Coronavirus and the railways

The far-reaching impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and particularly of the efforts to reduce the spread of the illness, are inevitably having an impact on the railways. Many residents of Bedford who travel regularly to London will not be making the journey for probably some months at the least. Those who still need to travel to London or other destinations will find fewer trains available – though it will probably be easier than usual to get a seat.

Before we look at the timetable changes, it’s worth saying that anyone who has a season ticket should seriously consider getting a refund on it if they haven’t already. This is particularly true for annual season tickets if they have more than two months left to run. The rules around refunding season tickets are complex: refunds are not calculated on a ‘pro rata’ basis, but instead effectively taper off, having essentially no refund value for their final two months. This is to prevent people who need them for shorter periods gaming the system by buying ultra-discounted annual season tickets and then refunding them early. But if you’re now working from home, you may want to plan on the basis that you’re unlikely to be commuting again for at least several months, and make a decision accordingly – given how much season tickets cost, it’s potentially a lot of money to lose by letting it drain away as the ticket runs out. From my own experience, the process on the Thameslink website (if that’s who your season ticket is with) is very straightforward.

With that out of the way, back to the railways: they have already experienced an unusual and disrupted week, with passenger numbers dropping steeply since Monday, and also staff shortages as crew members are required to self-isolate, either through illness or as a precaution. Railway staff are counted among the ‘key workers’ whose children will still be able to attend school, but illness is bound to deplete the workforce somewhat over the coming months. Having had to cancel services unpredictably over this last week, rail companies are now all introducing reduced timetables in response to both staff considerations and falling demand. This article will look at each of the three train operating companies that serve Bedford, focusing particularly but not exclusively on services to and from London.

Thameslink

Services are being reduced in two stages on Thameslink. From Monday 23 March until Friday 27 March the Saturday timetable [PDF download] will operate on weekdays. Obviously over the subsequent weekend the Saturday and Sunday timetables will then operate as normal, but from Monday 30 March the Sunday timetable will operate all week long.

The switch to the Sunday timetable in particular will be a major reduction in services. Assuming the current Sunday timetable is operated without any amendment at all, viable services for the morning commute will leave Bedford at 0625, 0655, 0735, 0805 and 0815 (fast, arr St Pancras 0913) – and that’s it for commuters who need to get in at or around 9am. In the evening, trains will leave St Pancras for Bedford at 4, 18, 34 and 48 minutes past the hour (a service pattern that will in fact run throughout the afternoon), until services start to thin out at around 10pm.

This also means that Bedford will lose its round-the-clock rail connection with London, as after the last train leaves St Pancras at 0116, there isn’t another one until 0618 – again, assuming the Sunday timetable is entirely unamended. In the opposite direction, the last train from Bedford to London leaves at 2345, with the next one leaving at 0555 the following morning. Given that the 24-hour service is to serve the two airports on the Thameslink route, and air travel is also being massively reduced, there seems no reason to expect any services to be retained in the small hours.

East Midlands Railway

East Midland Railway’s reduced timetable commences on Monday (23 March), but unlike Thameslink’s it isn’t simply one of the existing weekend variants.

Timetables for all of EMR’s routes are available on this page, including the timetable for Midland Main Line expresses. The service pattern will be quite simple: Bedford will be served for most of the day by one train per hour in each direction, which will usually be a service running between St Pancras and Nottingham. There will also be one train per hour in each direction between St Pancras and Sheffield, which will not stop at Bedford. Corby will be served by a shuttle service to and from Kettering, but no through trains to London. Trains from Bedford to London will be at 23 minutes past the hour, from 1023 to 2023, with the final three services at irregular times, the last of them at 2257. Two early morning services also run, at 0537 and 0549. Northbound, there will be services at 0629, 0727 (both to Sheffield) and 0810, and then at 40 or 42 minutes past the hour up to and including 1540, all for Nottingham. We then get a Sheffield train at 1943, and Nottingham trains at 2042, 2140, 2226 and either 2239 (Fridays only) or 2240. Journey times are fairly consistently 35 minutes (Meridian) or 39 minutes (HST) northbound, and 44-46 minutes southbound throughout the day.

As will be obvious from this, Bedford and Luton will continue to be omitted from the calling patterns of the express trains during peak periods as they have been since May 2018. This seems hard to justify. The reason for withdrawing services in the southbound peak was that the platforms at Bedford station shared with Thameslink services are too congested, which obviously won’t be the case during the coronavirus period. (Have EMR had to plan this timetable without having sight of what Thameslink were planning, and so assumed a regular service pattern?) Similarly the evening peaks were affected by EMR having to make sub-optimal use of its fleet, but clearly with the reduced number of services this isn’t a consideration any more. Although it’s a modest problem compared to all else that’s going on, persisting with the peak hours restrictions on Bedford’s express services seems both a bit galling and surely unnecessary.

Interestingly, EMR haven’t taken the opportunity to reduce their use of Intercity 125 High Speed Trains, and rely mainly on their class 222 Meridians, which are easier to timetable due to their faster acceleration. The timetable shows that the Sheffield services are mostly but not entirely HSTs, with Meridians handling the Nottingham trains. So presumably the ‘red HSTs’ (ex of LNER) are still due to be introduced on the Midland Main Line, albeit very few people might end up actually travelling on them. The timetable doesn’t specify that the cascaded class 180 trains will be used on any of these services, though for its purposes it’s possible they have simply been counted as Meridians – as noted when we looked at rolling stock changes, they have similar characteristics and not many passengers will notice the differences. Intelligence from readers who are out and about on the network in the coming week will be welcome in the comments or on social media.

Marston Vale Line

The picture for services between Bedford and Bletchley is made more complicated by recent technical problems with the operation of several of the level crossings on the line. These have, in recent weeks, led to trains only running on part of the line, and/or only calling at certain stations, or being replaced by buses entirely.

London Northwestern Railway have published a revised timetable that will operate from Monday onwards, but this is subject to repairs being successfully completed on the level crossings – which is not a given, as the problems have apparently turned out to be technically very challenging. There remain question marks over the reliability of the class 230 D-trains as well. Overall, the new timetable does not appear to bring a step-change in frequency in the same way as the other companies’ changes, but one morning train in each direction is missing, and its loss will be felt by commuters who use it (correction is welcome in the comments if I’m misreading it and the changes are more extensive than I’m suggesting). It may be that technical gremlins remain the bigger problem for users of the line for some time to come.

In conclusion

It’s tempting to say that train services are a relatively minor concern compared to what we will all be facing over the coming months. For those of us now working from home that’s true enough – but clearly for some people who have essential journeys to make, the railways will continue to play an important role. I’d like to wish all readers good health and good fortune over the period of the coronavirus outbreak, and urge you to keep yourselves and others safe by avoiding travel or contact with others unless it’s absolutely necessary.

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