Lancashire have quietly beavered away with their EU Citizens Rail project to provide a new hourly train service to Manchester appropriately from Manchester Road station, and have funded a new ticket office. Externally it is functional and a bit ugly; clearly not the ‘attractive and iconic gateway to the town’ promised in the brochure. And no sign of the promised ‘coffee cart’. But definitely an improvement on no building; at least you can wait in the dry. The open cycle racks and locked wheelie bin compound shows the comparative priority given to waste and cyclists. The forecourt is overdesigned and over-engineered - a lot of cash has gone into making life difficult for pedestrians in an unimaginative, 1980s way. It’s hard to resist the conclusion that a better job was possible for half the money.
There is no sign of a bus stop (apart from an old one on the otherwise untouched Blackburn platform), so it’s a walk into town. The diagrammatic map at the station is confusing and must have cost more than one of the good commercial versions now universal in London. There is the inevitable pedestrian-hostile roundabout. Then a nice canal-side development (visitor centre closed), and evidence of Burnley’s proud past with a lovely Victorian town hall and theatre. But opposite, the unpleasant 1960s Chaddesley House shows the extent of Burnley’s architectural and social decline. Occupied, but barely maintained by social services, at least there is a Wetherspoon’s a few doors down to cope with the fallout. In the middle distance are views of a vast Tesco Extra that has hollowed out the town centre. It seems only the football club has performed well in Burnley in the last couple of decades.
I take the new train. Every hour a 30 year old diesel takes a leisurely 53 minutes for less than 30 miles. The train dawdles and then stops and inches gingerly across the new single track ‘Todmorden Curve’. We pick up speed into Manchester, but driving is quicker most times of the day, and certainly cheaper if you are on your own - £12 return in the peak, or £10 if you can. If you want to continue your journey by Metrolink you will need a new ticket; by bus there is theoretically ‘plusbus’, but you have to buy it at the same time as the rail ticket and understand pages of confusing conditions. For instance, it claims to be valid throughout Greater Manchester, but the validity maps only show central Manchester. Very, very few people use Plusbus.
This is the Northern Powerhouse, or Northern Powercut as it has been dubbed now electrification plans are on hold. But what should we aspire to, what could we reasonably achieve and what should we settle for under the current circumstances?
I think we can agree that Lancashire have done their best, providing a new station building and rail service at a time when resources are difficult to find and spare diesel trains are scarce; they have brought in European funding, and perhaps more importantly expertise. But I think we can all agree that we can and should do better.
A German service between comparable towns in, say the Ruhr or in The Netherlands in the Raandstaat would have modern, airy stations served by up to six modern electric trains every hour. Bus and tram connections would be available at both ends and included in the ticket price and they would even wait for the train, but you might not need them as the train would probably continue in a tunnel under the city to your destination. Station would have ample cycle parking, there would be good cycle and walking maps, cycle hire and certainly and safe and convenient cycle routes.
Maybe we can’t have all this now, but Scotland (5 million people) has improved and electrified railways and even built the 30 mile new Borders Line. Compared to this, Greater Manchester and Lancashire (bit over 4 million) has done little apart from build Metrolink tram lines - which are fine, but not really a solution for longer journeys. There isn’t any integrated ticketing worth mentioning even though Manchester owns the tram network. Of course Scotland is not perfect – the Edinburgh tram problems show this, but with a devolved Government, at least they have a choice while the northwest has the odd scrap thrown by the Treasury. With the cancellation of Trans-Pennine electrification, perhaps 30 year-old trains and 30mph is the way forward for Burnley in the foreseeable future. I hope not.