The East Midlands franchise and the future of Bedford’s express trains

This article follows the previous one looking at why Bedford lost its peak services – the first part of the triple whammy that is hitting rail travellers to and from Bedford. The second part – the dreadful failure of the new Thameslink timetable – has been unpicked and explored amply in many places, and parliamentary and ORR inquiries are in progress. That leaves us the third part: the loss of long-distance intercity services as proposed in last year’s consultation on the new East Midlands franchise.

As we saw last time, the three issues are in fact deeply intertwined, with the short-term loss of the peak express services being a by-product of the failure to plan properly for the expanded Thameslink service and the failure to deliver the infrastructure improvements that will ultimately change the pattern of services on the Midland Main Line (MML). So let’s recap what that change involves.

Illustration in the 2016 report for DfT by Atkins of the proposed service pattern, splitting Bedford and Luton off into the Corby services and sending the long distance expresses through non-stop (NB the detail here is not exactly as proposed in the ITT). Click for larger view.

Currently two East Midlands express services call at Bedford per hour in each direction (bar in the peaks). Generally one of these is a St Pancras – Corby service, while the other runs between St Pancras and a long-distance destination, either Nottingham or Sheffield. There are three further express trains per hour that do not stop at Bedford, but run between St Pancras and those long-distance destinations, giving a total of five trains per hour (tph) in each direction on the Midland Main Line.

The proposal in the 2017 consultation was to add one more train per hour, giving six in total, of which two continue to call at Bedford. But, crucially, those two trains will both be Corby services, while the long-distance trains go through Bedford non-stop. I’m going to refer to that plan as the Corby split. It would mean that anyone wanting to travel between Bedford and anywhere north of Kettering (where the line to Corby branches off from the main line) would have to change at least once (at Kettering), and possibly twice, most commonly at Leicester (if they want to go to Derby / Sheffield but picked up a Nottingham train at Kettering, or vice versa). This is a substantial loss of connectivity to and from the North.

This post mainly reviews the Department for Transport’s response to the consultation exercise, and the Invitation To Tender (ITT) it has issued as a result. But before we get into the details of that, a few basics. The current franchise, run by East Midlands Trains, is intended to continue until August 2019. The new franchise will run for eight years, with an option for the Government to add another two. There are three shortlisted bidders: Abellio East Midlands, Arriva Rail East Midlands, and Stagecoach East Midlands Trains, the incumbents.

The ITT sets out two tiers of criteria for bidders to be judged against. The first are straightforward requirements – things that the franchisee must deliver, as a minimum. However, the franchisee will be allowed to go over and above those requirements, so the second set of criteria are specific areas in which the Government will judge bids favourably if they can deliver strongly. This will be significant in several areas.

Finally, before we get into what the services will look like, we need to remember it’s about more than just the ITT for the new franchise. Network Rail’s plans for its next phase of investment and infrastructure work (Control Period 6) confirm that funding is available to upgrade the electric wires between Bedford and St Pancras, which do not currently allow electric trains to run at the 125mph that the existing diesel trains are capable of (the top speed currently is 100mph, also the top speed of the trains used by Thameslink). The significance of that will become clear when we get to thinking about new rolling stock.

Additionally, CP6 also includes provision – but not funding – for a new station at ‘Wixiams’. This appears to be a typo for Wixams, about three miles south of Bedford – the likely site of a new ‘Bedford South Parkway’ station on East West Rail (the reopened ‘Varsity Line’ linking Oxford and Cambridge, though see here for why that’s misleading). If built, the Parkway / Wixams station will provide interchange between East West Rail and the Midland Main Line, with the former on a new alignment, by-passing Bedford to the south on its way over towards Cambridge. This will, if it happens, remove yet another service from Bedford’s rail users. Again, we’ll come back to that.

The future pattern of services
So, have we succeeded in fighting off the Corby split? No. It’s confirmed in the ITT. So, under the new franchise intercity trains will eventually call at Bedford again in the peak (2tph all day, as it used to be); but they will not be direct services to Sheffield and the East Midlands – for those long distance services, passengers will have to change at Kettering, and in some cases again at Leicester. The major degradation of connectivity to the north is happening.

The East Midlands franchise area, as shown in the ITT. Click for larger view.

