Robert Hampton

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28th March 2015

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

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.

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26th August 2013

A Roby Illustrator
Posted by at 11.54pm | Trains | 1 response

Under the streets of London, tunnel boring machines are slowly carving out a new east-west route across the capital. Crossrail will provide a vital new railway route, making cross-London connections easier and taking pressure off overcrowded Underground stations.

A predictable complaint from some quarters is that London’s transport infrastructure is receiving investment while the rest of the country is ignored. But a quieter revolution is taking place in the north-west of England, and for tangible evidence of it, you need look no further than Roby, a small station in the suburbs of Liverpool.

Roby Station 1

This pile of bricks and soil may not look too promising, until you consider that until a few months ago this area contained nothing but weeds. These are the remains of Roby’s third and fourth platforms, removed when the railway line here was reduced from four tracks to two in the 1970s. At the time, rail traffic was in decline and two tracks were sufficient to accommodate the remaining trains.

Now, however, the tide has turned. Passenger numbers are up and a cursory glance at Northern Rail’s Twitter feed will tell you that commuters are increasingly fed up about being crammed into small, slow trains. The powers-that-be want more trains, running more frequently, and faster. To this end, Network Rail is working to reinstate a third track between Roby and Huyton. This additional track will permit express trains to overtake local stopping services, greatly increasing the number of trains that can run on the line. Should the Northern Hub scheme go ahead in its entirety, the fourth track will also be put back.

When these works are completed, TransPennine Express will operate a Liverpool to Newcastle service via this route. It will run non-stop from Liverpool Lime Street to Manchester Victoria, giving a journey time of just 30 minutes between the two cities. Compare with the current fastest journey time of 43 minutes (from Liverpool to Manchester Oxford Road). The train suddenly looks like a much more attractive proposition than the car.

More is to come: by 2015, this entire route will be electrified, and most of the old diesel trains will be gone, replaced by “new” electric trains (actually, refurbished trains from Thameslink). The Class 142 Pacers, wholly unsuited for this route, will finally be consigned to history.

Roby Station 2

There are already benefits to Liverpool from this scheme. In preparation for the revamped timetable, Northern Rail have reopened the train depot at Allerton in south Liverpool, employing local people in engineering roles. Meanwhile, TransPennine have opened a new train crew depot at Liverpool Lime Street.

It’s great to see real, tangible improvements taking place on the route once travelled by George Stephenson’s Rocket. Exciting times lie ahead…

16th July 2012

Bright spark
Posted by at 11.06pm | Trains | No responses

A rather gruesome Cameron-Clegg press conference framed the announcement that a vast swathe of railway schemes are to go ahead between now and 2019.

The options outlined by the Department for Transport are “illustrative” – in other words, they’re more of a shopping list than actual finalised plans, but still they’re quite extensive.

Electrification is the big news: there are now plans to electrify the Midland Main Line and the main line to Swansea, as well as commuter lines around Cardiff. The Northern Hub scheme will go ahead with big capacity improvements around Manchester, with knock-on benefits for Liverpool, Leeds and the smaller towns in-between.

Locally, there is a welcome boost for the Transpennine Express service from Liverpool, which could be doubled in frequency and operated with electric trains, running to Newcastle rather than Scarborough as they do now. Liverpool could also get a direct link to Buxton and an improved service to Sheffield as part of the Northern Hub scheme. Generally, there will be more trains running in and out of Lime Street, which will be welcomed by commuters currently shoehorned into overcrowded Pacers.

You would think I would be happy about all this investment. I am, but I worry about where the money is coming from. These schemes will cost over £9 billion, and the promised efficiency savings at the railway (which, so far, seem to amount to London Midland closing a load of ticket offices and not much else) are being very slow in coming.

This means that the passenger will be paying, through increased fares. We already have at least two years of ticket price rises of inflation+3% coming up, at a time when many people already consider train fares to be uncomfortably expensive.

Unless you’re well-organised and plan your journey sufficiently far ahead to get an Advance ticket (or opt for the slower London Midland service), it now costs nearly 80 quid return to go from Liverpool to London. That’s the off-peak fare. If you need to travel during “peak” times (which now, thanks to Virgin tightening the restrictions, means any train arriving at Euston before 11.30am!) you could end up paying £277 – a fare already out of reach of many people.

The proposals outlined today could be a big step towards a better railway network. It would be a shame if those benefits were to be only available to the well-off.

1st March 2011

This is the age of the train: 40 years by the time they’re withdrawn
Posted by at 8.00pm | Trains | 1 response

Following on from the announcement of North West Electrification and the development of High Speed 2, the Government has confirmed that The Great Western Main Line is getting wired up as well.

This is great news – electric trains are more efficient, more reliable and better for the environment. But in the same announcement it is also confirmed that we will be saying goodbye to the InterCity 125.

The Government announced today it has decided to resume the IEP procurement and proceed with the Agility Trains (Hitachi and John Laing) consortium’s plans for replacement for the nation’s fleet of ageing intercity high speed trains. … The Programme seeks to replace the distinctive “Intercity 125” High Speed Train (HST) diesel fleet procured by British Rail during the 1970s and 1980s with a new, higher capacity, more environmentally friendly train.

The new trains will be introduced from 2016, so one of the best trains ever produced will be consigned to the scrapyard in favour of a glorified Voyager. It’s “progress”, of course, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. A railway without the HST will be a quieter, blander place.

30th December 2010

Twenty Ten – again

What a year 2010 was! It had twelve months, each consisting of at least 28 days. On some of those days I made blog entries. Here are the highlights.

