On the 14th and 15th of July there will be more trains to and from Bedford than usual. This is because it is the weekend of the Bedford River Festival, held every other year. The regular service on the Marston Vale line is being expanded, as it has been on the River Festival weekend for well over a decade now, with trains running later into Saturday night than usual, and services on the Sunday, when the line is usually closed.
The River Festival is often promoted as the UK’s largest free outdoor event after the Notting Hill Carnival. This is its 40th anniversary year, the event having originally been held to mark the re-establishment of the River Great Ouse as a navigable waterway from Bedford to the coast (it flows into the Wash at King’s Lynn). There’s a detailed history of the river to be written just as much as there is of the railways, although the river’s life as a commercial waterway ended in the 1870s, when the navigation was declared derelict after decades of decline in the face of competition from the railways. Leisure use on some stretches began to spring up in the early twentieth century, and there remained some industrial traffic in places until the 1970s – but only in 1978 was the river once again made navigable through to the coast.
The festival offers a big range of activities and attractions (PDF download): the inevitable stalls of artisan produce are there (as well as more cheap and cheerful fare), plus fairground rides, numerous musical stages, raft and dragon boat races, several boat parades including an illuminated one on the Saturday night, and other water activities – kids can walk on water in those inflatable drum things, for instance. The river and waterways around it also have extra crossing points, in the form of pontoon bridges. The activities extend late into Saturday evening, and wrap up a bit earlier on Sunday, in the late afternoon.
But, by the later afternoon, especially on a warm day, it gets a bit lairy, and more like any other music festival – lads with their tops off, millennials smoking weed. It’s harmless enough, but most festivals aren’t in the middle of mid-sized towns; it all gets a bit Bedford Behaving Badly. The people whose houses around the Castle Road area are lovely places to live for 729 days out of 730 will mostly shutter themselves away and keep their pets indoors.
The boost to the service on the Marston Vale line is helpful in getting people in and out of town from the villages to the south-west, including in the former brickworks area around Stewartby, and further beyond from Bletchley and Milton Keynes (more on how the line came to be in this post). Normally, the service from Bedford starts at 6:10am, with the last train at 10pm, Mondays to Saturdays only. The service is roughly hourly, and definitely sedate: it takes three quarters of an hour to cover around 16 miles of track, using ageing diesel units (a mix of two-coach class 150 and single-coach class 153 Sprinters).
It’s also well known for being unreliable. The trains are not maintained locally, nor are the staff rostered locally, so the line is very vulnerable to mechanical breakdowns and staff illness – neither can be remedied easily when they happen. When cancellations happen, they’re a painful experience – there is very little to do around Bletchley station if you get stuck there for an hour, and even the rather odd ‘American diner’-styled cafe that used to be available to supply an emergency meal or coffee has now closed. In those situations, your best bet is to get a train to Milton Keynes and then the X5 coach across to Bedford (or vice versa in the other direction) – although annoyingly the Delay Repay scheme does not cover you for consequential loss (ie the cost of the coach ticket).
On the Saturday of the River Festival weekend however, possible unreliability notwithstanding, there will be an extra train from Bedford at 11:10pm, allowing people time to catch the illuminated river parade before heading home (though I expect it will be a rowdy journey if the weather’s been good – probably not one best experienced sober). The Sunday trains will run from late morning until the final departure at 5:53pm.
Happily, improvements to the service appear to be coming. The line is bundled in operationally with the commuter and middle-distance services on the West Coast Main Line, which recently passed from London Midland under the previous franchise to the new West Midlands Railway. Confusingly, these services are being run under its West Midlands commuter brand, not its London Northwestern Railway brand, despite the line having been part of the old London North Western Railway that the latter brand apes, and also despite it being nowhere near the West Midlands – hearing talk of West Midlands services over the tannoy at Bedford station is jarring to say the least.
As part of the new franchise, new trains were promised, and they have been confirmed as class 230 diesel multiple units: these are the so-called ‘D-train’, made up of former District Line D-stock trains, taking their power now from diesel generators slung under the carriages rather than the electrified rails of London Underground. ‘Hybrid’ versions of the same trains, with batteries for electric running without wires or third rail, are also being developed and have been ordered for some of the Valleys lines in South Wales. Expect a look at these trains on this blog when they start running on the Marston Vale line later this year.
Longer term, the Marston Vale line will be re-absorbed into East West Rail, the new incarnation of the Oxford-Cambridge ‘Varsity’ line… which may or may not be good news for Bedford. But more of that another time.