MCO-PRE-MCO TPE/Northern Standard Class – There and Back Again

With a week off work that should have involved almost a dozen trains having turned into a week off work with none, I decided to make the most of my evening alone in Manchester and make the quick run up to Preston and back to tick off some stations and compare the operators running on the route, Northern and Trans Pennine Express (TPE).

397012, one of TPE’s class 397s

With wide-ranging strike action resulting in large parts of the British railway network being closed for portions of the week, my trip on the Friday evening was one of the non-strike days, with an almost normal level of service. Our base in Manchester was not far from Oxford Road station, the second busiest station in Manchester behind just Piccadilly and ahead of Victoria by about ¼ million passengers a year.

Whilst Manchester Oxford Road serves just under 8 million passengers a year, Preston, serves just shy of 5 million. With local lines to Blackpool, Ormskirk, Lancashire and the wider north of England radiating out of Preston, the station is a key interchange on the West Coast Mainline (WCML) and with two options to travel between it and Manchester, I decided to try both out.

The standard class table seating onboard TPE’s class 397s

Having opted for the ease of an off-peak return, I was able to take either Northern or TPE in either direction, however the less frequent TPE timetable meant it was more sensible to take them to Preston and return on a Northern service. When a full timetable is running, TPE have one train an hour between Manchester and Preston which continues north to either Edinburgh or Glasgow, whilst Northern run roughly three trains per hour, two to Blackpool North and one to either Barrow-in-Furness or Windemere.

Whilst TPE have begun to mix the routes that their different fleets serve, the routes north along the WCML have generally been served by class 397s in the last few years with my journey north being operated by 397012. The class 397, or ‘Nova 2’ (you can read about my journeys on the ‘Nova 1’ and ‘Nova 3’ here & here) was built by Spanish manufacturer CAF and is part of their Civity family of trains, similar to Northern’s class 195s/331s and the class 196s and 197s being introduced to West Midlands Trains and Transport for Wales respectively. TPE’s class 397s have five carriages with 4 standard class and 1 first class, allowing passengers to opt for a bit more comfort if covering the full 3-and-a-half-hour journey to the Scottish capital.

Coffee & a cake for £3.50 on TPE

Throughout the train there is free Wi-Fi and a mix of ‘airline style’ and table seating, with all first-class seats having a table, along both standard and USB sockets accessible at every seat. The journey from Oxford Road to Preston on TPE is about 30 minutes with no stops, however despite the short trip there is a trolley service due to the longer distance the train itself is travelling. A coffee and a slice of cake cost me £3.50, a very reasonable price when compared to the coffee shops at stations and it gave me a bit more energy for the early evening trip.

TPE was extremely comfortable for the short journey with the only negatives being the less frequent timetable and delays experienced on my journey. The service arrived at Oxford Road seven minutes late and, having missed our path and ending up behind a stopping service, arrived at Preston 12 minutes late making a tight connection even tighter.

Northern’s class 331s operate on the Manchester Airport to Blackpool North route

With just five minutes to change at Preston, I thankfully arrived at the platform just before the Northern class 331 arrived from Blackpool North. These class 331s have either three or four carriages with all standard class seating. As mentioned earlier, these are also built by CAF and so have a lot of similarities with the TPE class 397s, including the layout of the seating and actual seat design. You can read about Northern’s class 331s in more detail here.

Northern also has free Wi-Fi throughout the train, along with standard plug sockets, however unlike the 397s, there are no USB sockets on the 331s. Northern services between Preston and Manchester are semi-fast, serving all the stations between Preston and Bolton along with Salford Crescent and Deansgate. As such, although providing more connectivity, they do take approximately 50 minutes to cover the 21 miles between Preston and Oxford Road.

Table seating onboard Northern’s class 331s

With the services between Manchester Airport and Blackpool North only taking 90 minutes from end to end there are no catering trolleys on the Northern trains, although one is probably desired towards the end of the services to Windemere and Barrow. As such, if you’re travelling beyond Preston from Manchester, it might be worth taking TPE to Lancaster or Oxenholme Lake District and then changing onto Northern for the last stretch of the journey.

Generally there’s not much difference between Northern & TPE, especially with their new trains, however TPE is slightly more comfortable. For the journey between Manchester and Preston, it really doesn’t matter what operator you take, as the quicker journey with TPE is balanced out by the more frequent Northern services. If you know exactly what service you want, you may be able to get an advance ticket, with Northern’s costing a couple of pounds less than TPE, but there’s not a huge difference.


Lounge              0*

Seat/Facilities     4*

Food               2*

Service             5*

Punctuality         4*

Overall Rating      15/25 (read about my rating system here!)


Lounge              0*

Seat/Facilities     3*

Food               0*

Service             5*

Punctuality         5*

Overall Rating      13/25

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