Rail Industry Focus


Northern’s Class 319s take to the rails

Sam McCaffrey paid a visit to Allerton depot to see what Northern Rail has done with the Class 319s that have been sent up from Thameslink, ready for electric operations. He heard more from Rob Warnes, planning and programmes director at Northern Rail.

On the outside, the electric Class 319/3s that Northern Rail has refurbished for operation between Liverpool and Manchester look slick and flash. The two-tone purple livery and white Northern Electrics branding looks modern and sophisticated, giving you the expectation of finally stepping onto the train of the future that the north has long been waiting for.

How disappointing then when you board: a new moquette and extensive paint job ultimately can’t disguise the 319s’ true age. Sitting down as the train glided out of Liverpool South Parkway, on a journey to Crewe for driver training, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was aboard what would eventually become known as the north’s electric Pacer. Unkind souls refer to the 319s as “clapped out” – they have done an awful lot of miles since the 1980s – and although a lot of effort has gone into these predominately cosmetic improvements, many in the north will wonder why they get hand-me-downs, even on new electric infrastructure, when London commuter routes get new-built electric trains like the Class 700.

The cascade of the four-car Class 319s to Northern from Thameslink was agreed in April 2014, shortly after Northern received a Direct Award to extend the franchise another 22 months. Originally two units were to be put in use in the north by December, with 14 more by mid-2015; however electrification delays pushed back the timescale.

471 014Z1237
(Image: A Class 319 showcasing the new Northern Electrics livery)

Passenger service

For several months Network Rail were unable to specify when the works would be completed ready for passenger services to begin, but on my visit to Allerton depot to see the new trains, Rob Warnes, planning and programmes director at Northern Rail, finally had an update on the project.

He said that the previous night (23 February) a 'Mobile Electrical Network Testing, Observation and Recording' (MENTOR) test had been run: a diesel locomotive hauling a carriage with a pantograph, to prove that it is safe for electric trains to run on the line.

After that was successful, two Class 319s went out under test conditions, with everything looking good.

Warnes said that there was one more test scheduled for 24 February, and pending the success of that, and ORR approval, Northern planned to run its first electric Class 319 services the following week, from Liverpool to Manchester airport. This had still to be confirmed as RTM went to press.

“When the Wigan route goes live at the back end of March or early April, we’ll then look to extend to three trains in service and then gradually ramp up to eight trains in service by May,” he said.

It was also announced in January that Northern Rail will get an additional six Class 319s this year, taking the total to 20, as part of the convoluted deal worked out that let First Trans Pennine Express operate six of Northern’s Class 156 trains once FTPE lose its Class 170s to Chiltern.

Warnes said: “It’s not just a deal that says ‘here’s a swap for swap’; it’s actually the north gets more rolling stock. Even though TransPennine lost some of its more quality stock to the south, the north gets more stock in total.”

When asked about the quality of the stock Warnes admitted that it is “a stopgap”.

“One of the benefits we do get is that with FTPE at the moment operating what is basically a three-car 185 down the Bolton corridor, most of which are overcrowded, they become four-car 156s, operating in pairs, which then means there’ll be more seats and more standing room for Bolton corridor.”

20150224 144930(Image: A Class 319 arrives at Liverpool South Parkway station for driver training)


The first step in all this, of course, is the roll-out of the 319s. They were originally built in the late 1980s by BREL at York, so while waiting for Network Rail to complete electrification on the line the trains have gone through a programme of refurbishment. 

Much of the work was carried out at Wolverton by Knorr-Bremse, under a Porterbrook contract. Northern also contracted Interfleet to undertake additional modifications.

The improvements include changes to the on-board public information systems, including the installation of new digital screens and automated audio announcements. The refresh also brings the addition of extra handsets for the public announcement system in the middle carriages of the train and conductor door control panels at all doors of the units.

The interior and exterior have both been repainted, and new livery has been designed by Ray Stenning.

3+2 seating

northern class 319-7 (1)The seating has been improved, but retains the 3+2 lay-out, which Passenger Focus says is generally unpopular with passengers, even if it does make better use of space. Past research says that layout often comes up as a ‘spontaneous negative’ at focus groups, and Passenger Focus chief executive Anthony Smith calls it “socially awkward and cramped”. Research suggests the stock making the best use of 3+2 seating, as far as passengers are concerned, is the London Midland Class 350/2s.

However, considering some of the poor-quality and ancient rolling stock that passengers in the north of England have to live with, the 319s do of course offer some advantages.

Rob Warnes said: “We see this as very much the future of rail in the North West. We think our customers will be delighted when they start riding these in the next few weeks. It is a step-change both in capacity and in passenger quality from the trains that we currently operate. And the future is electric – they’re faster, they’re more comfortable, they carry more people.”

Warnes’ enthusiasm for electrification was unrelenting. He sees it as absolutely key for improvement to rail travel in the north.

“We’ve moved from ‘no electrification’ to a rolling program, which is absolutely brilliant for the north. When the government’s rolling stock policy is ‘no new diesels’, the only way we’re going to [get] more capacity into the north and the eventual replacement of Pacers is through deployment of more electric trains. So electrification is absolutely key,” he said.

He added: “We have a significantly growing railway, we’ve increased passenger volumes by 50% over the life of the franchise, and it’s still growing and will continue to still grow. And, yes we could continue to try to get more diesels in from elsewhere, but this [electrification] is the way forward. This is us beginning to transfer the railways of the north into what we’ve been deserving for many, many years.”

Class 319 in old FCC colours. Being transferred to Northern(Image: A Class 319 in the old First Capital Connect livery being delivered for refurbishment)

Alternative stock

However he admits it is not an overnight fix. Pacers will still be around for a while – maybe a long while, if the Porterbrook Class 144e idea gains traction – and there could yet be a need for more diesel stock while we wait for electrification to catch up.

So what does he think of some of the alternatives in the meantime? When asked about the Vivarail D-Train (see page 66) currently being developed from ex-London Underground stock by former Chiltern boss Adrian Shooter, Warnes was less than enthusiastic. “All I can say is that we’ve looked at it, we don’t consider it an option in the current franchise. If that’s what bidders want to consider…”

He added: “They’re not particularly great, are they. Their actual maximum speed [60mph] doesn’t warrant them travelling in between other services. I know the Pacers only do 75mph but they do need to be able to do 75mph when they come off some of these branch lines to get them past into the centres.”

Tell us what you think – have your say below, or email us directly at [email protected]


Andrew Gwilt   10/03/2015 at 21:01

I do think that Thameslink should cascade the 30x Class 319's to Northern and to keep the remaining Class 319's until the new Class 700's are in service then cascade 20x Class 319's for Northern and the rest of the Class 319's to Merseyrail.

Kevj   11/03/2015 at 13:24

Cheap and nasty springs to mind re the ancient 319s . Cramped seating ,ugly depressing colour schemes ...automated announcements whoopee!......its yet another insult to the North ...how can Northern get so excited about these awful Southern cast offs......I just hope they don't get the franchise again ...we need a dynamic ,forceful new powerful company that will offer more and fight the numptys at the DfT for us !

Stephanie   09/05/2015 at 13:29

Goodnight trains

Moomo   16/05/2015 at 15:22

Can't agree with Andrew Gwilt. If Merseyrail wanted to continue with sub-standard stock, they could simply refurbish their existing units. No need to pay for 319s.

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