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Wednesday 26 July 2017

Andy Burnham, Chris Grayling and the Goole to Leeds Train

Trains in Yorkshire are little better than they were in the 1970s, whereas in the South East ...

I’m with Andy Burnham. In a recent letter to Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, Andy Burnham, the elected Mayor of Manchester, complained that the North of England has put up with second-class transport for far too long. Within the space of just a few days, Grayling has downgraded promised rail improvements for the North while overseeing contracts for the ridiculously expensive HS2 line to Birmingham and backing the £30 billion London Crossrail 2 project. Is there any wonder Burnham is angry?

Northern Rail Pacer and Southeastern Javelin
Just compare this screechy Northern Rail Pacer with a high speed Southeastern Javelin

We have just got back from a few days in Kent. If your recent rail experience is mainly of Yorkshire, or even the routes down to London, you would be amazed at what they have in Kent. We were. There, 140 mph high speed Javelins leave London St. Pancras along the HS1 Channel Tunnel route, then branch off to follow various circular paths back to St. Pancras by Faversham, Ramsgate, Canterbury and Dover. They don’t go quite so fast along the North Kent coast, but they still crack on at quite a pace. It is not as if there are big distances between stations either. From Gravesend to Ramsgate there are fifteen stops, some as little as three minutes apart.

We have nothing like it in the North. Our local line still uses screechy four-wheeled nineteen-eighties Pacer trains. Even on faster lines such as the Transpennine route, the Class 185 Desiro units have barely two thirds the speed and acceleration of Southeastern Javelins. It is not as if our services are unused. They are busy throughout the day and peak-time overcrowding is unpleasant and noxious. It truly does feel like a second-class service.

Goole Railway Station circa 1960
Nineteen-sixties DMU at Goole (click for video)

It is like re-living the nineteen-seventies Goole to Leeds line. I’ll never forget the stations: Rawcliffe, Snaith, Hensall, Whitley Bridge, Knottingley, Pontefract Monkhill, Castleford Cutsyke, Woodlesford, Leeds. I used it regularly on Monday mornings after leaving home for four-night-a-week lodgings in Leeds. The train used to leave Goole at 07.20 to arrive in Leeds around 08.35. It was a bucolic start to the week. Startled rabbits dashed across the fields for cover as the morning mist lifted in the early light. If you sat right at the front you could see along the track ahead, and, oh what dreams, pretend you were the driver. I wished it could go on forever, until the train filled up with people smelling of fried bacon, stale cigarettes, fetid flannels and musty wardrobes, and then it could not end soon enough.

At first the train used to branch from the Doncaster line just outside Goole station (you can see the junction in the above video at 0.44), but this short length of track (which once served the Goole to Selby line) was pulled up and the train re-routed past the engine sheds. There were other creeping changes too. When Castleford Cutsyke was closed, trains had to go via Castleford Central where they reversed.

At least the line was still dual track. There were six trains per day in each direction, and they could pass anywhere between Knottingley and Goole. Now, this part of the line is single track. The once great Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway that carried long chains of coal wagons from the Yorkshire coalfields to the docks at Goole, and thousands of European emigrants from Hull to the transatlantic liners at Liverpool, is but a thin and spectral palimpsest of its former self.

Indeed, the only remaining train per day from Leeds to Goole, the 17.16, is often referred to as one of Britain’s “ghost trains”. They “wend their eerie way around the rail network almost entirely unknown to the travelling public,” running mostly empty at deliberately inconvenient times. They maintain the fiction that the line is still open for business, allowing train operators to avoid the long and costly public consultation required for complete closure.

Currently, you could just about manage a daily commute from Goole to Leeds over this route, catching the 07.04 from Goole and the aforementioned 17.16 back. The only other train is the returning 17.16 which departs Goole at 18.49. Otherwise you have to go to Doncaster and change, which usually takes longer, or via Brough, which costs more. Or you could drive the few miles to Howden for a Transpennine express, which can take as little as 30 minutes to Leeds, but that is something of a cop out. The alternatives are no substitute for the convenience of a direct local train from, say, the lovely villages of Rawcliffe or Snaith.

