In the second of two features, Daniel Holland reports from Spain on the first glimpse of Northern Rail’s new fleet of trains...

WHILE the sight of their gleaming new train fresh off the production line represents a major success for Northern Rail bosses, serious questions remain over when Bolton will see the benefits.

And as a cloud of uncertainty continues to linger over Network Rail’s work to electrify the borough’s main railway line, the message is clear: there are no guarantees when it comes to a timescale.

When pressed for an answer on when the faster and bigger trains will arrive in Bolton, Northern’s deputy managing director, Richard Allen, admitted that he cannot give a concrete answer.

He said: “Bolton has had a tough time of it, there is no question about that, with the planned engineering work in the tunnel at Farnworth and other unplanned work – the repairs at Moses Gate.

“It is an extremely busy corridor and an important one for us. Bolton customers deserve and need more.

“We are working really hard to improve that. I don’t think things will get immediately better in the short term over the months ahead.

“The timetable change that was planned to be delivered in May 2018 will take longer as Network Rail’s electrification work continues, so we are looking at what can be achieved in the course of 2018.

“Please bear with us, we are working hard in the background. We know things are not as good as they should be or as good as Bolton deserves and all I can say is that the quality of trains – judging by what I have seen here – is improving.

“But that improvement will be in 2019 and 2020. It is a while away but it is coming.”

The past few years have been full of frustration for rail passengers in Bolton.

Works to expand the Farnworth Tunnel in preparation for the electrification works drastically reduced services throughout much of 2015.

The reinstating of the disused platform five at Bolton station was the cause of a two-week shutdown of the station last summer, before a burst water main at Moses Gate added to the chaos on the town’s transport network.

Meanwhile, passengers in Bromley Cross and Hall i’th’ Wood — whose railway line is not being electrified — have repeatedly complained of being crammed into severely overcrowded carriages of even left stranded on the platform.

Network Rail had set a date of December 2017 to complete electrification work between Manchester and Preston — an improvement that will allow Northern to operate its new high-tech trains and enable TransPennine Express to reroute its Scottish services back through Bolton.

Having first put back that target date to May of this year, the deadline has been pushed back even further to December — a delay blamed on the poor ground conditions encountered by engineers.

But even that date is not set in stone, much to the frustration of Northern Rail bosses who are desperate to deliver on their promises of improved services.

Mr Allen said: “In terms of December 2018, we can’t confirm what is going to happen. It all depends on how Network Rail gets on with re-planning their electrification works, so it is too early to say what will happen and I don’t want to make a commitment.

“I would rather come out with the facts when we know them, because it has been deeply frustrating to have to change the plans. To tell customers one thing and then have it be delayed is not good enough.”

The decision to re-direct the Scottish service away from Bolton via Wigan in 2013 sparked The Bolton News’ Let’s Get Back on Track campaign.

We delivered a petition with more than 1,000 signatures to 10 Downing Street, after which Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to put an extra 200 seats on the morning rush-hour services.

Since Arriva took control of the Northern Rail franchise in 2016, promises to improve services for passengers across the Bolton borough have been frequent.

And while they are yet to be fully delivered on as of February 2018, the hope is that the face of Bolton’s transport network — already boosted by the opening of the £48 million town centre interchange last year — will look very different come 2020, when the dreaded pacer trains must be taking off the tracks.

Mr Allen added: “We had an indicative idea of what we would do with the new diesel and electric trains a couple of years ago when the franchise started. We are now reviewing that in light of the electrification works.

“In terms of the broad investment across the North, the investment is being made in new trains. And if you are on a line that doesn’t get the new trains, it will be a fully-upgraded trains.

“The pacers are going. They have been the backbone of the fleet for 30 years and represent about one-third of our trains overall, but they have to go by January 2020. Over the next 24 months we have a lot of work to do to put all of the pieces together for the new trains and from 2020 you will see that step change in quality on every route that we run.”