This isn’t really surprising. As we saw last time, the Corby split has been in the works since at least 2012, and reducing journey times for the long distance trains by cutting out southern stops is seen as crucial both to the value for money of the MML upgrade (albeit the electrification has been reduced), and for unlocking demand for those services from further north. The number-crunchers have calculated that the increase in long-distance passenger flow between London and the East Midlands / Sheffield outweighs any damage caused by Bedford and Luton being cut out of those long distance services. The consultation hasn’t persuaded the Department for Transport otherwise, probably because that calculation is most likely correct.

It’s worth remembering, as the map in the ITT makes clear, that Bedford is at the southern periphery of a large and complex area. Indeed, the document identifies four markets that it covers:

  • Intercity services along the Midland Main Line, connecting Nottingham, Sheffield via Derby and Leicester to London St Pancras
  • London commuter services into London St Pancras stopping at Corby, Kettering, Wellingborough, Bedford, Luton and Luton Airport Parkway
  • Inter-urban services linking a number of major towns and cities between Liverpool and Norwich
  • Local and regional services centred on Nottingham, Derby and Lincoln but also serving a large number of smaller, rural locations.

In some ways, the Corby split at least allows the needs of the commuters at the southern extreme of the franchise to be identified as a core market in their own right, rather than the afterthought that they have seemed recently. But it’s also worth noting the objectives for the franchise, the first of which is: “Support the Government agenda to make the Midlands region an engine for growth, working particularly to develop connectivity within and outside the region; to focus on supporting the region’s industry and leisure economy.” What’s happening to services to and from Bedford, therefore, needs to be understood in that context.

That’s important when examining another disappointing aspect of the ITT – indeed, if we take the Corby split as read for a moment, this is much worse. The calling pattern of long-distance services at Kettering will make interchange between those services and trains serving Bedford very poor: only one long distance train per hour will be required to stop at Kettering, so anyone needing to change for Bedford, or for stations north from Bedford, could face a significant extra wait, depending on the exact timetable. Presumably also one of the two trains per hour from Bedford to Corby will be significantly better patronised than the other, as it will offer the better connection at Kettering. Now, to be fair the ITT says ‘at least one’ train per hour, so the eventual franchisee could run more – but really they should be required to. In many ways, this poor level of interchange is a bigger slap in the face than the Corby split itself – it’s one thing to make that change, but something else to make so little effort to mitigate the worst of its effects.

So, what will the actual pattern of services calling at Bedford be? The ITT sets out three distinct phases for this:

  1. ‘TSR0’, from August 2019 to December 2020 – this is essentially the current pattern of services, subject to any further change in May 2019, with generally at least one long distance service (ie to / from Sheffield or Nottingham) calling at Bedford per hour, notwithstanding the peak withdrawals
  2. ‘TSR1’, from December 2020 to December 2021 – this is when the Corby split is first implemented and Bedford loses most of its long-distance services, but before the new bi-mode trains are introduced (in theory – more on that later)
  3. ‘TSR2’, from December 2021 onwards, after which the bi-modes are meant to be introduced.

In fact, as far as Bedford goes there is no difference between the period from 2020 to 2021 and the period after 2021 that I can see (I’m not going to go through the service pattern in TSR0, as it will be basically the same as now). So, over and above the two Corby trains per hour throughout the day (pretty much), what crumbs will Bedford be left with? On weekdays, Bedford will be served only by Corby services except for one northbound long-distance service before 7am, and two northbound long-distance services between 7am and 10am. No southbound long distance services will call at Bedford. That is according to the proposed service pattern, anyway; the ITT states, “we are also requiring peak time calls at stations between Leicester and Bedford in the counter-peak direction, maintaining some direct journeys,” but if this is intended to mean long-distance services calling at Bedford southbound in the evening, it’s not apparent in the detail of the specification.

At weekends, the loss of the long distance services is not so comprehensive. On Saturdays during this period, there will be half a dozen long-distance services calling northbound at Bedford, but only at either end of the day (two before 7am, three between 7 and 10am, and one after 10pm). Southbound, there will be one long distance train before 7am and two after 10pm. On Sundays, it appears that there will be at least one long distance service per hour calling at Bedford in each direction, which is similar to now – so Sundays are the major exception to the general picture of downgraded long-distance connectivity. In fact, it looks like Corby will mostly only be getting one train per hour on Sundays, leaving the new path on the MML unused for one day a week – though there is a note that a couple of extra Corby trains should slotted in over and above the ones specified in the tables given as part of the ITT.

