The trains that operate the twice-hourly express services between St Pancras and Corby from December 2020 will be of most interest to Bedford commuters: these will provide the expresses when they are finally restored to Bedford during peak hours.
Our summary of the requirements of the invitation to tender (ITT) to run the new East Midlands Railway sets out the parameters within which the trains will be selected. This article considers what the possible outcomes of those decisions might be.
To recap: these will be electric trains, using the overhead wires that should be operational from Bedford to Corby by that time. The ITT specifies they should be electric multiple units (EMUs), ie trains with their traction equipment mostly underneath the carriages, with no locomotive at the end of the train pulling it along. Unlike its specification for the Midland Main Line bi-modes, it does not require that these should be new trains.
It’s therefore very likely that they will be trains that already exist, ‘cascaded’ from working elsewhere in the country. As it happens, there are many fleets of EMUs that are about to be replaced elsewhere, so the new operator should be able to pick from a range of possibilities.
As the last article stated, 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 EMUs that might be used for these services are well within their intended design lives. Very likely they would also be given an internal refurbishment: unlike the recently introduced Thameslink trains, they are required to have tables at all seats, and charging points for electronic devices are encouraged – plug sockets or USB are mentioned as options, though there are some caveats about it being ‘technically feasible’ and ‘power limitations permitting’. More generally, the trains must, “ensure that the rolling stock provides a level of passenger comfort and amenity that is identified by stakeholders,” which the officials at the franchise consultation event discussed in terms of appropriate seating for longer-distance journeys, among other things – so (hopefully) no thinly-padded class 700-style seats!
Unfortunately, the timeframe looks rather tight to me. In an ideal world, the new franchisee will have identified the rolling stock by now, specified how they should be refurbished, and let contracts for the work. In reality, the franchisee has not been appointed, any cascaded rolling stock might not be released from its current duties until quite close to December 2020, and refurbishments of other trains (for instance the class 442s for South Western and the High Speed Trains for Scotrail) have tended to be delivered late. So it’s possible that the new trains will be late, or delivered without refurbishment (which might then follow at a slower pace); we might even have some sort of stop-gap solution before the intended rolling stock is in place. So be prepared for the introduction of any new trains to be a bit messy, even if they’re not truly new.
Timing and operations
The current services from St Pancras to Corby take around one hour and seven minutes to complete the journey, typically. This suggests a requirement of a minimum of five trains to operate the service, plus presumably at least one spare at any one time. In practice, any cascaded EMUs are likely to come in fixed formations of four coaches, and will therefore be coupled into trains of two or maybe even three units to operate the services – I’m not immediately sure if all platforms on the route will take 12-coach trains, but if they’re possible they will certainly provide plenty of capacity in the peak. Let’s assume that’s what will happen: it gives us a requirement for 15 EMUs in service at any one time, plus let’s be generous and require a further three for a ‘full’ spare train, meaning we’re looking for a fleet of 18 individual trains. All of the fleets discussed below are large enough to provide that number of units.
Unfortunately we quickly hit a snag: none of the fleets that are likely to be available in the coming months can match the top speed (125mph) of the diesel class 222 ‘Meridian’ units that currently operate the route, and few can match their acceleration either. This might mean that the journey time of an hour and seven minutes will have to be extended slightly – obviously the longer the distance one travels, the greater a problem that will be (and in practice, for most people that means the further one lives away from London, the worse one might be hit).
However, for Bedford commuters it’s not as bad as it might sound: the only stretch of the Midland Main Line south of Bedford that allows trains to run at 125mph at all is between Luton and Bedford. Roughly speaking that means 10 minutes of 125mph running at most (allowing some time for acceleration and braking between Bedford and Luton), so dropping that to 100mph will add about two minutes to a journey between London and Bedford. A journey that would now be 35 minutes will therefore be 37 in future – not good, for sure, but personally I’d be happy to get the peak services back even at this trade-off, as it’s still clearly superior to the current Thameslink timings we’re all saddled with (though I’ve no doubt there will be some people who are happy to expend their energy being upset about it – you pays your money and you takes your choice). [CORRECTION: there is in fact another stretch of 125mph running, between Elstree and Napsley, which Open Railway Map doesn’t show but which does seem to be visible in this table of line speed changes in 2013; so that’s very roughly 3 minutes at 125, and therefore under a minute extra added onto the journey if it’s taken at 100. Additionally, within the Bedford-Luton stretch, from Ampthill Tunnel to Leagrave Junction the maximum speed is 120mph – with thanks to HiPa on Twitter for pointing it out.]
Between Bedford and Corby there is very little 125mph track anyway (the 125mph limit extends a few miles north of Bedford Midland station, after which top speeds are again reduced – explore them on Open Railway Map), so journey times will be only slightly extended up to Corby. To get a bit of perspective, it’s worth noting that 125mph running only began in late 2013 anyway. It may also be that the electrification work and the reinstatement of the fourth track between Bedford and Kettering (and second track to Corby) will include increases in line speed north of Bedford, so the overall journey time could be reduced as a result of those works.
Before we finally get to the options for trains, for comparison let’s note the performance of the current Meridian trains: specifically, as well as a top speed of 125mph, they accelerate at a maximum rate of 0.8 m/s2, which is extremely good for a diesel train. This page includes details of the ‘curve’ of that acceleration (ie whether it gains speed more quickly at lower speed and then picks up speed more gradually, or initially gets going slowly but really piles the speed on once it’s moving) – this is a factor that might differentiate between different trains listed below more than the headline acceleration rate shows, and we’ll link to that information for the other trains when we can.
