Furious residents living in the Colne Valley say lives are being ruined by months of unreliable rail services from TransPennine Express. Chris Burn reports.
On paper, the Colne Valley villages of Marsden and Slaithwaite have almost everything going for them; set in beautiful countryside with affordable house prices, good local schools, a plethora of independent businesses and sitting midway between Leeds and Manchester. But there is one major problem; they are now home to two of the worst-performing railway stations in the entire country.
Since May, when the botched rollout of a new timetable caused chaos across the Northern network, the two communities – along with near-neighbours Greenfield and Mossley in Greater Manchester – have been subjected to major disruption, frequently-overcrowded trains and most notably hundreds of cancelled services through late-running trains skipping their stops to make up time.
And while a semblance of normality has returned to most northern rail services after the widespread problems of spring and early summer, the grim statistics bear out exactly how problems are continuing for people in this corner of the world – around 1,000 of whom use the stations each day.
According to the performance tracking website On Time Trains, over the past 12 weeks Slaithwaite has been the fourth-worst performing station of the 2,606 in the country, with Marsden 20th worst. Slaithwaite has seen only four per cent of trains arrive on time compared to five per cent that have been cancelled and 22 per cent that have been more than 10 minutes late.
But behind the statistics are countless stories of severe disruption to daily lives; with people unable to get to work on time, passengers waiting for hours for trains and commuters having to set off an hour earlier and missing out on time with their families. It has resulted, say locals, in many passengers abandoning the unreliable services entirely.
David Hagerty, treasurer of the Slaithwaite & Marsden Action on Rail Transport (SMART), says before May 2018, the two villages – which are not on major road networks – were served by an hourly service between Huddersfield and Manchester Victoria, with half-hourly services at peak times. But in an attempt to up the number of ‘fast’ trains between Leeds and Manchester from five to six per hour, a solution was devised whereby TransPennine Express would stop one of the express services each hour at Mossley and Slaithwaite and another at Greenfield and Marsden; while Northern would provide extra trains at peak times.
But Mr Hagerty says the rollout has been a disaster, with more than 900 trains cancelled – 300 involving part-cancellations where trains have started or terminated at Stalybridge rather than going to their intended destination. When services do run, because of previous cancellations there are often problems with over-crowding. Earlier this month, it was reported a young woman had fainted and was given first aid by passengers as the train was too full for the conductor to get through.
“The May 2018 timetable fell apart on day one and has yet to recover,” says Mr Hagerty. “Two-hour gaps with no service are commonplace, and three and even four-hour gaps with no service have also occurred. Slaithwaite is just 20 miles from Manchester but consecutive cancellations have meant that on occasions that journey has taken three hours, even though during that time express trains have continued to pass through without stopping.”
He says TransPennine have chosen to “sacrifice” passengers in the Colne Valley by having late-running trains miss out their scheduled Slaithwaite and Marsden stops to make up time on hundreds of occasions since May.
“Their way of dealing with disruption has had the effect of sacrificing passengers at Slaithwaite and Marsden to minimise delays to passengers elsewhere on their network.”
But the problems are not just about punctuality, as The Yorkshire Post discovers when meeting frustrated residents at Marsden station. Because of the timetable changes, the platform trains heading from Leeds towards Manchester now stop at has such a large height difference between the train and the ground that only one set of doors of six on the train are opened to let people out because of safety reasons. Even the exit deemed safe causes problems for many – such as husband and wife Keith and Christine Docker, who are both in their 80s.
The couple regularly travel to Leeds where Keith has been attending cancer appointments at St James’s Hospital. But after Christine hurt her back trying to get off the service last month, they have decided they will have to get off trains at Huddersfield and get a bus home in future rather than risking injury. “We feel there could be a serious accident for someone,” says Christine.
Local businesses are also being affected. Jane Walker, who runs the Spinning Mill House B&B in Slaithwaite, says another issue is the lack of rail connection between the two villages due to the express trains alternating between the stations rather than stop at each. She says customers who may have previously wanted to go for a drink or an evening meal in Marsden can no longer make the easy four-minute journey by train, while she has recently had a guest in tears convinced they would miss their friend’s wedding because of the problems.
Jane says her own family was affected when they were due to catch a train for a couple of days away in London. But after their service failed to turn up 25 minutes after being due, they had to drive to Leeds to catch their connecting train – returning to a £120 parking bill for their two cars. “It all makes me very reluctant to use the train. I have got a three-hour window in the middle of the day to get the jobs done I need to in Huddersfield for the business but I can’t trust the trains to get there and back.”
Michael Blake, who was part of the Marsden & Slaithwaite Renaissance Project designed to improve the fortunes of the two villages, says the progress of recent years is being threatened by the failing rail services. “They are trying to squeeze a quart into a pint pot, with extra express trains there isn’t room for. If two consecutive services are cancelled, you might be waiting for three hours. People have stopped using the train service. It will really devastate the area’s economy if this carries on.”
Blake says that when trains are cancelled, TPE have the option to use a ‘temporary stop order’ on the next express train due to pass through - but this has only been deployed on a handful of occasions.
Fellow group member Tony Bowers says when he asked for such an order to be used in Huddersfield after his train was cancelled, he was met with bafflement by staff. “They said, ‘We have never heard of it’,” he says.
Paul Robinson, whose wife Philippa commutes into Manchester, says on one occasion cancellations meant she had to book into a hotel as she had no way of getting home. “Passengers get frustrated, angry and impatient. They are late for work, they can’t plan with any confidence. Anyone picking them up after work doesn’t know what time the train will arrived or where it will even stop - I have picked my wife up at Marsden, Huddersfield and Slaithwaite. I’ve heard of and spoken to passengers who have moved house from Lancashire and are now thinking of moving back because of the uncertainty of trains.”
With the help of MP Thelma Walker, SMART have secured a meeting with Chris Grayling next month. Long-suffering residents will hope the Transport Secretary does not run their concerns into the sidings.
Changes planned ‘to improve performance’
Transpennine Express say timetable changes next month will “improve performance” on the route.
A spokesperson for TransPennine Express said: “We understand our customers frustration with the issues that have developed following May’s timetable change. That is why from December, we will split our Leeds to Manchester local service at Huddersfield, which will add resilience to the current timetable and improve performance at stations, such as Slaithwaite and Marsden, on this route.”
But David Hagerty says the planned changes will result in the loss of direct services to Leeds - the one positive aspect of the May timetable changes. “Trains to Leeds are being withdrawn in an attempt to address reliability problems which should never have been allowed to arise in the first place.”