A few other stipulations are worth noting. Firstly, among the ‘bonus’ criteria on which bidders will be judged, they will score credit for bringing forward proposals to reinstate the peak services specifically between Wellingborough and Bedford to replace the current bus service, “as soon as reasonably practicable.” Presumably this means they’re looking for a way to do it before the Corby split is implemented in December 2020 and the Corby trains start running in the peaks anyway.

Elsewhere, the Thameslink tail continues to wag the East Midlands dog. Paths for other operators must be respected as they appear in the (now failed) May 2018 timetable. Bidders can propose some flexing of Thameslink timings, but not if it involves the time at which they enter or leave the ‘core’ section of Thameslink through London, and not by altering or swapping which services go to which destinations. Given that it was the inability of the Thameslink timetable to accommodate a full East Midlands service that scuppered the peak services in the first place, this could still store up problems – though in theory the addition of the sixth path per hour on the MML should mean it won’t be as bad.

Franchise finances and structure
There are a couple of interesting points about how the ITT describes the structure of the franchise arrangement. The first is to do with how different aspects of the bid are weighted when the Department comes to score them: Philip Haigh (to whose expertise I defer here) set out an analysis in Rail 855 that DfT is weighting the calculations in favour of premium payments made by the franchisee to the Government (weighted heavily) rather than quality of plans (weighted lightly). This franchise therefore appears to carry the potential for encouraging over-bidding as has been seen elsewhere, and therefore of the franchise collapsing if revenues don’t meet the levels needed for the operator to make the premium payments (as happened to Virgin Trains East Coast). It remains to be seen whether the DfT officials have learned the lesson and will be sceptical of over-bidding (and likewise whether the bidders will have taken note).

The second feature may in fact not exist. In his foreword Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Transport and therefore the man with ultimate responsibility for the railways, however much he might wish to deny it, says that the franchise, “will be delivered through a brand new collaborative partnership between the next operator and Network Rail. This will include joint initiatives to ensure that both organisations work together to put the passenger first, delivering a more reliable, efficient railway for passengers and the taxpayer.” So far, however, details of this new model, reuniting the train-track divide instituted by privatisation, have not emerged, and as far as I’m aware the whole thing exists only in Mr Grayling’s imagination.

Rolling stock – bi-modes
As an aside, there will be extra points for, “Bids that include proposals for occasional use on the national network of heritage traction and rolling stock, for example to augment capacity to serve special events, to provide a special standard of customer experience, or to commemorate significant events.” So we should continue to see the occasional steam train through Bedford, and maybe even a few more.

But what about brand new trains? For the long-distance services that will occasionally call at Bedford, the ITT insists on new bi-mode trains. They will operate on electric power when running through Bedford, but will need to use their diesel motors when they’re north of Kettering, beyond the electric wires. This is of course stupidly inefficient, as they will need extra power to lug their diesel engines around when on electric power, and extra fuel to lug their electrical equipment around when on diesel power. But that’s a done deal after Mr Grayling’s cancellation of the full electrification scheme – for now, at least.

Crucially, these trains will be required to match the performance of the current class 222 ‘Meridian’ diesel trains. These are, in this sense, the best diesel units currently operating in the country – they can cruise at 125mph and their acceleration rivals many modern electric units. Although bi-mode trains are being built for the Great Western Main Line, and some are already in service, they cannot currently match Meridian performance when on diesel power – their acceleration certainly isn’t as good. Indeed, they are struggling to stick to timetables devised for the much older Intercity 125s, whose acceleration is much more laggardly than the Meridians’. This is because bi-modes can’t have a diesel generator under every coach in the way that a regular express diesel unit would – they need some of their under-floor space for electrical equipment too.