Possible new trains for Bedford
It appears that there will be four fleets of EMUs that should in theory be available by December 2020, plus a few other options. At least one fleet currently due to come off-lease with another operator that would otherwise be a strong candidate (the still very new class 350/2s currently run by West Midlands Railway) won’t be available quite in time.
As argued previously, the best option for Bedford would be for the new operator to commit to buying brand new trains for the Corby services, most likely as part of the same order as for the new bi-modes. These might simply be more bi-modes, to be operated interchangeably with the longer distance services (albeit all on electric power), or purely electric versions of the same trains (such as adapted versions of the class 801 variants of the Hitachi bi-mode classes 800 and 802). These would also allow 125mph running, so avoiding the small reduction in journey times we can otherwise expect – though Network Rail will have to upgrade the older electric wires south of Bedford to allow this top speed. Given how cheap it will probably be to lease cascaded EMUs, it’s probably a bit unlikely that we’ll get new trains – but it’s possible, and to be hoped for.
Assuming we don’t get brand new trains though, the contenders appear to be as follows. They all come in 4-coach units, with top speeds of 100mph.
Acceleration: 0.98 m/s2
If I was in charge of finding cascaded EMUs for the Corby services, these would be at the top of my list. They are the only one of the options with acceleration better than a Meridian offers (and therefore would make back a bit of the time lost from the lack of 125mph running, by getting up to 100mph more quickly). Greater Anglia currently runs 21 of them on their services from Liverpool Street to Clacton-on-Sea, Ipswich and Colchester – similar journey lengths to the Corby run. Unfortunately they are currently fitted with 2+3 commuter-style seating, so would definitely require refurbishment. A variant (360/2) of the same class also operates Heathrow Connect services (now part of TfL rail, ahead of the opening of ElizaCrossbethPurplerailLineTrain), but there are not enough of those 5-car variants to run the Corby services if they were to be cascaded.
Acceleration: 0.72 m/s2
These trains are even more modern than the class 360s, and offer acceleration only slightly below what the Meridians offer, so would also be strong bets. Again, they are being sent off-lease from August 2019 (in theory – probably late introduction of new trains will cause some delay to this, as it always seems to these days) as part of the replacement of Greater Anglia’s fleet, following the change of franchise. They are already specified well for longer distance commuting, and probably wouldn’t need a refurbishment. The fact that they have gangways at each end is also in their favour, as unlike the 360s they could be formed into a single train that could be walked through from end to end. It’s also possible that they could be upgraded to run at 110mph like the similar class 387 units (which served Bedford on Thameslink trains for a while before the class 700s were introduced). Some informal speculation has linked these trains with the Corby route, and the absence of a requirement to refurbish them might make them the most likely to turn up at Bedford.
Acceleration: 0.81 m/s2
These trains recently enjoyed a brief stint as ‘happy trains’ running between Edinburgh and Glasgow (a reference to the ‘face’ on their cab fronts, and also a canny bit of marketing by Scotrail to gloss over the fact that they were being drafted in as a result of the very late delivery of their new class 385 trains). Previously they had been displaced from their duties between King’s Cross and Cambridge / Peterborough by Thameslink’s class 700s (though some have been retained for the Peterborough services). They’re decent enough trains, but their acceleration is their main drawback compared to the two twenty-first century designs already discussed (compare the curve to the Meridian’s for the detail) – a previous page on the Eversholt website gave a less impressive figure than the one currently quoted, which I’m not entirely sure I trust, as it’s very impressive for a train of 1990s vintage….
These are the oldest EMUs on the list, and once again would be cascaded from the Greater Anglia franchise, where they are doing comparable journey distances to the London-Corby route. There is a project underway to refurbish them, including both much improved interiors and a better traction package. Even with this, however, their acceleration is somewhat laggardly compared to the other units that might be available. Still, a special hello to every reader old enough to understand why they are nicknamed ‘Dusty Bins’!
Locomotive-hauled coaches: Class 90 or 91 / HSTs
This solution would not involve EMUs, so technically it doesn’t meet the requirement in the franchise, but the DfT might be willing to stretch a point, and effectively these trains would be run in semi-fixed formations anyway. So let’s consider them briefly.
There would be plenty of Mk3 coaching stock available (plus Mk4, but as we’ve seen that’s out of gauge for the Midland Main Line), which would need to be included in the derogation that will have to be granted at the end of this year to avoid the MML running out of trains. The class 90s have a top speed of 110mph, so better than the EMU options, and will be coming off-lease from Greater Anglia. The class 91s can do 125mph, but their acceleration might not be suitable for the relatively frequent stops between Bedford and Corby. The acceleration of the two classes seems a bit hard to pin down in published data (as, unlike a fixed-formation EMU, it depends how large a train they’re hauling), but essentially it seems the 91 is higher geared and so starts more slowly, but its acceleration is quicker once it’s got up to speed, whereas the 90 is the opposite – gets going more quickly at first, then ‘runs out of puff’ nearer its top speed. It’s probably academic – I’d be surprised to see either turn up on the Corby services.
Similarly, HSTs could be used: they don’t have the acceleration of the Meridians, but they can equal their top speed of 125mph. There are plenty currently off-lease, and the new franchise might be wise to have them on standby in case Network Rail fails to deliver the electrification infrastructure on time, which unfortunately would be fairly typical of its recent performance with major infrastructure projects.