How the railways came to Bedford

Bedford’s railways at their full extent – click for larger view. Copyright Bedford Rail.

The plan is for this blog to feature articles on various historical aspects of the railways in Bedford. What I hadn’t intended to do was a simple ‘history of the railways in Bedford’ – but realistically, some future articles will be a bit difficult to write without some reference material for the basics. So here’s a very potted history, for future reference as much as anything.

Interestingly, not much seems to have been written about the railways in and around Bedford – tons of stuff (books and pamphlets) gets written by and for railway enthusiasts, but Bedford only seems to be featured as a stop on the Varsity / Marston Vale line, or a stretch of the Midland Main Line; Bedfordshire as a county often gets written about, but the county town is seldom if ever considered in its own right – despite having in the past been a reasonably substantial junction.

The Marston Vale Line: Bletchley to Bedford
Looking at the rail network now, it can be tempting to assume that the main routes were built outwards from London. But really the opposite is the case – the network developed in the provinces and wound their way into the capital, and the way in which they did so is key to understanding how Bedford came to get the lines it did.

The other surprise may be that in Bedford and many other places the first railways to arrive were not those running north-south to London, but those running east-west (the same was also true in Northampton, for instance). And this isn’t the contradiction with the point above that it might at first appear to be.

After the Liverpool and Manchester Railway proved the concept of passenger train travel between major population centres in 1830, a bubble erupted of railway companies seeking to build new lines – the period of so-called ‘railway mania’. The first line into London, the London and Birmingham Railway, opened in 1838 – today it’s the lower end of the West Coast Main Line (WCML), as operated by Virgin among others. At Birmingham, it joined up with a second line, opened by the Grand Junction Railway Company, that connected Birmingham to Warrington (and then onto the Manchester and Liverpool line) – again, still open today as part of the WCML. Effectively these two lines joined up to create the main line we know today, and in 1846 the companies merged to form the London and North Western Railway (LNWR), which was to last as one of the biggest railway companies in the country until the 1920s.

The Harpur Suite, originally the Bedford Rooms, where the public meeting that spawned Bedford’s first railway was held in 1844. Adapted from a photo by Jim Linwood on Flickr under Creative Commons licence CC BY 2.0 and available for reuse under the same.

The LNWR’s line remained the only railway into London from the North for some years, and this determined the pattern of the first two lines to reach Bedford. When demand for a railway serving Bedford emerged in the town, it was not for a line to London, but rather for a line to supplant the well-used coach service that was at that time connecting the town with the existing line to London. The public meeting to form a company was held in 1844 in the Bedford Rooms, a classical building that became the town’s library in the 1890s, before being transformed to its current use as an entertainment and function venue in 1972 – stand-up comedians who can’t quite sell enough tickets to play the Corn Exchange will find themselves playing the building where demand was first raised for a railway to Bedford.

George Stephenson, now best known for his locomotive Rocket, engineers many early railway lines – including the one between Bedford and Bletchley.

The route suggested at the meeting went from Bedford to Wolverton, where the London and Birmingham had established its locomotive works. But inspection of the proposed route by George Stephenson, commissioned to build the line, led him to propose a route to Bletchley, five miles south of Wolverton, instead. Work started in September 1845, and the line opened in November 1846, by which time the LNWR had been formed, and therefore became the company that operated the services.

Perhaps ironically, the stretches of railway today commonly called the ‘Varsity line’, connecting Oxford and Cambridge, seem likely to be re-opened (as East-West Rail) in the same sequence in which they were originally built. After the Bedford-Bletchley route was opened, a line was built to extend it from Bletchley to Oxford in 1851, and the line was finally extended from Bedford east to Cambridge in 1862. But the ‘Varsity line’ was not planned or built as a single line – and in fact services mostly ran from Oxford to Bletchley and Cambridge to Bletchley for many decades. The central section, from Bletchley to Bedford, was not only the original element, but survived multiple attempts at closure from the 1950s to the 1970s. The sections of line either side, including from Bedford to Cambridge, were closed to passenger traffic at the end of 1967.

The Midland Main Line: Leicester to Hitchin via Bedford, and Bedford to London
Connections with routes to London also shaped the arrival in Bedford of the busiest line to serve it today: the Midland Main Line, running south to London and north to the East Midlands and Sheffield, and operated by East Midlands Trains and (south of Bedford) Thameslink.

The line was built by the Midland Railway, which had formed in 1844, the same year as the Bletchley line was first mooted in Bedford, out of three companies that had built railways connecting Nottingham, Leicester, Birmingham and Derby. The merger was driven by the notorious George Hudson, the ‘railway king’ of the early days of the network’s expansion, who became influential by developing processes that allowed for railway schemes to be established using standard paperwork, and also created for apportioning fares as different companies’ trains used each others’ lines. This was in the 1840s, when the railway-building bubble was hitting its peak – in 1846, 272 Acts of Parliament authorising new railways were passed (many of them not built of course). Hudson left the scene when it emerged that he was massively corrupt, but the Midland Railway continued to develop and expand. It took it a good while to reach Bedford, however.