The rail press has widely reported that no bi-mode train is currently capable of meeting the ITT’s requirements, and while developing one may well be feasible with current technology, it is doubtful that it can be done by December 2021, when the ITT requires at least one of the new trains to be available for testing, or by April 2022, when the first train is required to be introduced to passenger service. A future article will look at the proposals being made by various manufacturers for these trains, but it’s enough for now to say that the current Meridians and HSTs are likely to remain in service on the MML beyond 2022 (assuming a derogation for the HSTs under the disability regulations, as previously outlined).

Rolling stock – EMUs for the Corby services
Given that most of Bedford’s services will be Corby trains, these are probably of greater interest here. Unlike the long distance services, there will be able to run entirely under electric wires, so the ITT specifies that they must be electric multiple units, and in service from December 2020 when the electrification works will be complete. It also specifies that they must provide, “a level of passenger comfort and amenity that is identified by stakeholders, including such things as an appropriate mix of tables, at seat power, appropriate luggage space and appropriate door configurations…” In other words, we should at least avoid the mistakes of the uncomfortable and under-specified class 700s that now operate Thameslink services.

Another interesting point is that these trains must be capable of Driver Only Operation (DOO). I find it a bit hard to imagine that these services would be run without a member of on-board staff, but it could be that that person will not be allocated traditional guard duties, including responsibility for notifying the driver that the train is ready to proceed after stopping at a station. But the unions might have a thing or two to say about that.

However, the ITT does not specify that these trains must be new. There are numerous fleets of electric units currently due to go off-lease from their current duties quite soon, several of which would be plausible candidates to be used on these services. The fact they’re not new, and that there’s a bit of a glut of them, should mean the franchisee will be able to lease them quite cheaply, so there seems to be a disincentive to provide brand new trains for these services.

Now, just because a train isn’t brand new doesn’t mean it’s no good. Trains are built to last anything from 25 to 40 years, and with good care and appropriate refurbishment can even be made to last rather longer. The trains that might be used for these services are well within their intended design lives. Very likely they would also be given an internal refurbishment, so the danger of the Corby services getting palmed-off with tired-looking commuter-style units seems low.

Much more seriously, however, none of the fleets of available units is capable of running at 125mph. Some, but not all, could match the Meridians’ acceleration performance, but none could match their top speed – although, in fact, there is no requirement in the ITT for these trains, unlike the new bi-modes, to be able to match Meridian levels of performance. This means that even when we get our peak trains back, they could well be a bit slower than they used to be – it will still be an improvement on the current situation, but unless the eventual franchisee commits to buying new trains for the Corby services as well (which is possible), we won’t be restored to the level of service we had before May this year.

A future article will look in more detail at the current likely options for cascaded stock to operate the Corby services.

One interesting question, though a bit of a side-issue, is: where will the Meridians go? They’re technically good trains, albeit with rather cramped interiors. Chiltern might want to snap them up; or they could end up on East West Rail? I’d expect quite a few operators to show an interest in acquiring them: most of the possible routes won’t make use of their 125mph top speed, but could find their acceleration very handy.

The passenger experience: ticketing
The franchise will make a big push towards smart ticketing and e-ticketing. We’ve had the technology for over a decade (with ITSO cards) to have all bus and rail tickets on a single smart card, and with a unified operator of rail services it would undoubtedly had happened, so this is all rather slow and late. Still, maybe it will mean that the barriers at St Pancras platforms 1-4 will finally get fixed to recognise Thameslink’s Key smartcards, a mere three or more years since they were introduced.

Specifically, the ITT demands, “active innovation, including barcode, print at home, smartcard and solutions that support the Government’s manifesto commitments to improve compensation arrangements.” Making an entire journey should be possible without a paper ticket (exclusively on East Midlands services, anyway). Options to buy through tickets with other modes of transport (presumably buses and/or a full range of TfL services) should also be possible, though the unsophisticated use of smartcards on many regional bus services (again, the product of long-term failure in regulatory policy) will limit scope for that.

Perhaps more excitingly, the new franchisee is also required to, “offer product(s), in addition to existing season tickets, that give customers who travel fewer than 5 days a week a better value-for-money option than buying multiple return journeys,” and encouraged to make, “[p]roposals to enable annual season ticket holders across the franchise to spread the cost of their ticket throughout the year at no additional cost over the ticket price and any fulfilment fees.” This seems to mean part-time season tickets in the first instance, and a removal of the need to pay for a season ticket fully up front in the second. Both are presumably in response to the recent dip in passenger numbers nationally, driven largely by falling commuter and therefore season ticket numbers, partly in response to changing working patterns – Bedford, I suspect, will offer plenty of pertinent examples of people who travel into London three or four days a week, but definitely not five (the present author included).

