The East Midlands franchise – can we do better for Bedford?

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 will make a lot more sense if you have). It’s a mixed bag, but certainly not an improvement on the services we’ve historically enjoyed: 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).

But the ITT is not a set-in-stone foretelling of the future. It’s a crucial document in an ongoing process to define future rail services. So, when the Department for Transport and the three bidders for the franchise speak to Bedford, what should Bedford ask for? And by ‘speak to Bedford’ I mean, hopefully, to Mayor Dave, to the Bedford Commuters Association, and also to the vocal online campaigners who have been active since the franchise consultation was launched last year (for the avoidance of doubt please note that, despite the URL, that’s not a Facebook group for this blog – you can find us on Facebook here). None, as far as I know, have published details of the interactions they are having with the parties to the bidding process, on either side, but I hope they are happening, and I trust that Bedford’s representatives are taking some positive asks into them.

So, what actually can be achieved either over and above what’s in the ITT, or on a faster timescale? For what it’s worth, my positive asks would be the following.

1. Faster reintroduction of peak express services, using the sixth path on the Midland Main Line
Now this is controversial, but unfortunately the only way to speed up solutions to Bedford’s problems would be to accelerate the introduction of the Corby split. It’s been in the works since 2012, so it’s obviously not going to be stopped. This is bad news for people who need good connectivity northbound; but the DfT’s planners have made a calculation about the trade-off, and judge that unlocking demand from further north will more than outweigh the harm caused by a lack of direct trains from Bedford and Luton to the East Midlands. The annoying thing is they’re probably right. To be honest, if it was my decision, it’s what I’d do (with a major caveat about interchange at Kettering – more on that in a mo).

There are things to be said in favour of the Corby split. The lower end of the MML is currently an afterthought in a franchise that’s really focused on a geographic area much further north; the Corby split provides some structure that allows that to be addressed, by resolving the tension between commuters and long-distance travellers, and defining the commuter services as a fourth market segment for the franchise in their own right.

So, with that bitter pill swallowed, the key question is this: is it possible to bring the extra path on the MML into use earlier than December 2020 – say, in December 2019? The answer is that it might be. The ITT’s request that bidders put forward ways to reinstate peak services between Wellingborough and Bedford suggests that there could be ways of doing it. But there are some key points to explore. Firstly, the newly laid double track to Corby has been operational since March this year. The reason for waiting to December 2020 appears to be that the electrification to Corby won’t be ready before then. So is there any reason not to introduce the extra train earlier, as a diesel service?

Well, there might be some quite good reasons why that can’t be done. Firstly, new trains would have to be acquired from somewhere. But that could be doable – there may be some redundant HSTs knocking around, and there’s certainly no shortage of Mark 2 and Mark 3 coaches that would be perfectly fine for the job. Class 67 diesels can run at 125mph, or class 68s at 100 – neither option would offer timings as good as the current Meridian trains, but they could be better than nothing (though these hypothetical trains would need to be at least as fast as a Thameslink service, and ideally not increase journey times for stations between Bedford and Corby by too much). They’d have to run either with DVTs, to avoid having to change engines at each end of the line, or with two locomotives topping and tailing the train, which would be better for acceleration anyway. (It’s worth adding that all these coaching options would be slam-door stock and therefore have to be covered by the derogation from new disability regulations that the DfT will have to issue for HSTs before the end of 2019.)

The other big question is whether the extra path can be delivered without any further work, aside from the electrification. Can it be made to fit in around the awkward, crowded Thameslink timetable without messing it up again just once it’s finally been made to work (one hopes)? What about the problem of southbound services getting stuck outside Bedford if there’s even a small delay to Thameslink, the very reason that the morning peak services were withdrawn? Can that be managed sufficiently? And finally, what would the interval be? We’ve seen a big change from the roughly half-hourly intervals we used to have in our express services, with the gaps at some points in the day being 10 minutes and then 50 minutes between expresses! Can that be ironed out?

Remember also that the reintroduction of the peak services for Bedford and Luton would be beneficial to commuters in Harpenden, who lost some of their old fast services to create the fast ‘peakbuster’ trains that serve as (poor) compensation for the loss of proper expresses from Bedford. Getting the expresses back to Bedford in the peak sooner would also allow for stops at Harpenden to be reinstated on some fast Thameslink services.

So it’s not a given, but the earlier use of the new path, if at all possible, using diesel trains to begin with, would be first on my agenda if I was speaking to the DfT and the bidders, and I’d be enlisting Harpenden’s commuter lobby in support of the ask.

2. Improved interchange at Kettering
The major problem with the Corby split is that it trashes Bedford’s links to destinations north of Kettering. Currently you may or may not have to change at Leicester, depending on whether you get a Sheffield or Nottingham train from Bedford, and whether that matches exactly where you want to get to. Under the ITT’s proposals, you will definitely need to change at Kettering, and potentially also at Leicester or somewhere else in the East Midlands. Worse still, the ITT mandates only one long-distance train to stop at Kettering per hour, so you could be in for a long wait. If ever there was a policy designed to get longer-distance journeys off the rails and onto the roads, it was surely this.

However, that one train per hour is a minimum. For northbound Bedford travellers, we need to be asking for all four of the long distance intercity services each way between London and the East Midlands every hour to be stopping at Kettering. Getting the stops doubled to two would be a good outcome (and might be all that’s needed, if carefully timetabled), but the negotiating position should be all four.

3. New 125mph EMUs for Corby services
The ITT permits the new franchisee to use electric multiple units (EMUs) on the Corby services that are not newly built, but have previously worked elsewhere in the country. None of the available EMUs can run at more than 100mph, which is slower than the 125mph top speed of the Meridian trains that currently operate the service, with mostly slower acceleration to boot. However, they will be cheap for the operator to lease. So there is a major danger that the Corby services, including the reinstated peak expresses, will be a bit slower than the trains we had until May this year, and probably only a bit faster than the quicker Thameslink services.

