Northern Rail has unveiled a spruced-up fleet of Class 319 EMUs for use on the newly electrified railway on the Liverpool Lime Street-Manchester Airport route and a new, enhanced, role for onboard staff.
Amidst continuing controversy about rolling stock capacity, Northern took delivery of the first of 20 units last summer. Since then, staff have been working hard to smarten up the 25-year-old trains.
The new Northern Electrics sport a new exterior livery created by noted designer Ray Stenning. 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 unit.
RailStaff recently boarded a Northern Electric train at Liverpool South Parkway station as part of the operator’s driver training programme. Following approval from the ORR, the first electric passenger service was launched between Liverpool Lime Street and Manchester Airport on 5 March, with more units due to go into service throughout the year.
Eagle-eyed passengers will notice that the branding of the Northern Electrics varies from the rest of the fleet. The logic is that the Electrics represent a shift change in customer service across the entire franchise. With staff spread across 464 stations from Leeds to Manchester and Liverpool, consistency can vary. This is something the operator is trying to address.
As well as introducing refreshed electric trains, Northern is revamping the role of its conductors. The 319s will have door controls spread across the vehicle,helping conductors to remain with passengers throughout their journey. In order to help them adapt to a more customer-facing role, Northern has developed a new industry-recognised training programme, which is currently being rolled out.
Questioned about how effective this programme of improvements would really be, given the difficulties in updating its aged Pacers, Northern’s message was clear.
‘One of our biggest assets is our people,’ said Northern’s customer service director Natalie Loughborough. Natalie believes the operator’s focus has to be on delivering an excellent customer experience.
‘The rolling stock’s still important, I appreciate that, but if we get that right and we get the presentation of their services and make sure they are very, very clean and well presented, we get the information delivered right, then people accept the rolling stock better.’
She added, ‘We use our strengths that we have in people, in what we do around standards and how we manage our environment whether it be stations or on train, regardless of rolling stock. I think if you look at our results, we are making a difference.’
There are a number of projects in development to either improve or replace the Pacers. These include Vivarail, which would see the introduction of modified D Stock Underground trains, and Porterbrook’s refurbishment of its Class 144s – known as Class 144 Evolution – which is currently being carried out by RVEL.
The Department for Transport (DfT) has now published the Invitation to Tender (ITT) for the Northern and TransPennine Express franchises which requires prospective operators to produce a plan for replacing the Pacers and a requirement to order at least 120 brand new carriages. Northern’s ITT also includes a £30 million investment in stations and more services.
Until the start of the new franchise in February 2016, however, Northern has to do what it can with what it’s got.
‘When we bring in the 20 or so 319s, it will take our rolling stock fleet to something like over 700 vehicles,’ said Rob Warnes, Northern’s planning and programmes director. ‘200 of the vehicles are 142s – 500 of them aren’t and you have to put this into context.’
‘Yes, we would love to change the Pacers out tomorrow, it’s not going to happen,’ he added, ‘But we have got to continue to grow this railway, improve the standards we offer to our customers, because at some point those Pacers will go.
‘We’re not going to sit on our laurels and wait until they’ve gone. We have got to keep driving better and better customer service, better punctuality…’