with the new 32-minute Liverpool-Manchester Victoria service introduced last year, we may finally have a railway link to be proud of.

This is just the start. From May, all trains from Liverpool to Manchester Airport should be run by the 319s. In addition, work has just finished on the lines into Manchester Victoria and from Huyton to Wigan, so they should also go over to electric operation soon.

Going further into the future, the new Northern Rail franchise, due to start in 2016, promises big improvements for passengers (I will be writing a blog about that shortly). The massive Northern Hub scheme will see a complete rejig of train services between Liverpool, Manchester and across the Pennines. Faster and more frequent trains will be the order of the day. All things considered, it is a good time to be a train passenger in the north of England!

319363 and 142009

Acknowledgments to the Northwest Sparks News blog and RailUK Forums (particularly this thread and this thread) for following the ongoing saga of the project and keeping me informed.

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3 Responses
  1. Comment by peezedtee
    28th March 2015 at 11:14 pm

    You didn’t mention the lovely whining noise!

  2. Comment by Andrew
    29th March 2015 at 11:35 pm

    So When are Journey times to the airport being sped up? 1hr 6 mins still, that’s hardly any quicker than it used to be, I did it on National Express in just 40 mins last Sun morning when Northern rail can’t be bothered to put on any trains that arrive at the airport before 9:33am

  3. Comment by Norm
    25th June 2015 at 10:45 pm

    I’ve given up using the train from Kirkham to Manchester Airport. When Manchester had a referendum to vote on an exclusion zone similar to London, Transpennine Express decided in the same week to cut out Kirkham station from most Blackpool to Manchester airport trains. I then had to pay over £20 for a taxi to Preston and kick my heels to wait for an airport train. On the return journey, in addition to having someone’s backside in my face due to overcrowding from Piccadilly I then had to do the same waiting game at Preston. I now take my car. The journey time is 45mins instead of at least an hour and a half. Parking is at least £5 cheaper – much more if there’s an offer on. Not much incentive to use public transport is there?