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The North of England Programme: Northern Hub plus electrification

2015 is a critical year for the Northern Hub, which has been combined into a single programme with electrification in the north west to ensure co-ordinated, safe, efficient delivery. RTM met Network Rail’s principal sponsor for north west England, Martin Jurkowski, to discuss the programme.

The line between Preston and Blackpool North is to be upgraded: it is being electrified and re-signalled, and track works will improve capacity through stations on the route. These works, which were to be handled separately, have now been brought together for delivery from mid-December 2016. This is later than originally planned for the electrification – but the re-signalling is happening earlier than expected.

It is a good example of Network Rail’s new combined ‘single programme’ in action. The Northern Hub capacity improvement works and the North West Electrification Programme (NWE), totalling £1bn of investment, are being combined into a single ‘North of England Programme’.

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Network Rail’s Martin Jurkowski is responsible for all the capital investment between Crewe and Carlisle as principal sponsor for the region. He spoke to RTM at Square One near Manchester Piccadilly about the Blackpool re-phasing but also the wider context of the works in the north.

Faster, more frequent, with better rolling stock

The combined Northern Hub and NWE programmes have two core outputs: timetable changes in December 2016 and in December 2018.

Jurkowski said: “The works allow a major recast of the main inter-urban services across the north. The Northern Hub is primarily about improving connectivity between the main urban centres – with faster, more frequent services – while NWE and the forthcoming Transpennine electrification is about improved rolling stock, higher reliability, shorter journey times for local services because of improved train performance, more capacity because of longer trains, and is also part of rail’s contribution to the greener economy. They are complementary schemes.”

Other maintenance schemes and renewals are ongoing in the region separate to the North of England Programme – everything from track renewals to the Liverpool Lime Street works and some resignalling projects – but those too are being handled in a co-ordinated way.

Jurkowski added: “Our Northern Hub interventions are fundamental to providing the capacity to facilitate new enhanced service patterns. We’re building for the future to accommodate growth. The railway needs to expand to accommodate the number of people who want to use it.”

Network Rail and its partners – the Department for Transport, the Passenger Transport Executives and the train and freight operators – wanted to move beyond focusing on individual projects, and instead look at the potential output for the entire rail industry. Those outputs and capacity for potential new services are being built into the new Northern and TransPennine Express franchises.

Jurkowski said: “Treating this as a programme means we can plan to do things in a safe, controlled, efficient manner, with the right resources and on the right timescales.

“There is an overall plan for all of these works until December 2018, which is a considerable period of time and a large volume of work. This is why Blackpool has been moved to ‘fit in’ – to avoid peaks and troughs of demand.”

Delivering works as one package improves the overall efficiency and resource management – there are finite resources available, and Network Rail has to manage who’s doing what and when.

Jurkowski explained: “We have to time the works to match the availability of the supply chain. Take electrification: there are other electrification programmes elsewhere in the country, and we’ve got to be careful about over-promising and about ensuring the supply chain can cope.

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“Signalling is another area that’s quite stretched at the moment. We’ve got a long-term plan with suppliers – who are now on board with the whole programme – to be able to confirm delivery.

“We can then sequence and co-ordinate the delivery in a co-ordinated manner, rather than have lots of individual projects trying to do their own thing and suit themselves.”

Public engagement

The Blackpool re-phasing had another driver too – business. The works will require closing Blackpool North, because the entire throat of the station is being remodelled to improve its operation and also to lengthen two platforms to accommodate 11-car Pendolinos. But traders did not want a closure during the holiday season.

Jurkowski said: “It basically came down to doing it much earlier than we’d be ready to do it, or to push it towards the end of the 2016 holiday season. So, the start date for the new services to Blackpool will be postponed by a couple of months while we finish the work off. But Blackpool will re-open with a new service pattern and new electric trains operating.”

Virgin is planning to start running diesel services to and from Blackpool at the end of this year, using Voyagers, but the extended platforms plus electrification offers more opportunities from 2017.

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(Photo: mwmbwls, Creative Commons)

Remodelling and resignalling

Kirkham & Wesham is another station to be remodelled: it actually takes longer for trains to use the ‘fast’ lines that bypass the station than to go through it, because of the speed of the connections at either end.

“We’re looking to remodel the layout so it’s faster and more efficient, for both stopping and fast trains, and it’s easier to maintain for the next 30 years,” Jurkoswki told us. “We’ll be building an additional platform at Kirkham too.”

Doing the resignalling earlier is more sensible, Jurkowski said, than trying to make the new electrification system compatible with the five old mechanical signal boxes. “For example, how do you make servicing of mechanical signalling safe when there’s electrified wires around? We’ve brought forward those plans to incorporate resignalling with electrification. It makes much more sense.”


