It’s 20 years since Railtrack rebuilt Leeds station and its approach tracks to increase capacity into West Yorkshire.

Dubbed Leeds 1st, it swept away the old dingy station roof and installed a brighter replacement that’s now dirty from fumes. The station’s western approaches saw changes that removed conflicts between services on different routes. This segregated trains approaching from Castleford, Wakefield, Huddersfield, Bradford, Shipley/Ilkley and Harrogate as much as possible.

At a time when Railtrack was under heavy criticism, Leeds 1st was one of its successes. From my perspective, it was a good news story. There was an ideal viewing platform from the top of the office block above the station. Railtrack’s York press team was keen to show its progress and so I’d take the lift up to the roof for the panoramic view over the western throat.

But 20 years is a long time and since Railtrack’s investment, pressure on Leeds station has grown with more passengers  – they’ve trebled since 1997 – and more trains. Network Rail responded by rebuilding the station’s southern concourse. It’s recently added a new platform on the northern edge of the station. A few years ago, it opened a southern entrance to serve an increasingly busy part of Leeds.

Time for a plan

Now the West Yorkshire Combined Authority – Leeds, Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees and Wakefield councils – has unveiled an ambitious strategy to further increase rail’s role in public transport. In its 104-page strategy published on January 27 2021 it says: “Our vision is to enable travel from anywhere in West Yorkshire to anywhere else in the region, at least twice per hour, at the same time each hour, all day, and every day – seamlessly, simply, reliably, and without worry about ticketing.”

That’s not going to be easy but it then adds: “We have set an ambitious target that all journeys – from door to door – should be possible in a journey time that is no greater than the off-peak, uncongested, car journey time.”

Elsewhere in its public transport vision, it unveils a mass transit network that might include trams. It admits that it’s likely to be expensive. Yet it claims that it will help combat climate change, connect West Yorkshire’s key places, support economic recovery, improve health and well-being and help rebalance the economy.

Aping Manchester and its successful tram network might help lay to rest the ghost of Leeds Supertram. It won parliamentary approval with the Leeds Supertram Act 1993. Government funded it until DfT pulled the plug in 2005 amid rising costs.

Time will tell but I’m not confident. I fear the cost will once again derail trams in West Yorkshire. If it was the only plan, I might be more confident. But it comes on top of Northern Powerhouse Rail, the trans-Pennine rail upgrade, HS2 and the combined authority’s rail strategy. I fear the bill for these ambitious projects will be too much for the Treasury in London to swallow.

A snowy view across railway engineering work in Leeds.
In the snow of December 28 2000, Railtrack and its contractors work to remodel Leeds station’s western approaches. Twenty years on, West Yorkshire Combined Authority is promoting an ambitious scheme of rail improvements that it hopes will tempt people from cars to trains. PHILIP HAIGH.

Yorkshire rail plans

So let’s hop off the tram for now and have a look at the detail of the rail strategy. By 2027, WYCA wants to see 75% more trips by rail (and 25% more by bus and 300% more by bicycle). It wants to provide an alternative to cars that is so good that it becomes the preferred option.

This is a tough battle. I suspect people still view cars as more reliable. If you own one it’s there when you need it and it works door-to-door. Much of a car’s costs are invisible day-to-day – depreciation, insurance, maintenance and so on. Meanwhile, public transport’s cost is up front every time you travel.

WYCA’s strategy acknowledges that where rail compares well with cars, it attracts commuters just like London (pre-COVID 19 of course). For example, 85% of commuter journeys from Airedale and Wharfedale are by train. These commuters use four-car electric trains unlike most West Yorkshire rail journeys. (The only other electric service from Leeds is to Doncaster.)

