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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Rail Strike - Bad Timing

Arriva's Northern train operation, along with Southwestern and Merseyrail are operating skeletal services today and on Monday next week. This is because of a strike by the RMT Union protesting against company plans for driver only operation of its trains as further cost saving policies kick in. Timing of the Union action could not be worse as far as Blackpool is concerned as today sees the formal launch of 2017 Illuminations with fanfare and hooplah on the Tower Headland (again),

The promenade will again be subject to traffic closure as will the tram service bedevilled now by the ever more frequent 'events' organised for the benefit of visitors taking over the once public space on the promenade. Consequent rerouting of bus services will be repeating the norm and disrupting travel of the town's residents and businesses (other than the seasonal traders).

Arriva Northern, or whatever the rail franchise operator is called these day, has a seven year deal to run trains across a swathe of the north and northwest. Its plans for the operation of electric trains (overhead power) to Blackpool North from Preston and beyond are now well advanced. Network Rail are busy with track and platform infrastructure adjustment at Blackpool North and its approaches, with overhead masts being erected (at night) along the railway right of way. Cautionary signs have appeared on the main road crossing at level grade at Carleton - warning presence and height of overhead power wiring at the level crossing (the only one on the railway line).

Interestingly whilst Network Rail take responsibility for the track infrastructure and electrification work, they also own the station buildings including Blackpool North built as an addition to the main rail terminal of North Station in the 1930s. However whereas the track and lineside residuals are maintained by Network Rail - the station building itself is leased to the current franchise operator, Northern. The franchise is for a period of seven years I am informed; which means the operator has little if no incentive to make capital improvement or investment in the station itself. Apart from predictable new paint job and revenue earning advertising boards - Blackpool North is set to remain 'frozen in time' as a transport gateway for visitors to the resort.

This suggests that there is an inherent flaw in the original 'Talbot Gateway' scheme which was 'sold' to the public on the basis that the railway station would become a transport interchange hub with smart new building and frontage aligned to new capital projects for the retail site and new Council offices (and reclad Bus Station/Car Park owned by the Council). At least the god awful concrete monolith which greets everyone arriving by bus or train still operating as a 'Wilko' retail outlet and little used car park - is to be torn down and replaced with some vestige of modernity. But the station itself is set to remain as a bland edifice and memorial to 1930s optimism when the resort was experiencing growth and prosperity overall with need for additional platform capacity to handle the vast numbers of 'excursion' trains arriving daily. Given that the operator is in the process of dislodging train guards from its services in a job elimination process of questionable health and safety standards - the company is hardly likely to be embroiled in major refurbishment of a leased property on a seven year tenure. Responses on the back of a postcard please.

Conversely another frozen in time station property on the line is a delightful well maintained asset for Poulton-Le-Fylde. Visited again recently with much flora in bloom this Edwardian era station structure benefits from continuous tlc by local residents and a garden centre sponsor - with obvious results for rail travellers passing through. Not that Blackpool North would benefit from addition of flower pots and foliage surrounding its grim barren and unwelcoming exterior. Even the extension or addition of platform canopies on the extended and straightened alignment is unlikely consigning arriving and departing passengers to the sudden heavy showers and rain squalls which are a seasonal feature of the westerly exposed coastline. Such is the attitude of those responsible for railway improvement and passenger 'comfort' up north.

The road user access into the station 'forecourt' itself equally is an exercise in driver skills given the need for sharp turns across oncoming traffic on an equally sharp bend - complete with unclear road signage to deter the unwary. Hopefully this may be ameliorated within the announced redevelopment of the Wilko site and enhanced pedestrian access from the new tram terminus to be installed there into the station precinct space. We shall see.

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