Well, march might be pushing it, but we certainly took part in a protest on Saturday against the current state of Northern trains.
When we first moved to Windermere, one reason for choosing the town was the fact that it had a rail station, with reasonable links to the outside world. Trains ran roughly every hour to the nearest mainline station, Oxenholme, and occasionally further afield. That service was run by TransPennine Express, and was quick, clean and above all, reliable. There was the occasional cancelled train due to circumstances beyond TPE’s control, but on the whole the service ran regularly, in all weathers, and provided an invaluable lifeline for us.
Then, about two years ago, the franchise was taken over by Northern Rail. And has been in freefall ever since. The nice, clean modern trains were replaced by terrible old rolling stock that was slower, grubbier, and without functioning air conditioning. (You want air con, you open a window). Journeys took that bit longer, in less pleasant conditions, and the elderly locomotives were forever breaking down.
Added to that, Northern were in dispute with not one but two separate unions, leading to frequent strikes and a general work-to-rule. We approve of the strikes, which are against the withdrawal of guards from all the trains – something we believe will be less convenient and far less safe. But it has started to make the service even more unreliable. And the work-to-rule has led to extra delays in retraining drivers on new routes and new types of train, which Northern were warned about last summer but chose to ignore until it was too late to train everybody up in time to actually, you know, run trains.
The service has staggered along getting less and less reliable. I’ve missed three events already this year thanks to trains that were cancelled at pretty much the last minute, and I’m by no means the only one. And then a vast new timetable was introduced. Before Northern were ready for it, and long before they’d finished training all those drivers. You can imagine the result. In the first few days only around 60% of trains ran on time, to the right stations, with the right number of carriages – assuming they ran at all. Replacement buses were brought in, but took twice as long to get to Oxenholme and often lacked sufficient capacity. Dave, who relies on the line to get him to university in Preston three days a week, gave up on them and drove to Oxenholme instead, which involves a 25 mile round trip and paying £12 a day in parking fees. And then in their wisdom, Northern decided to cancel all the trains between Windermere and Oxenholme for a minimum of two weeks, probably longer, and to run a 100% replacement bus service instead. It’s no wonder they’ve become known as #NorthernFail on every social media platform in the land.
You only have to search Twitter for that hashtag to see how frustrated passengers have become. Many Windermere residents commute to Kendal, Lancaster, Preston and even Manchester via rail. There isn’t a high school in Windermere, so kids need the trains to get them to school in Kendal – not to mention exams. And tourists, the life-blood of the Lake District, are being put off making the journey at all because it’s slow, complicated and unreliable. Just as the main tourist season is kicking off, in the year the whole area was awarded UN World Heritage Status.
To say the locals are unhappy is an understatement. Local MP Tim Farron is incandescent at the way the Lake District is being treated, and has been both supportive and vocal. And on Saturday, he organised one of two separate events, which turned into one mass protest, to show the level of anger in the town. At twelve noon locals were invited to turn up at Windermere station to join a large protest, and two hours later a group led by Mr Farron would set off to walk to Oxenholme station, visiting each of the intervening stations and collecting signatures for a petition along the way.
We wimped out of the march to Oxenholme. It’s a twelve mile hike and the day was boiling hot, and Dave had tweaked a hamstring a couple of days previously. We did, however, turn up at the earlier event (along with around 200 other people), and spent the best part of two hours helping to hand out leaflets, wave placards, and encourage passers-by to sign the petition as well. And given that the replacement buses were decanting passengers right where we were all standing, we managed to get quite a few.
Whether it will make any difference in the end remains to be seen. The replacement bus service has impoved… a bit. There are now more buses per train, and they’re leaving more frequently during the day, although they still take a whopping 45 minutes to drive 12 miles to Oxenholme. And we’ve been assured… by various politicians… and by Northern themselves… that this is a temporary thing. Even so, the two week suspension has now turned into four, and there are worrying rumours that it could be the end of July before we have trains again. But at least we feel we did our bit, and added our voices to the rest. Let’s just hope #NorthernFail were bloody listening…
Even the pet haggis was protesting…