Pissed off in Bradford

I won’t deny my disappointment with the outcome of the announcement by HM Government of its Integrated Rail Plan [1] in response to the earlier proposal for the Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme [2]. As far as Bradford was concerned it was the prospect of an East / West through-line connection to the mainline network that was encouraging, not simply to improve rail connectivity and the civic self-respect of a decent station but to provide a catalyst for urban regeneration.

The decision not to build a new station in Bradford on a new high-speed line between Liverpool and Leeds feels like yet another lost opportunity in the history of the district’s railways [3]. Previously there had been failed attempts to connect the city’s two rail stations at Forster Square and the Exchange to provide a North / South through line. Even at the beginning of this century there had been a tantalising dream of connecting Forster Square to the Interchange (successor to the Exchange) as an alternative to developing the Broadway shopping centre in between and had the will existed, in my view it would have been the best outcome for the city’s modern rail links.

There has been a lot of emotion on social media about the Government’s rejection of the Bradford proposals as well as about the IRP in general despite the fact that it makes a number of very valid points. The problem is that expectations have been raised to such a degree that disappointment was inevitable once schemes began to be watered down. The NPR team made a strong case in favour of a Bradford rail link and the Government document provides an equally robust outline of why that argument was rejected. Although it is academic (given that the decision has been made) I’d be interested to see  the response of NPR and Bradford Council in respect of the Bradford decision and compare the numbers / costings being quoted. The need for a regeneration strategy remains and if that is not going to come from a centrepiece rail station I’d also like to hear thoughts on what it could now be.

From a travelling perspective I try to use the railways whenever possible and I am pretty fortunate to live within walking distance of Shipley station for direct, electrified connections to London and Leeds. To that extent a new line through Bradford would not have made much difference, a point made in the IRP document which highlighted that 23% of residents in the Bradford district live in the Wharfedale and Airedale centres. Nonetheless, for journeys to Manchester (which I make on a less frequent basis) it could have been useful. The only caveat in respect of the latter destination would have been the ease of getting across to the new Bradford Adolphus St / St James station and for similar reasons I currently opt to travel west via Leeds and avoid the Interchange. The sad reality is that there are also many people who live in the Bradford district –  irrespective of being rail commuters – who have no affinity with the city,  rarely visit and probably wouldn’t even make the effort to do so.

On balance, even though I would have wanted to support the line, I don’t believe that the new station in Bradford would have made a massive impact on my journeys. Besides, in the last 18 months my train travel has dropped considerably through remote working. More telling is that, other than for commuting journeys to or via Leeds (or to/from Bradford FSqu), I can’t have made more than a handful of trips by rail within West Yorkshire during the last decade and hence I can’t see how the new line would have cut down on my car use (which for the record has always been a last resort if travel by two wheels, whether on pushbike or motorcycle, has not been an option).

Whilst Bradford has dismal rail connections the other critical issue is that it’s not easy to drive into or across. The city suffers the legacy of its Victorian footprint and the layout of the historical central township is much the same as that established by 1875, a product of physical geography and unbridled property speculation in what was then a boom town. In the 1880s Bradfordians complained about the difficulty of crossing town, to get from Manningham in the north to Horton in the southwest. I’m not sure it’s much easier now, for example with gridlock and mayhem on Cemetery Road and the inner ring road.

It probably takes as long to get from Allerton to say Wibsey as it does from Bradford Interchange to Leeds on a diesel multiple unit. For all the attention being given to the railways it seems that the difficulty of cross town travel is being overlooked and my suspicion is that the latter is a more pertinent concern to many low income workers in Bradford than the convenience or otherwise of getting to Leeds or Manchester. The anarchy on Bradford’s roads also makes many of them no-go areas which doesn’t help the situation.

I suspect that rail users in the south of the district similarly find Low Moor or New Pudsey to be more convenient than getting into and travelling from Bradford. Notwithstanding, there is no argument otherwise that connections from the centre of Bradford are abysmal and I know from past experience that lines out of the Interchange are painfully slow. The IRP goes some way to redress this through the planned electrification of the line from Bradford Interchange to Leeds via New Pudsey but does nothing to resolve the time taken to travel to destinations west from Bradford via Calderdale (ie to Manchester and Lancashire stations). Quite possibly one day there will be an Ebbsfleet terminal at Standedge with connecting shuttles to/from Bradford, Calderdale and Kirklees.

As regards the Bradford-Leeds electrification proposals, this is a sensible measure and one that has been called for previously. The connectivity also enhances the possibility that Bradford’s surplus of residential flats could provide a solution to housing pressures in Leeds and the fact that electrification will happen sooner than later has to be acknowledged as positive.