And what about all the other lost routes of Yorkshire? What would the Hornsea and Withernsea branches do for Hull if they were still open, or the line through Market Weighton into York, or the Woodhead line from Sheffield to Manchester? You can find example after example. How much would they benefit the local and regional economies?

Let’s face it, if this were Kent, ALL these routes, including the Goole to Leeds line, would still be fully open, running regular all-day timetables, served by fast modern electric trains with ample comfortable accommodation. They would be well-used.

Further videos: 
driver’s cab view from the Leeds to Goole train in the late 1980s;  
the same train changing tracks at Goole station

Monday 10 July 2017

The Old House

"Miss Huntley's" house near Leeds

There was something of the Miss Havisham about the place. Once it had been the fine eighteenth century home of a wealthy livestock auctioneer in the countryside between Leeds and York, with a grand oak staircase, roomy rooms and extensive kitchens. But after two centuries it had fallen into dark, brooding shabbiness. Crumbling mortar had left gaps between the blackened bricks. The once abundant gardens were covered in weeds. Earthy molehills dotted the tennis courts. The tangled vine stems hung dead and leafless. Yet I was sure it would be an inspiring place to work. It seemed my luck had changed. 

Perhaps it matched my mood. It had not been easy to find a job. I had met only doubt and distrust. It was justified to be honest. To be seeking work as an accountant just months after deciding that accountancy was not the life for me, and going off to teacher training college only to decide I didn’t want to be a teacher either, was not exactly impressive. Having chucked it in once, what were the chances I would do it again? It was hard to sound sincere, probably because I wasn’t.

Let’s call the firm Huntley and Palmer, Chartered Accountants. Miss Huntley had moved the practice out of central Leeds some years before, along with a few staff and one other partner. They offered me the post of audit clerk on a salary of £1,750 p.a. (about £17,000 today adjusted for price inflation).

I suspect they were desperate too. My interview must have been on one of the rare days the wind was blowing the other way. Most of the time a sickly sweet smell wafted up the stairs from the pig farm next door, pervading the communal office at the end of the building where we worked. It would have put most people off. It would have put me off too if I had other offers. You can also gain enthusiasm for the most illogical reasons. The receptionist’s soft green-blue top, tousled hair and retrouss√© nose was a carbon copy of Carly Simon on the cover of the ‘No Secrets’ LP.

But there was no Carly Simon smile. She moaned constantly about the pig smell. She was seeing out the next few months until her wedding later in the year. The other staff were strange too. One, a glamorous middle aged woman, went on incessantly about her dogs’ accomplishments in shows and competitions and her husband’s heart condition. Another, a semi-retired sixty-something, was always talking about his previous job in the Inland Revenue. You might have thought they were having a conversation, but neither listened to the other much at all. It was bearable only because they were part-time, and the afternoons were quieter. Then I was often alone in the office, dreamily gazing out of the window at the swirling wind-patterns in the corn field across the valley.

Mr. Palmer, the other partner, was another oddity. He went off each lunchtime supposedly to meet clients in the nearby pub, returning to spend the afternoons in a daze. Once or twice he had been found flat out asleep on the floor of his office. On a couple of occasions he called me in to complain angrily that he could not understand some of the work I had done for him. Patient explanation only assuaged him so far.

The sticking power of a mucilage bulldog
There was also an articled clerk. I cannot imagine how he managed to qualify as a Chartered Accountant in such an environment, but eventually he did. He must have had the sticking power of a mucilage bulldog.

Miss Huntley was easier to work with. She lived in the house with her Airedale dogs, and was a prominent Soroptimist (a womens’ voluntary organisation similar to the freemasons). She was always happy with my work. She once sent me out for a couple of weeks to audit an unusual business that supplied fish and chip shops throughout the north of England. It was a relief to be working again in central Leeds where there were things to do at lunchtime.

Perhaps when she first moved the practice out of town Miss Huntley imagined a happy band of staff enjoying a beautiful rural setting, but the reality was otherwise. I don’t think any of us liked it there. We were stuck up the back stairs out of the way in the servants’ quarters. I endured it for seven months, none too soon escaping back to Leeds to a post with a large clothing manufacturer. Huntley and Palmer lasted around six more years. The old house is still there, modernised and renovated, converted into serviced office space for a variety of businesses.