Additionally, under the new franchise the threshold for Delay Repay compensation will be 15 minutes of delay rather than the current 30, which from a Bedford perspective means bringing East Midlands services into line with Thameslink.

The passenger experience: on-board
The 2016 Atkins report found that the overcrowding issues on East Midlands Trains services are exacerbated by a poor balance of first and standard class seating in the 7-car Meridians. The ITT makes some interesting requirements in this area. The franchisee must ensure ‘sufficient capacity’ and this is defined quite tightly. Some standing capacity only on peak services may be acceptable, but not for any more than 20 minutes per passenger. In practice, therefore, standing room only between London and Luton, never mind London and Bedford, will not be acceptable – although the franchise will probably have to rely on longer trains, the sixth path per hour and falling commuter numbers in order to ensure this.

Seats with tables are a requirement, while the franchisee is encouraged to install charging points for electronic devices – plug sockets or USB are mentioned as options, though there are some caveats about it being ‘technically feasible’ and ‘power limitations permitting’.

The passenger experience: branding
One thing I’ve not seen much commented on is that we already know that the current East Midlands Trains brand will definitely disappear, even if EMT are successful in re-bidding for the franchise. And we also know what the new service will be called: East Midlands Railway. The ITT sets this out as a requirement, and makes it clear that the brand – with all the intellectual property and good will that go with it – will remain the property of the Government.

This is part of a wider trend. The slowly shifting approach to franchising, with the Department much more prescriptive of many aspects of how the railways are run, extends to the names and visual identities of the services. Hence The Beauty of Transport describes the Virgin Trains East Coast brand (now bodged and bastardised into the revived LNER name) as, “one of the last great branding exercises on the privatised railway,” (contending with Trans Pennine Express for the title). As this post also charts, Stagecoach’s brand as seen on East Midlands Trains used to be in use on South West Trains and also the company’s bus services as well; and it’s a distant branch of the same branding family tree that adorns the X5 coaches running from Bedford to Cambridge in the east and Milton Keynes and Oxford to the west.

Now, however, flamboyant liveries and unified brands across multiple franchises are being replaced, directly or indirectly at the Government’s behest, by somewhat more utilitarian brands. Where many of the earlier privatised operations preferred to have the word ‘Trains’ in their name (East Midlands Trains, Virgin Trains, South West Trains, Central Trains etc.), presumably as a reaction against ‘British Rail’, now franchises are increasingly being given titles ending in ‘Railway’: South Western Railway, East Midlands Railway, Great Western Railway, West Midlands Railway, London North Eastern Railway, London Northwestern Railway. These are all (I think – most certainly are) brands specified, and owned, by the Government, so that they can potentially be re-used even if the franchise changes hands to a new operator next time it is let. In some instances, the Government has also tended to specify liveries of light grey with maybe one or two feature colours (see the former public operator East Coast, and also Thameslink) – it will be interesting to see whether the East Midlands Railway emerges with that sort of smart-but-utilitarian colour scheme, or something more striking, as it’s not clear who will decide the visual identity of the services (the ITT does use the phrase ‘Neutral Branding’, capitalised in that way, though its significance isn’t made clear).

Reflections on the consultation process
I’m going to conclude this post with a look at the Department’s response to the official consultation, which was published alongside the ITT (although I’ll pick the wider issue up again in a second post looking at possible next steps very shortly). The exercise certainly galvanised people in Bedford, as DfT officials found at a heated public meeting during the consultation period last year. It must be said that Bedford was not one of the locations for consultation meetings that the Department had initially scheduled – there appears to be much truth in the accusation that the town was an afterthought, despite the significant downgrading that was being proposed for its services.