But there are plenty of areas in which rail doesn’t compare well. WYCA suggests they include trips over the big hill to Manchester. (On a clear day, the M62 still surprises me with its speed.) Within West Yorkshire rail performs poorly if your journey isn’t to Leeds or back, according to WYCA. Even then, it says it takes an hour to reach Todmorden from Leeds (30 miles). Pontefract (14 miles) takes 30 minutes from Leeds. To travel 31 miles from London King’s Cross to Hitchin takes around 35 minutes with a change at Stevenage. It takes 45-50 minutes on a direct suburban train. To get to Brookmans Park (14 miles), it takes between 30 and 45 minutes with a change at Finsbury Park. So perhaps West Yorkshire isn’t as badly off as it thinks?

Running more trains

The combined authorities vision sets three service levels for trains – two per hour for all established local services (new services may start at lower frequencies), 4tph for core routes particularly into Leeds and 6tph to connect major centres with Leeds. That’s likely to need enhance signalling, junction capacity, possibly four-tracking of busy sections and it will surely need extra capacity at stations. It will also need more stock with WYCA suggesting an extra 60 carriages by 2024 and another 70 by 2040.

It reckons the first stage should be to bring longer trains by 2023/24, for example, six-car trains on Wharfedale, Airedale and Calder Valley services. These and other longer services will need longer platforms on almost all of the region’s rail lines.

By 2027/28, WYCA reckons on eight-car trains on Wharfedale/Airedale and improved signalling Horsforth-Harrogate, Hare Park Junction-Leeds, Dewsbury-Leeds; four-tracking Hare Park Junction-South Kirby Junction and westwards from Neville Hill towards Garforth; grade-separation for South Kirby Junction and enhancements at Engine Shed Junction (to give 750m clear standage between there and Whitehall East Junction) and Castleford (reinstating the second platform and adding crossovers).

The 2030s sees the same menu applied elsewhere:

  • Improved signalling from Shipley to Skipton,
  • Four-tracking from Apperley to Armley,
  • Extra capacity from Milner Royd Junction to Rochdale and
  • Longer trains towards Sheffield, Doncaster, Knottingley and Harrogate.

As 2040 approaches, WYCA’s focus shifts towards incorporating the second phase of High Speed 2 into its proposals. Yet there’s still plenty of potential work on the classic network:

  • There’s track and signalling enhancements on the Wharfedale line,
  • Better signalling along the Penistone line and
  • Track capacity upgrades around Halifax, Bradford Interchange, through Micklefield to Church Fenton and between Hensall and Goole.

Switch from cars

All this helps make rail a better option than driving. WYCA expects a switch from road to rail and expects transport’s shares of carbon emissions to fall as a result. Hence electrification doesn’t feature strongly in the vision beyond an all-encompassing claim towards a rolling programme that ultimately electrifies all the region’s main line railways. 

WYCA aspires to lift today’s 44% share of electric passenger kilometres to 80% by 2030 and 90% by 2038 under its ‘max ambition’ scenario. By 2030, it predicts that rail’s carbon emissions will remain around 0.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year (MtCO2e/yr). It says mode shift will reduce car emissions from 2.8MtCO2e/yr to 0.9 while total transport emissions almost halve. For perspective, WYCA reckons a 5% shift in freight from road to rail would save 4.6MtCO2e/yr. It says this is twice rail’s current total emissions for freight and passenger services combined. It’s aiming for a 10% shift.

When BR and West Yorkshire PTE electrified the Airedale and Wharfedale lines in the 1990s, they converted a self-contained network. Electric trains ran from bay platforms at Leeds to Bradford Foster Square, Ilkley and Skipton.

West Yorkshire’s other lines sees many more trains crossing the county’s borders. Those through Halifax and Hebden Bridge run on towards Preston and Rochdale. It’s a similar situation out beyond Huddersfield although there’s work on partial electrification as part of the trans-Pennine upgrade. Harrogate sees many trains terminate but a fair number run on the extra 20 miles to York. None of this makes electrification impossible but it does need close co-ordination with neighbouring transport authorities.

It’s clear that West Yorkshire sees rail as an important part of its economy and one that will need constant investment over the next few decades. How much of this comes to pass is anyone’s guess – there have been plenty of similar plans in the past. Perhaps the only certainty is that there will be some tough discussions about funding.

A version of this article first appeared in RAIL Magazine on February 10 2021.

By Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.