On the face of it, the dismissal of the Manchester-Leeds connection via Bradford appears to have been on the basis of the expense of improving journey times and the claim that £18bn would have reduced the Manchester-Leeds journey time by just 4 minutes. Not only that, but the IRP argues the futility of a new line from Manchester via Bradford which would undermine the business case for investment in the existing line via Huddersfield. There are two points to be taken from this. The first is that the IRP is reinforcing the significance of Leeds as West Yorkshire’s rail hub in that improvements for Bradford commuters are based around promised shorter journey times to Leeds and thence to Manchester or London. The second is that the IRP fails to recognise the importance of the Bradford rail project to act as a catalyst for a regeneration programme in Bradford. In the absence of investment based around a rail hub it is vital that an alternative strategy is derived – admittedly easier said than done.

The IRP highlights that options for an underground station in Bradford, a station on the outskirts or one on the site of St James Market (ironically the original site of the historic Adolphus Street station) are all costly and far from ideal. In fact it’s difficult to argue otherwise and with it comes the recognition that Bradford is the victim of its geography, the legacy of prior decisions as well as of Leeds having become established as a regional transport centre and investment already concentrated on the existing Transpennine route via Huddersfield. All of these factors are expensive if not extremely difficult or impossible to overcome. Whilst local sentimentality might demand a Bradford centric solution to the design of a future rail system it’s not going to happen.

Ultimately Bradford’s problems stem from historic under-investment and the fact that the city’s rail connections were gradually dismantled from the 1950s such that by 1985 they were skeletal. Let’s not overlook the cynicism of British Rail management who spared no effort to run down services to/from Bradford and the fact that they were allowed to get away with it. Bradford’s own leadership subscribed to the belief that rail had had its day and the development of the Interchange in the early 1970s is testament to this with a basic rail terminal dwarfed by a bus station (albeit ironic that that has now been diminished in size). Had local rail routes been retained or not built over it might have provided the footprint of a Manchester style light rail Metrolink mass transit system – ie reviving connections at Great Horton, Clayton, Thornton or Denholme as well as Idle and Eccleshill. As for partisan politics, Bradford has been badly served long before now, not only by national politicians but also by its own leaders irrespective of party affiliation.

The IRP endorses the concept of a West Yorkshire Mass Transit Network based around Leeds and the development of a tram network. Ostensibly that will benefit Bradford’s connections with Leeds but I am doubtful whether it is likely to make any impact on travel times from Bradford to Halifax, Huddersfield or Wakefield for example. (Not everyone wants to go to Leeds after all.) The sting in the tail however is that the same tram network will be reliant in part upon the contribution of local taxpayers so expect plenty of controversy on that front in the future.

A final observation on the IRP from a parochial perspective is that for all the focus on speed and travel times it needs to address the perennial frustration of rail commuters in respect of train reliability, capacity and frequency or indeed, fares. For example my distinct impression is that connections to/from Bradford Forster Square on the Airedale line typically get the crappy stock and I have heard horror stories about breakdowns in and out of the Interchange. The concern of course is that the new high profile lines elsewhere will get the shiny new trains. Finally I am surprised that there has been no talk of the Skipton-Colne line being revived as an option which could have been helpful for Keighley and Airedale based commuters but that is another matter. 

It brings us back to that billion dollar question. What is to become of Bradford? If regeneration is not going to be driven by a new rail station then what is the plan? The new Odeon alone will be insufficient. In truth I’m not sure what the future holds for Bradford, a city that I remain committed to emotionally (as an eighth generation member of a family that can trace its roots to pre industrial Bradford in the early nineteenth century) and financially (as a home owner and ratepayer). I’m not intending to retire to the shires, opine on matters from afar and make the occasional visit to Bradford for a football match but to spend the rest of my time here.

Yet the reaction of my heart differs to that of my head and it is impossible to deny that in many respects Bradford is not so much a sink city as opposed to sunk. Having worked across the UK I can see for myself the extent to which the city has fallen behind in the last twenty years, not only in terms of wealth but in its outlook. You need only walk the streets of BD1 to see the depressed state of the place. Yet amidst the urban decay there are so many fine buildings and green spaces as my own photography attests. The Detroit of England?

Winning the city of culture award for 2025 now seems vital to safeguard the city and drive regeneration. Admittedly, setting aside the rose tinted spectacles, I question the genuine cultural credentials of Bradford to win the prize because in many respects it is a cultural desert. Nevertheless Bradford needs the award, if only to gain some confidence and to establish a new culture of positivity and pride in the district. Levelling up in Bradford has more to it than rail links – important as that may be – but it remains one hell of a challenge to which answers are still needed.

John Dewhirst

November, 2021

[1] Link here for the Dept of Transport Integrated Rail Plan document (November, 2021)

[2] Transport for the North Northern Powerhouse Rail proposals (June, 2021)

[3] On this blog, the story here of the saga for a cross-town rail line in Bradford

Thanks for visiting my blog. You will find content primarily about the history of football in Bradford as well as football book reviews and ad hoc features about the history of the city and from this link, about its railways. Refer to the menus above.

I am a keen photographer and you will find my photos of Bradford and other places / things of interest on my Twitter account @jpdewhirst