Until 1857, the Midland’s trains reached London via a connection with the LNWR’s route – requiring them to head south-west from the East Midlands before turning towards the capital. As well as the route being indirect, it forced the Midland’s trains to take second priority to the LNWR’s own services. However, by this time the LNWR’s route was no longer the only line into London, so the Midland decided to solve its problem by building an extension to another line – the Great Northern Railway, whose route is now the southern part of the East Coast Main Line (the route recently switched from Virgin Trains to the new operator LNER, itself a revival of the name of the London and North Eastern Railway, into which the Great Northern was forcibly merged in 1923 – following this?). The extension started from the Midland’s line at Wigston, south of Leicester, and ran to Market Harborough, Kettering, Wellingborough, Bedford and on to Hitchin, where it joined the Great Northern. From there, passengers either continued direct to King’s Cross, or had to change trains.

For the first couple of years, the Midland’s trains to Bedford used the LNWR’s station, Bedford St Johns, before it opened its own station. This was known as Bedford Midland Road until 1978, when the old building was demolished and today’s station was opened, slightly north of the original site, simply as ‘Bedford’ (more on Bedford’s stations in future articles). To this day, the three-letter code for Bedford station as used in national systems is BDM, the ‘M’ reflecting its former name and Midland Railway origins.

Poster showing the Midland Railway’s network at its full extent – the nexus of lines around Birmingham, Derby, Nottingham and Leicester is evident; the line from Bedford to Hitchin was by this time so minor as not to merit inclusion on a simplified map.

Back in 1857, the two lines crossed each other ‘on the level’. This led to a notorious accident in which two trains collided on the crossing, both of them driven by men called John Perkins. The Midland eventually constructed a flyover for its line – it can still be seen crossing the Marston Vale Line very close to the park and ride at Elstow.

The Midland’s problem of reaching London by connecting with another company’s line soon re-emerged under this new arrangement, and in 1863 the railway obtained an Act to allow it to build a route from Bedford to London, via Luton and St Albans. The line opened in 1868, running to St Pancras, which stole the record for the world’s largest single-span arched roof from the original Birmingham New Street station. At the same time, a link was included to the City Widened Lines, and through services from Bedford to Moorgate featured in the timetable most of the time subsequently.

This left the stretch from Bedford to Hitchin, previously a main line, reduced to a relatively minor branch line. It carried on in this form for nearly a century, and was eventually closed in 1961.

Although no new lines were built between Bedford and London, the range of destinations served by trains heading south from Bedford expanded in the 1980s shortly after the line south of Bedford was electrified in 1983: from 1988 the services to along the City Widened Lines became part of the Thameslink scheme introduced through trains from Bedford to Brighton (trains to Moorgate eventually ended entirely when the platform extensions at Farringdon, necessary to accommodate 12-coach trains, cut off the junction to the Moorgate branch). But really that’s a story about London’s infrastructure and politics, not Bedford’s.

The Cobbler Line: Bedford to Northampton
The line from Bedford to Northampton was a relatively late addition: proposals to link the towns first emerged in 1845, only a year after the first moves to build the line to Bletchley. But the company that was created eventually collapsed having made no progress, and a second scheme in 1864 foundered when landowners made obstructively high demands for the land on the proposed route. Further acts were passed in 1866 and 1867, and the line eventually opened in 1872 as the Bedford and Northampton Railway, being folded into the Midland in 1885. It lasted for 90 years, being closed to passenger traffic in 1962.

Corby

The Midland Main Line through Bedford, with the line through Corby also highlighted. Extract from a map by Open Street Map, under licence CC BY-SA and available for reuse under the same.

Although the line carrying services between from St Pancras, through Bedford and on to Corby wasn’t built with that particular pattern of services in mind, the route’s significance to current and future service patterns means it should probably be covered here. Corby sits on an alternative route off the Midland Main Line north of Kettering, also going through Oakham and Melton Mowbray. Corby station opened in 1879, but the whole line lost its passenger services in 1967. A shuttle service between Kettering and Corby operated between 1987 and 1990, and services recommenced properly in 2009 as part of the East Midlands franchise that is currently coming to an end, variously as through services to London and, in some cases, as a shuttle to Kettering. As these Corby services appear likely to be the main source of fast trains from Bedford to London in the future, this may turn out to have been a much more important re-opening than was recognised at the time – but more of that in future posts.

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4 thoughts on “How the railways came to Bedford

  1. Very well researched and written article. I’ve often thought of writing something about the history of Bedford’s railways, but I don’t think I can do better than this!
    One query though – surely the flyover at the Elstow P&R was built for the new St Pancras line, and not a replacement for the flat crossing at Bedford St John’s – which I think (but could be wrong) remained in place until the branches closed? The text as written isn’t wrong, but could be read as implying the flyover replaced the flat crossing.

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    1. Thanks Tom! Glad you enjoyed it. I think your interpretation is probably right, though the reading I did (slightly surprisingly) pointed to the Midland and LNWR lines also originally crossing on the level. Looking at the lines as they are now it doesn’t really ring true, but I couldn’t find sources to nail that down. I’m planning to do more historical articles in the future so might try and revisit it…

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