Side Tracked: Stock Cascading & Lazy Journalism

Last night I became mildly enraged as a colleague showed me a report from BBC North West Tonight. The report detailed how First Trans-Pennine would be losing 10 of it’s trains to Chiltern Railways in the South of England. Unfortunately for the usual boring legal reasons I can’t post a clip of the report on this site, but if you’re quick you can watch it on iPlayer here. If you’ve missed the boat then there’s a cut down version on the BBC website here.

“First TransPennine Express is already the most overcrowded train company in the UK and will now lose 13% of its train units.” the report quotes exceptionally misguided John Owen from TravelWatch North West along side such scaremongering lines such as: “North Loses Again”, “outrageous” that trains will be moved from the North to the South of England” and “This is absolutely unacceptable.”

The TV Broadcast version of the report also was quoted to say that “Trans Pennine would lose the equivalent of One Million seats a year” and what’s even worse is “The deficit will be made up by moving trains from the equally crowded Northern Rail.”

Shots were then seen of angry commuters on packed First Trans-Pennine and Northern Rail services with the usual voxpops from Joe Public saying that this is totally unacceptable that the North of England is being royally shafted as Chiltern Railways in the South stand to gain all of their trains.

Well sure, it is totally unacceptable if this is how you spin the report…

Unfortunately for the BBC’s, the explanation of what is happening only tells half the story. I shall now fill you in with the other half…

Current Trans-Pennine Class 170 – Image by James Taylor

Yes, it is completely true First Trans-Pennine will lose 9-10 of their Class 170‘s to Chiltern Railways in the south. However, what the BBC failed to state in that report is that Trans-Pennine have this year gained 10 brand spanking new Class 350‘s. What’s more is the Class 350‘s are formed of 3 car units and the Class 170‘s they are losing are only formed of 2 car units.  So even before I get into the nitty gritty of the report’s failings Trans-Pennine are actually up 10 carriages on this time last year.

So why is everyone getting so upset?

It was suggested last year that when Trans-Pennine received their new Class 350‘s they’d get to keep their exciting stock for use on routes where they suffered from overcrowding. So perhaps this is what is assumed. The televised report then goes on to use shock tactics to suggest that the Class 170‘s Trans-Pennine thought they’d be keeping (although remember this isn’t actually stated) would be replaced with stock taken from Northern Rail – a network and provider also suffering major overcrowding.

‘THIS IS TERRIBLE’ the public say. And yes it would be if you didn’t continue to tell the story.

Inside of New Class 350 – Image by Chris McKenna

Passenger stock is rarely, if ever, moved from one operator or region to another without some brand new stock being introduced somewhere in the chain. This is known as Stock Cascade. It takes place almost constantly on the UK rail network and won’t ever leave a provider short of stock. It’s purpose is only to ever increase capacity or replace stock that has come to the end of it’s life. Trans-Pennine gain 10 bigger brand new trains therefore they are able to release 10 of their smaller units to Chiltern Railways.

Chiltern Railways are at the end of the Cascade chain as they have recently upgraded parts of their network including a new service to Oxford as part of their Evergreen 3 project requiring more trains. This is a relatively small Cascade between only two operators/regions.

So what was all that about stock being displaced from Northern Rail? And what about the surplus stock Trans-Pennine were promised?

In actual fact the Cascade chain goes back further than we thought. The stock movement traces back beyond Trans-Pennine and Northern Rail to First Capital Connect Thameslink and the new Class 700‘s. Confused? Yes, me too. At this point we need a diagram.


Thameslink receives 60 new Class 700‘s. This enables them to pass on (initially) 6 Class 319‘s to Northern Rail, supplemented by 4 new tram-trains to run between Rotherham and Sheffield. Northern Rail are then at a surplus. At this point the information becomes a bit vague and I can’t find out specifically which stock Northern Rail potentially passes on. Presumably it will be the current stock servicing the Liverpool – Manchester via Newton Willows Line (*Class 158‘s) which was electrified late last year. Trans-Pennine would then inherit some of these trains giving them the stock increase they were promised. At the same time Northern Rail would also be able to get rid of or scrap some of their Class 142 Pacer’s which have been in service since the mid 1980’s.

And to prove nobody is losing trains, it’s time for another diagram.


*Initial release of stock from Thameslink will be 6 units which is likely to increase. All calculations based on that minimum.

As you can see, at no point in the chain is anyone losing trains. These figures are a bit loose as it is unclear what stock is cascaded from Northern Rail but any movement of stock would be dictated by how many units Northern Rail receive from Thameslink. Even without stock from Northern Rail, Trans-Pennine do not stand to lose any trains.

The problem with the BBC’s report is despite acknowledging that Stock Cascading exists, they failed to mention any deficit in the chain would be made up from ultimately new stock elsewhere in the country; and that at no point is an operator left short. This is really quite lazy journalism and has likely come about for one of two reasons: Either because they simple didn’t research the full picture, or, to provoke a reaction from the public and misinformed Transport Watchdogs and politicians. Either way the result is pretty poor and uncharacteristically sloppy. Suggesting Trans-Pennine would be losing One Million seats a year, and that 13% of their stock will end up in the South is quite simple wrong. Especially as the new trains they have received are bigger than the ones they lose.

What they really should have highlighted, and perhaps this is what they were indirectly trying to get at, is that Stock Cascading takes years. Far too many years in some cases. Trans-Pennine therefore will not benefit from more units from Northern Rail until they have received displaced stock from Thameslink. So this whole operation hinges on the delivery of the Class 700 which won’t happen until 2018!

Class 700 – Image by Alex Tylee

You might wonder why an operator can’t just keep it’s stock and why cascading has to happen at all. This is in part down to operators not owning all of their stock out right and having to lease trains (normally from the builder of said train) to bolster their fleet. This is a rather complicated byproduct of privatisation which I won’t get into now. The main reason is that there will be a grand government/operator plan of which networks are a priority for the most new trains. In this case it was obviously decided (probably long ago) that Thameslink was higher on the list than Trans-Pennine.

Perhaps the report should have looked into why the southern operators come out of this game better off. Thameslink receives new stock without taking from another provider and Chiltern Railways don’t have to cascade any of their existing fleet to anyone else. The real issue is why the northern networks are forced to shuffle stock around within the cascade whilst the southern region comes out top dog.

– Andy Carter

3 thoughts on “Side Tracked: Stock Cascading & Lazy Journalism

  1. Whilst you make some good points, you have not mentioned that most of the FTPE stock displaced from Manchester-Scotland services by the delivery of 10 new Class 350/4 units is required for the new Liverpool-Newcastle service, the balance to augment existing services. The problem has been caused by an imbalance between letting the free market determine which rolling stock runs where and the DfT sticking it’s oar in, despite claiming that choice of rolling stock is a matter for TOCs. If the latter was really true then the IEPER project would have been killed off in favour of the rather less expensive Pendolinos.

    • I did mention it, only very briefly. I actually think the original BBC report probably intended to look at why the displayed 185s and 170s from the Manchester-Scotland route were being moved to Chilterns instead of the originally promised Liv-Newcastle service. However along the way it became incredibly misguided and misleading.

  2. You failed to mention that all the panic of removing class 170s to Chiltern was the fact that both electric 350s, because the line is not electrified, and 185 diesel units, because they are too heavy, cannot be used on the route where the 170s run, It is for this reason that other diesel units have to be taken from Northern to cover this service operated by TPE.
    Another very valid reason for making a fuss was that expansion of services out of London has caused the North to lose nine of its better quality trains when expansion is needed in the North due to growth but replacement is by cascaded lesser quality and much older unrefurbished cast-offs from the South.


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