So another key lobbying objective should therefore be to encourage the bidders to commit to new trains, capable of 125mph, for the Corby route. There is a case to be made in favour of this. It will be more expensive, but if the trains are procured as part of the order for the new bi-modes (indeed, they could be bi-modes, just operating 100% on electric power when on this particular duty), the extra cost might not be that much more. Plus there will be ongoing economies from only having to maintain a fleet of one type of train, instead of two, and their extra speed will allow the operator to schedule its services more flexibly – particularly valuable with such a tight Thameslink timetable to fit around, one might think. So it’s not out of the question that an incoming operator could plump for all-new trains on all services, and Bedford should encourage them to do so.

This wouldn’t in any way preclude running slower cascaded EMUs in the interim before the new trains are delivered, or even the diesel solution I discussed above from December 2019.

4. Restart the electrification programme
This is an even more ambitious ask, but there are good reasons for making it. Firstly, the case for electrifying the whole of the Midland Main Line remains strong, and the Commons Transport Committee recently urged that it be reconsidered. While it won’t directly benefit Bedford, whose services will be wholly electrified anyway, it will have some helpful knock-on effects: reducing journey times further north, for instance, makes it more feasible to ask for extra stops at Kettering, as the time added by those will be offset by the gains from electrification.

Also, keep in mind that Chris Grayling won’t be Secretary of State forever. In the previous jobs he has vacated, his successors have scored immediate PR and policy wins by reversing his most obviously stupid decisions. Campaigners all along the MML, not just in Bedford, need to be laying the ground now for the next Secretary of State for Transport to take that decision about MML electrification, as there will be a window of opportunity within the next year or two, before the build of the new bi-modes has progressed irreversibly, to revert to the original plan. (This will unfortunately mean further delays in getting the new trains, as it will take further time to put the wires up, but still – long term it’s the better option, plus frankly the bi-modes won’t be ready on schedule anyway.)

5. Position Bedford as a key strategic interchange between the MML and East West Rail
This is somewhat more long-term, but there would be benefits from adopting this stance now. East West Rail can certainly be expected to start running services between Bedford and Oxford during the lifetime of the new East Midlands franchise, and there’s an outside chance the link to Cambridge could be opened before it finishes (if it’s extended by the full two years permitted) – though realistically that might be one further franchise down the line. Even so, East West Rail will be a strategically important link, and thought needs to be given to its interchange with the Midland Main Line.

There are two option for this. One is the mooted station at Wixams (or ‘Wixiams’ as Network Rail appear to prefer), the possible ‘Bedford South Parkway’. This will by-pass Bedford to the south, and render East West Rail useless to the town – indeed, it will mean the current Marston Vale Line services to Bletchley no longer come here at all. It’s hard to see, just from looking at the map, how Kempston Hardwick station could be kept open either – rather, the line will surely branch off its current alignment somewhere around Stewartby, head east through Wixams and then on to Cambridge. It’s not clear what this would mean for Midland Main Line services at the new station – would the Corby trains stop here? Long distance services? Or none at all – would it just be left to Thameslink? Whatever the outcome, obviously another station just south of the town would increase journey times between Bedford and London even further for any train calling at it.

The other option is for East West Rail to come into Bedford, stop at Bedford station and then carry on to Cambridge. The geography is such that the trains would have to reverse at Bedford, and the route would also be less direct, but it would have the benefit of bringing the services into another major population centre, and of providing interchange with the MML without having to add journey time to any MML services (or, for that matter, build a new station – though Bedford might require some remodelling).

To make the case for this, Bedford needs to show that the benefits of having the interchange in the population centre would outweigh the costs of slightly increased journey times on East West Rail. The initial planning calculations for East West Rail seem to suggest that in fact the most beneficial option, in net terms, is to by-pass Bedford, so there is of course the danger that the data might not be on our side. But as I understand it the decisions have not yet been made, so the opportunity is still there: that must involve speaking to both East West Rail and the parties involved in the East Midlands franchise in terms of Bedford as a strategically important interchange within the economically vital Oxford-Cambridge corridor. And subject to further data emerging, it does seem hard to see how not maximising the interchange between north-south and east-west rail routes could possibly make sense. But more, no doubt, on East West Rail another time.

A crucial moment
Will Bedford’s voice be heard to good effect, then? Well, I certainly hope so. I worry slightly that the Mayor’s communications on the issue have been heavy on grandstanding and short on detail of any actual action – but then again, he’s a directly elected politician, and on one level he’s got to do things that way. I know from my own work that trailing the details of every last meeting is a great way of raising expectations and making a lot of work for yourself in terms of managing communications, but not a great way of conducting an ongoing relationship with an important external organisation.

I worry also that there appears not to be a lot in the way of positive asks coming from the vocal online campaigners. Their recent leaflet, for instance, is strong on indignation but a bit short on actual suggestions for action or next steps – one might observe that the hashtag #ThisHasGotToStop might as well have been #DownWithThisSortOfThing, if one was feeling uncharitable. The figure of ‘five years’ to make changes is also questionable – using cascaded EMUs to implement the Corby split by December 2020 seems perfectly feasible, and certainly isn’t five years away. Hopefully there is more going on behind the scenes than this suggest, because it would be a real pity if those positive asks are not being put. There are 650 people in that Facebook group who would, I’m sure, love to be given the opportunity to take part in some positive campaigning, to improve both their own journeys and the long-term prospects for their town.

 

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