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‘It’s chaos’: ruined plans, lost hours at UK’s worst station for cancelled trains

<span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

From the outside, all stately neoclassical facade and Corinthian columns, Huddersfield station looks an unlikely centre of rail chaos. But its rate of cancelled trains is the highest in Britain – a statistic that comes as no surprise to passengers here, halfway between Manchester and Leeds on the TransPennine route.

Waiting on platform one, Zay Alabi, 20, a psychology student, is attempting for a second time in three days to get to an appointment in Manchester Victoria: “I’ve had to plan it and I’ve factored in an extra hour and a half.” He rescheduled after cutting it too fine before, with one train cancelled and the next one too full to board.

This day, five of the next six trains are cancelled, but he is in luck: an earlier service is running late enough for him to make it. “I know that they are trying to figure it out, but it’s insane that they are delayed so much.”

Over on the eastbound platform eight, passengers rush to board a TransPennine Express (TPE) service apparently heading to Leeds, before an irate driver tells them this train is going nowhere, and shoos them on to the short three-carriage set in front.

Better-humoured station staffers help one passenger lug his oversized baggage on to the right train, the labels still visible from an incoming flight to Manchester Airport.

Exhausted airline passengers and their luggage are a common sight cramming the aisles, sitting amid weary commuters. An elderly couple are perched by the luggage rack on one crowded stopping train that terminates at the airport.

More Yorkshire stories - click above
More Yorkshire stories - click above

“There should be at least six carriages on this but there’s only three,” the man explains. Sometimes they have barely managed to get off at their stop: “That’s why we’re by the doors.”

A cleaner attempts to board another Leeds-bound train, but can’t get on, and wouldn’t be able to pass down the aisles anyway. “It’s chaos,” she says, unsurprised.

A 17.53 Northern train to Sheffield – marked as indefinitely delayed, with passengers told to await station announcements – turns up and departs. Some jump on board, but less battle-hardened travellers, obeying instructions, are left bewildered and stranded. The next will not come for two and a half hours.

Stories of lives disrupted, wrecked plans and hours and days lost are legion, with passengers constantly checking how trains will run in hope rather than expectation.

While Northern and Avanti in particular have had troubles, the reputation for wildly unreliable trains now belongs primarily to TPE.

An overtime ban called by Aslef train drivers in the national rail dispute last week hit TPE harder than most. It relies on voluntary rest-day working, with a shortage of drivers exacerbated by Covid and a backlog of training.

Until shortly before the government decided not to renew First Group’s contract in May, drivers were refusing any extra shifts. Industrial relations have improved under the state-owned Operator of Last Resort – but noticeably, in the recent RMT vote to end strikes, a significantly higher proportion of staff across all three north of England rail firms voted not to settle.

Figures just released by the Office of Rail and Road show that serious problems persist at TPE: more than one in eight trains were cancelled from July to September, including “ghost” or “P-coded” cancellations: trains that disappear from the timetable late the preceding evening, a manoeuvre employed more widely at TPE than anywhere else.

When it comes to rail in the north, the sense of grievance is not just in underperforming train operators but also with infrastructure. Autumn came in with Rishi Sunak announcing that the promised HS2 high-speed network would not, after all, come to Manchester – following the earlier decision to axe the leg to Leeds.

The consolation prize was Network North, a hastily cobbled together plan to spend the HS2 saved money elsewhere on transport for the north of England – but the biggest question remains the fate of a long-heralded fast line from west to east, best known as Northern Powerhouse Rail or NPR, joining Liverpool to Hull and Newcastle across a Manchester-Leeds core.

In the meantime, significant work on that core is under way in the TransPennine Route Upgrade (TRU) – due to cost £11.5bn, employing 8,000 people, and by far the biggest “enhancement” scheme in Network Rail’s budget.

With six miles (almost 10 kilometres) of tunnels, hundreds of bridges, and huge variations in topography, this is a tough route to upgrade: the core of the line must still slip through the slopes at places such as Slaithwaite, where the land is so constrained that the station’s west- and eastbound platforms could not be built facing each other.

The latest £3bn of funding was signed off last week, announced by rail minister Huw Merriman in Ravensthorpe, West Yorkshire, one of a number of stations to be rebuilt, and where a new wider viaduct will accommodate four tracks instead of two.

The headline pledge is eventual full electrification, but works running into the late 2030s include a whole suite of measures – new depots, enlarged platforms, new lifts and remade junctions – aimed at rebuilding a cleaner, more accessible, railway, with faster and more reliable journeys.

Politicians and business groups in the north welcome the investment – but are clear that the TRU is not enough. Tracy Brabin, mayor of West Yorkshire, says she is “still deeply angry that the government pulled the plug on HS2”, even with the “tentative first steps” towards diverting that money into schemes such as a new station in Bradford and a West Yorkshire mass transit system.

Henri Murison, of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, says the £11bn is a substantial investment but, he argues: “They call this an enhancement – but it’s needed to get the old railway up to scratch. If you didn’t electrify it, it would fall apart.”

Now, he hopes, politicians will sign off plans for a preferred route for the new NPR high-speed line, incorporating at least part of the construction that would have come with HS2 around Manchester. “TRU is not a small thing – but if we’d spend more on a new line, we’d get a lot more.”

Until that is confirmed, serious questions remain about the commitment to truly level up, Brabin says: “The route upgrade has long been promised and is about solving the problems today – we still desperately need NPR to deliver a rail network fit for the north’s future.”

In the short term, the upgrade work will spell even more disruption, as commuters are well aware. Julie Greenwood, 63, delayed an hour at Huddersfield on her way home to Honley, declares herself “furious” at the decision to scrap HS2 and not build a new line: “If you have to live in a rundown old house while they do it up, it’s not much fun, is it? I’m just glad I’m retiring soon.”

Huddersfield station itself will be enlarged in work starting in early 2024, with its heritage roof restored and tearooms dismantled and rebuilt further along the extended platform eight. Eventually more trains, and longer ones, will be accommodated on more platforms, although construction work will last two to three years with at least two “blockades” of several weeks when no trains will serve the town.

This Sunday, 10 December, also marks a timetable change that temporarily cuts even more services in the north. Around 20 trains a day will go from TPE alone, reducing its overall capacity by about 5% – a move that the operator says is necessary for its long-term recovery plan, to restore “stability and resilience”, and help train more drivers.

Murison says most have reluctantly backed it: “There’s no viable alternative.”

Brabin says she understands the need to improve reliability but that the cuts “will have a significant impact on passengers – I am pushing for these to be restored in full as soon as possible.”

In the wake of a Resolution Foundation report on Britain’s poor productivity, Murison says his organisation’s research showed better northern infrastructure, largely meaning transport, would provide an economic boost of about £118bn: “The amount of money that the UK is sacrificing by having the north economically on its knees is massive.”

The commuters at Huddersfield can testify to that. In the busiest season for takings, Katie Haslam, 40, had left the shop she runs in Leeds 90 minutes early, after checking to find her later connecting trains to Shepley were cancelled: “My retail manager said: ‘Go home, you can’t get home to your kids that time of night’.”

A single mother of two, she has often had to pay £14 taxi fares to cover the final stops of cancelled trains: “I can’t afford to do that.” One week, it happened so often, she says, that she “ended up breaking down and crying to one of the TransPennine staff”.

As Brabin says: “We know change was not going to happen overnight, and that industry-wide issues are contributing to an unreliable service – but passengers are being let down and we need to see change quickly.”