I began the year in January fretting about an alleged Crystal Maze remake starring Amanda Holden. This story fortunately turned out to be utter bollocks. Ginger people again proved that (yours truly excepted) they have no sense of humour or perspective. Britain experienced a deluge of snow, and Merseyrail impressed everyone by soldiering on throughout, a feat which they would surely repeat next time we experienced awful weather… right?

I finally joined the Wii owners’ club, just as the console stopped being cool. My rekindled love for video games did not result in me getting rickets. I also celebrated my first Twitterversary and cautiously welcomed the iPad.

I also took time to blog at length about a US comedian no-one has heard of over here, illustrating my post with YouTube clips which have now been removed for copyright infringement.

In more serious matters, the Haiti earthquake occupied people’s thoughts as a humanitarian catastrophe unfolded in the devastated country.

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1st January 2010

2009? More like Two Thousand and Fine!

July saw Merseyrail’s run of bad luck continue, as a train rolled out of the depot and derailed. To atone for their sins, they introduced a new day ranger ticket, but I wasn’t convinced. This was something of a train-y month for me, as I did my bit to help out the previous generation of Merseyrail trains. Trains were also on the Government’s mind, as they announced that the Liverpool to Manchester line would be electrified.

In London, the Police proved once again what a wonderful organisation they are. In Rome, a swimmer suffered an embarrassing wardrobe malfunction.

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31st December 2009

2009? More like Woo! Thousand and Nine!

Was this year an exciting way to say goodbye to the decade? Here’s a reminder of what happened on planet Hampo this year (part 2, hopefully, follows tomorrow):-

January started out with one of my favourite shows being revived. Despite being up against EastEnders and being hosted by Ben Shepherd, the Krypton Factor did well enough to be recommissioned for a second series. We found out Who would replace David Tennant, and a year later we still haven’t actually seen him in the role. ITV’s latest attempt to ape the success of Doctor Who was Demons which failed spectacularly; the only creative thing about it being the number of different excuses the writers found for Christian Cooke to remove clothing.

In the wider world, various eras were drawing to a close, as Woolworths closed its doors, Tony Hart kicked the bucket and Dubya left office. Meanwhile, yours truly had an enjoyable night in London Theatreland.

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23rd July 2009

In which Robert cements his reputation as a train nerd
Posted by at 1.29pm | Trains | No responses

The Government’s announcement of electrification of parts of the rail network didn’t come as a surprise. What IS surprising (to me at least) was that one of the two lines due to be wired is the line from Liverpool to Manchester via Newton-le-Willows.

The Chat Moss route is the original Liverpool & Manchester Railway, the line of Stephenson’s Rocket and the Rainhill Trials. For many years it was the main route to Manchester, but more recently its fortunes have declined somewhat as many of the long-distance express services were diverted to run via Warrington. That’s all set to change with this announcement, however.

Once you read the DfT’s report, it’s clear that the route has been chosen because the benefits go beyond the Liverpool-Manchester corridor.

Firstly, putting wires up between Manchester and the junction with the West Coast Main Line at Parkside will provide a direct electrified route between Manchester and Preston for the first time. This means that Manchester-Scotland services will be able to use electric trains. This is better for the environment (running diesels on a route already electrified for 85% of its distance is a questionable practice). It’s also better for passengers: the Class 185 trains with their commuter-style seating layout are not really suitable for such a long run. These displaced trains will move back to the trans-Pennine route where overcrowding is becoming a problem.

Also, although it’s not mentioned in the document, the Liverpool-Earlestown section is a diversionary route for Virgin services when the route through Runcorn is unavailable for whatever reason. Electrification will permit Richard Branson’s shiny Pendolinos to continue running into Lime Street without the need for diesel-haulage or worse, complete bustitution of the service.

The new Liverpool-Manchester services will apparently be operated using refurbished Class 319 units which will become surplus to requirements on Thameslink in the next few years. I expect a flurry of indignant “second hand trains” articles in the local press over this, but ignore them: the 319s are excellent trains and have many years of life left in them.

There’s a few clouds on the horizon: The project is expected to cost £100million and will add to the mounting Government debt. And questions must be asked of the Conservative Party; they are almost certainly going to be in Government after 2010. Will they continue with the project? What about passengers served by the CLC route? Will they see their services downgraded in importance as focus turns to the shiny new electric line a few miles north?

But let’s not worry about that right now; this is a great development which will hopefully pave the way for more of the local rail network to be electrified. With the main line done, the case for smaller schemes to fill in gaps elsewhere (eg Huyton to Wigan via St Helens Central) becomes stronger.

It will obviously mean a lot of disruption over the next 4-5 years while the overhead line equipment is installed. In the meantime I will daydream about speeding through Earlestown on a Thameslink 319 and look forward to the day when the whole of the City Line is wired up.

13th February 2009

I should be Minister of Transport
Posted by at 6.54pm | Trains | No responses

Hm, the Super Express train looks nice, but some of them will be diesel powered, and I can’t help but feel that, in this era of carbon footprints and whatnot, trains powered by diesel are yesterday’s technology.

What the powers-that-be should have done is start electrifying the remaining diesel-operated routes, and build a fleet of all-electric trains. As a stopgap, a small pool of diesel locomotives should be available to tow the trains over non-electrified routes (as happens with West Coast Pendolinos during engineering diversions).

If anyone from the Department for Transport is reading this, my consultancy fee is 25% of… something.