My recollections of that meeting are extremely unhappy. The DfT officials were not the most impressive civil servants I’ve encountered (though to be fair the best ones I’ve encountered have been genuinely very impressive): they did not always address the very obvious concerns in the room directly, either in the structure of their presentation or in their discussion, which was too often jargon-y and roundabout. Really effective policy professionals know how to speak plainly and directly to address an issue head-on when they need to, and the tendency of the officials in the room that night to resort to slightly formal, platitudinous language did not help their cause. Nonetheless, they were treated unfairly by a very angry crowd, whipped up by messaging from protesters that verged on misinformation – it was noisy and confrontational, but I can’t help but feel that campaigning for a positive ask would have been a more effective tactic at that stage.

This culminated in, among other things, shouts of ‘liar!’ at certain points during the meeting, when the official speaking was not in fact lying (though might well have been saying something a bit beside the point, which isn’t the same thing). Once you get to the point of accusing the other side of bad faith, any campaign is over: you’re essentially admitting you’re not going to get what you want, and signalling to the other side that they’re not really obliged to deal with you seriously – why should they, if they’re going to get accused of lying even when they speak the truth? Officials are only human, and the protests were effective in ‘othering’ them, whipping up the angry treatment they received; given that these were literally the people who would be taking the decisions about what would go in the ITT, and then writing it, dishing out this rough treatment was, to say the least, a high risk tactic. I left the meeting before it ended, not feeling much sympathy for either side, but strongly suspecting that the officials would be more, rather than less, likely to disregard Bedford’s concerns as a result of the semi-orchestrated barracking they had received.

Whether this episode had any conscious or unconscious effect on the eventual plans in the ITT we’ll never know – I’m sure the officials would never admit it even if it had. But the official response to the consultation exercise certainly goes out of its way in a couple of places to build the case for stiffing Bedford, and disregarding the concerns raised by its residents. If the officials did indeed take away the impression that feelings had been stoked unreasonably, including by a degree of misinformation, they might have felt well justified in taking the steps outlined below.

Bedford provided more respondents to the consultation than anywhere else on the East Midlands network – 39% of the total in fact, which is a massive proportion when you think about it. The next highest were Wellingborough (9%), Chinley (4%), Luton (2%) and Market Harborough (2%). The response document pointedly observes that, “these stations represent the top five in terms of number of respondents, but are not necessarily proportionate with revenue or passenger journeys,” and uses this fact as a justification for removing ‘origin bias’ when analysing responses to the question of where new services should be introduced (for which Bedford emerged as the top suggestion in the uncorrected data).

Where the consultation really goes out of its way to minimise the attention paid to Bedford’s concerns is in response to question 4, which essentially outlines the Corby split proposal and asks if respondents agree with it. According to the document, a narrow majority (57%) opposed it, 24% supported it and 19% gave a ‘don’t know’ response. However, this was the only question in the entire document where the ‘don’t know’ response rate was given. If the results had been presented without it, as all other results were, the proportions would have been 70% in opposition, and 30% in support. Presenting the data in this way is a shamelessly cynical trick, and the sort of shabby behaviour that civil servants should not descend to. But maybe, for whatever reason, on this occasion they felt justified in doing so.

There’s a wider issue here of how the railway engages with passengers: it’s terrible at it – way behind, say, the NHS’s engagement with patients in how it designs and delivers its services, which is itself fairly woeful. The question of how effective existing representative groups are also deserves some attention. But that’s for another time.

So, that’s what my efforts to pick the bones out of the ITT and other documents have yielded. Have you seen any other points of interest? Why not pop them in the comments below?

The next post will look at where Bedford might go from here…

Featured image adapted from a photograph by Alex S Transport Photography under Creative Commons licence CC BY 2.0.

4 thoughts on “The East Midlands franchise and the future of Bedford’s express trains

  1. […] The last post picked out some highlights from the Invitation To Tender (ITT) for the next East Midlands franchise, mainly in respect of what it will mean for intercity services calling at Bedford (and if you’ve not read that one, I’d recommend checking it out, as this one will make a lot more sense if you have). It’s a mixed bag: we’ll get the peak trains back from December 2020 at the latest, but they’ll likely be a bit slower than before, and our connectivity to destinations north of Kettering will be catastrophically downgraded thanks to the ‘Corby split’ (ie only Corby trains, not Sheffield or Nottingham services, will call at Bedford on most days). […]


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