Coronavirus and the railways II

This blog last looked at the railways’ arrangement for the coronavirus pandemic during its relatively early days. With lockdown now established, and the railway companies’ responses more settled, it’s worth re-visiting to see what the current state of play is.

The second part of this article will look ahead to later in the year, and consider what we might see on the railways as and when current restrictions are lifted. But be warned: the short answer is that things are still very uncertain and nobody really knows yet, so expect at least one more article on this subject before the end of the year.

East Midlands Railway

Since the last article was published, a remarkable thing has happened: Bedford has got its peak expresses back! Of course, this is very much on the basis that hardly anyone should be using them, but it is at least quite nice to know that the reduced East Midlands Railway timetable is serving Bedford evenly thoughout the day.

In the morning, there are expresses to London at 0538, 0653 and 0808 (times given are for the week commencing May 4th; there seems to be slight variation from week to week, but there are consistently trains at around those times). For comparison, in the December 2019 timetable there was one at 0538, and then no more until 1013.

Overall throughout the day, there is one express train per hour in each direction.

In the evening, there are departures from St Pancras whose destinations include Bedford at 1605 (calling Bedford 1640), 1705 (1739), 1805 (1839) and 1932 (2008). In the December 2019 timetable all those services were present, but none called at Bedford. There is also a 1904 train from St Pancras to Sheffield (the others are all Nottingham services), which calls at Bedford at 1943.

The last departure from St Pancras for Bedford is at 2308 (a Derby train), and the last expresses south from Bedford are at 2252 and 2351 (both from Nottingham).

Thameslink

Contrary to what their initial plans implied, Thameslink has maintained Bedford’s 24-hour rail connection with London. There are trains to London at quarter past the hour from midnight to 4am, then increasing in frequency. From 8am to 9pm there are four trains per hour in each direction, with the frequency then reducing again until midnight. There are separate but overall very similar timetables on Saturdays and Sundays.

All Thameslink services seem to be following a semi-fast service pattern, stopping at all stations between Bedford and St Albans City, perhaps reflecting that there are now expresses through the day to cater for passengers wanting to get between Bedford and London quickly.

Another difference with the pre-coronavirus timetables is that trains between Bedford and St Pancras are routinely stopping at West Hampstead Thameslink; after the May 2018 timetable change this had become relatively unusual, with anyone wanting to get from West Hampstead up to Bedford having to make a connection at St Albans or one of the Luton stations.

Marston Vale Line

Coronavirus has succeeded in 2020 where British Rail failed in the 1960s and 70s, and closed the Marston Vale line entirely to passenger traffic.

A rail replacement bus service ran to April 10th, and since then London Northwestern Railway have been asking key workers who need to use the line to contact them. Taxi services are being arranged, and apparently they are open to requests from vulnerable people too.

This doesn’t mean you don’t need to look out for trains, for instance if you’re using a level crossing on the line. It’s still in use for freight and other non-passenger trains. (A quick search on RealtimeTrains shows five scheduled movements on the line on May 4th, for instance.)

2020 and beyond

There are many big unknowns about life in the UK beyond the next few weeks and months. For the railways, the very basic question of what services they will be required to run is deeply unclear. The sector as a whole (‘industry’, as it likes to call itself) is trying to figure that out, and there are no clear answers or firm plans yet.

It seems a fairly safe bet that there will not be a straightforward ‘return to normal’ in one go (and here I’m speculating – not with my work hat on, but as it happens my day-job is in the world of health policy). A full resumption of regular activities seems unlikely unless and until the population has been vaccinated against COVID-19; that’s not going to be before 2021. Lockdown in its current form is likely to be lifted at some point, no doubt in stages for different situations and groups, but social distancing is likely to remain for some time to come. Greater movement will be made possible by having systems in place that enable people with coronavirus, and people who have been in contact with them, to be identified and required to self-isolate – this is why the Government is developing a ‘track and trace’ service.

In this context, while in principle workplaces should be able to open provided they can apply social distancing measures – a very big proviso, it must be said – realistically it doesn’t seem likely that the railways will see anything like their regular volume of commuters again this year. Even when lockdown is eased, we can expect many businesses to continue to operate remotely, for both convenience and peace of mind. Leisure travel is also likely to be down massively over a sustained period – any event or attraction involving any sort of crowd will have to remain closed, as will many (maybe not all) pubs and restaurants. Even when people might want to make use of rail travel, maintaining social distancing on trains will be very difficult, maybe impossible for practical purposes, although the sector is no doubt evaluating options.

For Bedford (and other destinations on the Midland Main Line), this will interact with the substantial changes that are planned for our train services in December – but it’s not yet at all clear how.

To recap, the electrification of the Midland Main Line from Bedford to Kettering and Corby is due to be brought into use. Bedford’s express services are due to be restricted to trains between St Pancras and Corby, although they will be reintroduced in peak hours and operated by upgraded (and, later, refurbished) class 360 electric trains.

Even before then, East Midlands Railway was due to introduce four class 180 diesel trains to service, and replace its current Intercity 125 trains with ‘red’ HSTs (ie trains cascaded from the LNER, ex-Virgin Trains East Coast fleet, which are somewhat better in terms of compliance with accessibility regulations), before withdrawing all HSTs entirely in December.

So, will any or all of that still be possible? Test trains have begun operating to check the electric wires, so that looks on course to be completed on time (though these projects aren’t done until they’re done). EMR seems to be getting close to having the first of its red HSTs in service, although this was due to happen last Friday and I haven’t seen any confirmation that it did. [EDIT: the first run of an EMR ‘red HST’ in service came on Monday 4th May, the day after this article was first published.] But otherwise, it’s not yet clear whether the class 360s and the Corby split will be needed at all, still less whether the work to introduce them can be completed in lockdown or even social distancing conditions. Presumably the Corby split plan won’t be attempted without the class 360s, as there is no other rolling stock readily available that could maintain the same timings.

So, we need to wait and see: we know that the rail ‘industry’ is doing the work right now to figure out what services it will be providing later this year and beyond. Expect more on this subject in the coming months.

Header image adapted from a photo by Matt Buck on Flickr under Creative Commons licence BY-SA 2.0, and available for reuse under the same.

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