THE ongoing fiasco surrounding rail services across the north of England has thrown the spotlight on the region’s ageing network and outdated diesel trains.

And while new trains on their own couldn’t put an end to the chaos and confusion, many in the region argue that electrification of more lines could have a major impact by modernising the network, future-proofing the service and delivering long-term reductions in operational costs.

Four groups of grassroots rail users last month launched their own campaign to push for further railway electrification across the region. The Electric Railway Charter has been put together by Bradford Rail Users Group (BRUG), Halifax and District Rail Action Group (HADRAG), the Oldham and Rochdale rail users group (STORM) and the Upper Calder Valley Sustainable Transport Group. Their primary aim is to remove diesel trains on the Calder Valley Line, linking Leeds with Manchester and Preston, via both Bradford and Brighouse.

But they appear to be up against it after transport secretary Chris Grayling last year scrapped a 2015 Conservative party manifesto pledge and a raft of electrification plans (in Wales, the Midlands and Cumbria), claiming that bi-mode trains (which run on either batteries and overhead electricity or diesel and electricity) were a better option. He said at the time: “New bi-mode train technology offers seamless transfer from diesel power to electric that is undetectable to passengers. This means that we no longer need to electrify every line to achieve the same significant improvements to journeys, and we will only electrify lines where it delivers a genuine benefit to passengers.”

The Electric Charter campaigners don’t agree. James Vasey, chairman of BRUG, said: “Diesel trains are heavier and more expensive and a move to electrify the Calder Valley Line would bring it in line with the Airedale Line out of Forster Square, which was electrified in the early 2000s.”

Stephen Waring, chairman of HADRAG, said: “Through the Electric Railway Charter we want to unite environmental, operational, business and economic objectives in a campaign for rail electrification. We want a modern railway that provides an alternative to congested roads, and one that fully plays its part in improving air quality and combatting climate change.”

Newspapers across the North – including the Telegraph & Argus – this week joined forces to call on the Government to intervene on behalf of passengers and put together an urgent action plan to deal with the northern rail crisis. Their demands included a call for Transport for the North (TfN) to be given “the necessary policy and financial powers so it can have full oversight of all local, suburban and regional services and work in tandem with Network Rail” because it was “clear our railways cannot be cared for properly from London.”

On the face of it, that would be good news for electrification campaigners. Although it makes no specific pledges on electrification, TfN’s Long-Term Rail Strategy makes it clear that the region’s “rolling stock has not kept pace with passengers’ expectations of quality and contributes to poor air quality in many centres, and global climate change.”

It admits that, even after the delivery of substantial investment in new trains by 2020, “much of the fleet will be diesel powered, which will look increasingly polluting relative to other modes, especially given ongoing changes in the automotive industry.” And its commitment to press on with electrification in the north-west – electrifying the route between Manchester and Preston, and Preston and Blackpool North, to tie-in with the already electrified Liverpool to Manchester and Liverpool to Wigan routes – sets something of a precedent.

Stephen Waring says: “If diesel or bi-mode traction were to be the norm for another generation those polluting trains would still be running when fossil fuel power is coming to an end on the roads. Of course, electrification means major investment, and, like any improvement scheme, some disruption. But, as has been shown, the cost is recouped by operational savings (such as less fuel, less maintenance) and the “sparks effect” of trains that more people want to use.”

Network Rail agrees. According to its website: “Electric trains are better for the environment than diesel trains, and they’re quieter for those on board the train and those living close to the railway.” It says electrification “supports economic growth” and “promotes cleaner, more reliable travel and will help reduce the cost of running and maintaining the railway.”

It’s a lesson already learned in much of Europe where a large percentage of the rail network is already electrified, including the Netherlands (76 per cent), Italy (71), Austria (70), Spain (61), Germany (52) and France (51).

The figure in the UK is just 42 per cent of the network. Arguably, if the UK had not been so slow in taking up electrification of its railways, the north could have been in a far better place to deal with the disruption suffered by thousands of rail users in recent days. Whether the electric railway campaigners can effect sufficient change to make journeys smoother in the future, only time will tell.