The bulk of the work on the North of England Programme will be delivered by an alliance of Network Rail and contractors including BAM Skanska, Siemens and Balfour Beatty. A separate alliance will handle the Transpennine electrification east of Stalybridge, managed by the LNE route team from York.

The plans are still subject to final review, as part of the regular affordability check process. “The next tranche, of which Blackpool is part, is going through its funding review cycle over the next couple of months. That sharpens up the focus of the scope but we’re confident that will be confirmed,” he added. 

“We then instruct the delivery teams at Infrastructure Projects to carry out the works within the parameters we’ve determined – budget, timeframe, specification, etc.”


The Blackpool works are typical of the North of England Programme enhancements, in that short-term disruption is required for longer-term gains. 

Jurkowski said: “The railway network in the north west has not seen this scale of investment and modernisation for over a generation. However, to undertake that modernisation does require access to the railway to actually rebuild it, and some of the works are difficult to do and take longer than weekends or overnights.

“Therefore, to have the benefits of the electrified and modernised railway, you do have to disrupt travellers. We’re working very hard with industry partners to make sure that is managed as best we can, and also to highlight the benefits it will bring, so people understand the need to do the works.”

He praised the communications teams at Network Rail and the operators for doing such a good job on this so far, especially for projects like the Chorley tunnel.

chorley flying arches being installed

Pain and gain

With their franchises coming to an end, both Northern and First TransPennine Express (FTPE) have had to manage disruption to their services (and any resulting bad press) without a guarantee that they’ll benefit from the improvements. The incumbents have made it onto the shortlists to run the new franchises – although Abellio is no longer partnered with Serco for the Northern bid – but competition will be fierce.

Jurkowski said: “The operators have been very good at working with us, Northern and FTPE particularly, but all of them have been engaged and have had a say in how the programme has been developed.”

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(Photo: mwmbwls, Creative Commons)

Although most benefits are yet to come, the December 2013 first-phase electrification commissioning let FTPE start its electric services from Manchester Airport to Scotland. He said: “That was quite a critical date for them, one we achieved – but it took a lot more work than just electrifying Manchester to Newton-le-Willows to enable those services to run.

“This December, the same is happening for Northern, with the introduction of electrified services between Liverpool and Manchester. There’s a lot going on collectively between us – driver training, depot electrification, and so on – for that to happen.”

The Class 319s to operate those services – ex-Thameslink stock – need new livery, but are also undergoing a refurbishment, Northern confirmed to us.

Double the freight paths for Trafford Park

Freight also benefits from some of the Northern Hub interventions, which accommodate a doubling of freight paths to and from the main freight terminal at Trafford Park. That comes because of the upgrades at Oxford Road and Piccadilly, through which the freight trains pass – one an hour in each direction currently. “It is very much a mixed-use railway through the middle of Manchester, which makes it very different to something like Thameslink in London.

“We’re also upgrading the signalling and capacity on the Hope Valley route, not only for the freight that originates on that route from the quarries, but it’s also a key Transpennine freight route. We’re conscious that with Northern Hub, the other key Transpennine route through Huddersfield gets busier with passenger trains, and therefore there’s less opportunity for freight paths on that route.”

Safety first

goes with ORANGE PARA edit resize 635459366346161000This being Network Rail, safety is key. Blackpool-Preston has four level crossings set to close, with new footbridges being put in. New fencing has been installed on the Liverpool to Manchester route, cables have been buried to deter theft and vandalism, rubbish has been cleared to deter copycat fly-tipping, and vegetation has been cut back to destroy ‘hiding places’. Bridge parapets are being made a safe height across all the electrified lines. Network Rail also has a programme warning schoolchildren about the dangers of electrified railways.

The work has not been incident-free, unfortunately. A new wiring train is out of service for modification following an accident in which a wire broke, though luckily no-one was seriously injured. Jurkowski said: “We’re addressing that and making sure that kind of incident is either very unlikely or can’t happen again.”

The ‘single programme’ approach makes safe delivery more likely, as everything can be planned in advance, and last-minute rushes and crisis periods can be avoided or mitigated.

“We need to ensure we’ve got sensible workloads, sensible periods in which to deliver the work, and the right resources to do it. That’s a critical aspect in achieving safe delivery,” he told us.

Busier and busier

Big projects starting next year include the vital Ordsall Chord – subject to the consents being achieved – and the Farnworth tunnel.

842 ordsall chord

Jurkowski told us: “We’ve completed some elements – Huyton-Roby, phase one electrification, some of the works at Manchester Airport, and so on – but this is only the start of it. 2015 will get busier and busier.”

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Above: Martin Jurkowski


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