Friday 4th September 2020
‘Miss Marple’ ….. as in residents of the Manchester suburb by that name will soon ‘miss’ their hourly Northern run train service.
The Rose Hill Marple service is being withdrawn from Monday 14th September for three months to give Northern Rail breathing space so more drivers can be trained up after a summer of social distancing led to the suspension of training and a consequential staff shortage.
But are we about to see an unusual sight on a Greater Manchester suburban branch line? Read on as this Miss Marple mystery unfolds…..
Northern Rail is the first Train Operating Company to take as drastic a measure as withdrawing a complete service post lockdown, and it’s ironic it’s a Government owned Directly Operated Railway doing so. Had it still been an Arriva run business there’d have been howls of protest from Mayors, Ministers and a Secretary of State. Now the convoluted reporting lines lead ultimately to their desks it’s noticeable political comment from the usual high profile politicians has been distinctly muted.
Manchester’s Marple suburb is blessed with two rail lines and two stations bearing its name. There’s a Monday to Saturday hourly service from Manchester which branches off the Glossop line after Guide Bridge and continues to link to the New Mills Central and Sheffield line and then turns off into a dead end stub at Rose Hill Marple station – that’s the service for the temporary chop. The other station, simply called Marple, is on the New Mills Central line and sees two trains an hour which will be continuing. So Marple won’t be completely bereft of trains, but all told nine stations on the Rose Hill Marple line will be impacted by the service suspension, some severely.
The options for travel from those nine stations are very clearly spelt out in a superb booklet designed by the very knowledgeable Lee Render who I managed a quick update with as he was beavering away on finalising the detail of the communications for Northern’s staff and passengers in a central Bradford coffee shop when I passed through on Tuesday.
Lee’s grasp of the detail is very impressive and he gave me a good insight into the steps being taken to communicate the alternative travel options using localised maps for each station based on TfGM’s network maps.
The first station after Piccadilly is Ashburys which fortunately also sees a half hourly service between Manchester and Glossop and a two-hourly link to New Mills Central, so no worries there. Next up is Gorton which will be served by adding it as an additional stop on the Glossop service. In both cases passengers will be able to get into Manchester but not over to Hyde, Romiley or Marple in the other direction.
The third station is Fairfield which is the first to be left without any trains at all. Passengers are being advised to walk to the Metrolink tram stop at Droylsden which is a mile to the north. Stagecoach provides a handy quick and frequent alternative from a bus stop closer than the tram (their route 219) but there’s no ticket acceptance in place with Stagecoach who are understandably concerned about Covid capacity.
After Fairfield comes Guide Bridge which already has the Glossop service so is in a similar situation to Gorton.
Then we come to three stations – Hyde North, Hyde Central and Woodley which will have no train service. They’re on the unique section of line only served by Rose Hill Marple trains.
In each case alternative stations are suggested – a lovely station name of Flowery Field (on the Glossop line) which is half a mile from Hyde North; Newton-for-Hyde station also on the Glossop line is a mile from Hyde Central and Bredbury is a mile from Woodley and served by New Mills Central and Sheffield trains.
Romiley station comes next which also has New Mills Central and Sheffield trains stopping as we’re now on that line.
And finally the terminus at Rose Hill Marple on that dead end stub which is a lengthy one and a half mile walk from Marple station which has trains on the New Mills and Sheffield line.
You might think some of those distances are quite long, and all the more so if you live in the opposite direction from a closed station; and you’d be right. So Northern have laid on a replacement bus service for Rose Hill Marple passengers as well as a ‘Ring and Ride’ pre-bookable taxi service in the Hyde and Woodley areas.
The replacement bus will provide an hourly circular shuttle between Rose Hill Marple, Marple and Romiley stations as well as including Woodley at peak times.
The taxi service is only available for journeys starting or finishing at Hyde North, and Hyde Central as well as, outside of the peaks, Woodley – you can book up to an hour before travel on an 0800 phone number or, if at the station, from the help point. The taxi will take you to one of the other eight stations on the route but not Manchester Piccadilly.
So that’s the plan and all was looking good until Wednesday evening when a special meeting of concillors on the Marple Area Committee of Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council was held online to discuss the service suspension.
In an amiable meeting lasting two and a quarter hours local councillors as well as invited committee members of the Friends of Rose Hill Marple Station and other local stations quizzed Northern Rail’s Regional Director Chris Jackson about the plans as well as TfGM’s Mark Angelucci.
Chris did a sterling job explaining the background to this “difficult decision” being the “least worst option” pointing out the line had “lower passenger numbers compared to other routes in Greater Manchester” and also benefited from “other Northern stations nearby offering alternatives”.
Councillors expressed serious concerns this could be a precursor to a complete closure in the future with a Government looking to make savings. They’d been unimpressed with a reply from the Minister who stated he “wants to ensure Greater Manchester passengers have the train service they deserve” which they considered fell short of a categoric reassurance for the longer term.
Chris did his best to state “categorically that is absolutely not the case” (a precursor to permenant closure) and the suspension was due to an “unprecedented reason based on resource availability due to Covid”.
One questioner picked up on the resource figures Chris had given earlier in the meeting. He’d explained he had 994 drivers in his region including 139 trainee drivers who had had their training paused due to Covid. 75 drivers are due to leave this year through retirements and natural wastage (with no-one to replace them) and 11% were absent, classed as vulnerable. All told, he had 42 fewer productive drivers than if Covid had not happened. But Chris was challenged that the number of drivers deployed on the Rose Hill Marple route must only number around five or six so the resource saving would make little impact on the figures quoted.
Chris did his best to point out that ‘every little helps’ and gave the reassurance that if the training programme now restarting went better than expected and enabled Northern to resinstate the service before 14th December than he would definitely do so. Someone asked what if the training programme didn’t go so well, which Chris side stepped by pointing out other unforseen issues such as a second spike/lockdown etc could also happen.
And just as the meeting was heading towards a natural conclusion LibDem Councillor Lisa Smart threw in a complete curved ball.
She recalled when Northern had been in the midst of its May 2018 timetable meltdown (which was largely due to Network Rail’s shortcomings), it had temporarily withdrawn trains from the Windermere branch leading to a hastily arranged replacement service with locomotive hauled heritage stock run by West Coast Railways following an intervention from local LibDem MP Tim Farron.
Councillor Smart proposed the four relevant area committees of the Council (of which Marple is one) each agree to use their powers under the localism agenda to chip in £7,500 from their discretionary budgets to pay for a replacement shuttle train service between Rose Hill Marple and Guide Bridge to be run by West Coast Railways. She advised that West Coast Railways had been approached and would be able to operate such a service – and the funding would pay for the first week’s operation.
Officers from the Council at the meeting were asked to comment on the idea and they admitted it was the first they’d heard of it and understandably explained they would need to investigate the practicalities and legalities of such a proposal – it’s not everyday Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council contracts to provide a heritage rail service. Notwithstanding this caution the Councillors voted in princple to go ahead with the plan.
Councillor Smart is now promoting it online as a LibDem branded victory. Their aim is to fund the service for a week “to prove to Northern that is can be done”.
So, whether we get to see Class 37s and slam door stock shuttling up and down a Greater Manchester suburban branch line for a week from Monday 14th September reamins to be seen.
Miss Marple and the disappearing trains part 2 …. coming soon …. don’t miss it!