Rail community groups' "disappointment" as trains at Castleton and Smithy Bridge set to drop to one an hour

Date published: 08 March 2021

Local rail community groups STORM (Support the Oldham Rochdale Manchester lines) and The Friends of Littleborough Stations have told of their disappointment at a decision to reduce train services at both Smithy Bridge and Castleton railway stations.

An email to stakeholders – seen by Rochdale Online – says that from May, Northern will be changing its timetables “as part of an ongoing process to deliver the best possible service for customers” with the Blackburn to Kirkby service calling at Mills Hill instead of Smithy Bridge.

The move would drop the frequency of trains at Smithy Bridge to one per hour, whilst increasing to two per hour at Mills Hill. Services at Castleton and Moston would “remain broadly hourly.”

Richard Lysons, chair of the Friends of Littleborough Station, said that while passenger numbers have fallen during lockdown, a half-hourly service is needed to keep the train 'relevant to people’s lives'.

He said: “We are disappointed and extremely angry at this news. Smithy Bridge station is normally used by thousands of people each week including commuters; school pupils and students; people attending medical appointments, shoppers, visitors to the lake, families and walkers and cyclists.

“An hourly service relegates Smithy Bridge Station to insignificance. If a train is cancelled or delayed, the poor waiting facilities at the station discourage would-be passengers. Under the previous system of franchising, the Department for Transport insisted on Smithy Bridge having two trains per hour. All that an hourly service will achieve is to encourage people to jump into their cars and drive to Rochdale Station and catch a train or tram there, putting more vehicles on the town's congested roads.

“Even worse, some rail users will resort to using their cars for their entire journey and stop using trains altogether.”

He continued: “As the better weather arrives and with it, hopefully, some relaxation of lock-down, Smithy Bridge Station should be a focus for people wanting to visit the local countryside, as well as using the train to go on shopping trips and days out. We urge Northern and Transport for Greater Manchester to reverse their decision and maintain Smithy Bridge Stations' half-hourly service.”


Castleton railway station


Richard Greenwood, chair of STORM, has similar concerns.

He said: “Despite numerous assertions that the various timetable changes are only temporary, members of STORM believe that the reduction of services at Smithy Bridge and Castleton to a basic one train an hour seems to have every chance of becoming permanent. No West Yorkshire station is reducing and Greater Manchester stations suffer to preserve West Yorkshire services.

“There seems to be something amiss with the timings. Trains are booked to call at Halifax for only one minute but at Hebden Bridge and Todmorden they are allowed two minutes. Why is one minute not sufficient at these two smaller stations if it's sufficient for the much busier Halifax?

“We are also getting reports of the Leeds to Wigan train regularly sitting in Todmorden station for five or six minutes. It is actually booked to wait four minutes if it keeps its scheduled times but often runs a little early. Would not this standing time be better utilised to make a call at a Greater Manchester station?”

The move by Northern has also prompted Councillor Billy Sheerin, of Castleton ward, to write to Northern with his concerns that the one train per hour frequency becoming a permanent change.

In his letter, Councillor Sheerin said: “I am looking for re-assurance that the reduction in the current time table, to one train per hour service to Castleton and Smithy Bridge is only due to the Covid 19 lockdown and Government directives to work from home. This proposed reduction in service is fully understandable.

“What I am concerned about is the possibility of one train per hour timetable commencing in May for a full year (2022) becoming permanent.

“The leader of the Rochdale Council Cllr Allen Brett, together with Mark Robinson, Assistant Director for Strategic Planning at Rochdale Council  have told me that they have been informed by Simon Elliott at TfGM that it is a temporary arrangement and the service will return to two trains per hour in May 2022 or sooner if passenger numbers increase when easing of restrictions occur.

“The reason for my concern is that Castleton and Smithy Bridge are experiencing major growth in new housing and a major attraction to both wards is the main line railway station and the connectivity it offers.

“Also at Castleton Station plans are being explored with Network rail and the East Lancs Heritage light railway to bring a connection alongside the main line which will attract visitors from West Yorkshire and beyond.

“It is vital that there is a reliable and frequent service to both stations which will benefit Northern with increased passenger numbers, and also the commuting public from both wards.

“This is a serious issue for Castleton and Smithy Bridge.”

Responding, Chris Jackson, Regional Director at Northern, said: “As we, along with many other industries, continue to feel the impact of Covid-19 we have had to make difficult decisions about which services we are able to reliably operate. 

“The Calder Valley is an important route for Northern and, though we will maintain a good service during the morning and evening peaks, I completely understand that one train per hour during off-peak may be frustrating for our customers. 

“This is not a decision we took lightly and stakeholders were consulted. We operate on a complex network where even slight changes to a service can adversely impact several others across a large part of the region. By carefully managing the services we operate we can better ensure a reliable and stable service for rail travellers across the north of England.  

Chris added: “We are incredibly proud of the dedication and commitment shown by our colleagues over the past year as we’ve delivered a reliable railway and steadily increased services. We have had to make some very tough decisions which, we understand, will have an impact on some of our customers’ journeys. All customers can rest assured that we are doing all we can to provide the best possible service in what continues to be extremely difficult circumstances.”

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