Coronavirus and the railways III

Unsurprisingly, the subject of coronavirus and railway timetables requires another new post. The railway as a whole will be introducing a new timetable from Monday 18th May, in a case study for the currently muddled nature of lockdown policy in England.

The guidelines and rules on lockdown have not changed substantially. You should still be staying at home other than for a small number of permitted purposes such as shopping for essentials or outdoor activity such as exercise (on which restrictions have, to be fair, been substantially eased). You should still be working at home if you can. The businesses that were forced by law to close such as pubs and most non-food shops must remain closed. Social distancing is still required in all contexts.

However, the Government has indicated that it wishes to encourage people who can return to work to do so, apart from those who can work from home and should continue to do so. (I know, I know.) The railway’s new timetable appears to be in anticipation of a more meaningful relaxation of lockdown rather than any genuine change – but in practice, we know that the signal to get ‘back to normal’ has been heeded by many individuals and businesses, and demand for travel appears to be nudging up.

This is the context, then, for the biggest slap in the face Bedford rail users have yet received – even worse than the loss of the peak services in 2018. While the peak trains were temporarily reinstated under the previous timetable, they have now been withdrawn again, and to make matters worse the faster Thameslink services that were previously provided to mitigate this are not being reintroduced. From this Monday, it is impossible to catch a peak rail service between Bedford and London that takes substantially less than an hour, for the first time since the 1950s.

Bedford Rail hopes that Bedford’s MP and the Borough Council will be making the strongest possible representations to Thameslink, East Midlands Railway, the Office for Rail and Road, and the Department for Transport, to ask them what the bloody hell they think they’re playing at.

Of course, hardly anyone should be using these trains. But that will be scant consolation to those people who have to.

The summary below particularly looks at commuter journeys between Bedford and London, but also includes links to the full timetables so you can check your own journey in more detail. We’ll also briefly look at a couple of other developments before turning to the latest timetable fiasco in more detail.

Changes at Bedford station

A one-way system is being introduced at Bedford station to assist with social distancing. The main entrance to the station (next to the ticket machines) will be for entry only, and the left-hand door onto the platforms directly beyond the ticket barriers will also be one-way, ie towards the trains. People who have got off a train will have to come into the concourse through the other door (the one nearer the waiting room), and exit the station by the door next to Starbucks.

Midland Main Line electrification

Before we dive into the travesty of the new timetables, there’s one further emerging story. There are reports that the electrification of the Midland Main Line from Bedford northwards is running late: the scheduled switch-on of the overhead power lines on April 11th did not in fact happen, and at the time of writing apparently still has not.

It’s not clear how late things are running, or how recoverable the delay is. Nor is it clear whether it matters very much: it remains entirely unknown whether the ‘Corby split’ and class 360s will be introduced in December even if the electrification is ready. But it’s one of the risks we’ve highlighted in the past, and it now seems to be in play.

East Midlands Railway

As well as their new timetable, EMR are introducing ‘rainbow boards’ – that is, live departure boards that will let you check whether the train you intend to travel on is full to capacity. Social distancing rules means that even though EMR are running around 80% of their regular service, the capacity of each train is greatly reduced.

In Bedford, the timetable shows that the buses to and from Wellingborough have been reinstated, and the peak services are gone again. Presumably EMR have reckoned that with Thameslink also ramping up its services, competition for southbound platforms at Bedford again poses a risk to punctuality. However, given that Thameslink is not reintroducing its full service either, it’s not at all clear that this would in fact be a problem – the number of Thameslink services looks like it will be at or below the number prior to the expansion of the Thameslink network in May 2018.

So, southbound we have one EMR train at 0537, then no expresses until 1023. During the daytime, there is one train per hour at 23 minutes past, the last being at 2023 (southbound trains continue during the evening peak, as from May 2018, because they are in the counter-peak direction; for the same reason, northbound expresses are available in the morning peak – but there is not a ‘peak’ level of demand for them). Then there are just two more southbound, at 2213 and 2240.

Northbound, it’s the same but in reverse: Bedford gets a clutch of early trains, then one an hour at 40 minutes past. The last of those is at 1540, and then there’s not another northbound express until 1943, which departs London at 1904. EMR expresses leave London for Bedford as late as 15 minutes past midnight, arriving at 0126; but the last notably quick service is the 2220 departure, arriving 2257 at Bedford.


On Thameslink, despite the re-withdrawal of the East Midlands expresses, the fast trains between Bedford and London (stopping only at Luton and St Albans) have not been reinstated.

Southbound in the morning peak, departure times are not exactly as they were before: for instance, there is an 0719 departure rather than 0718, and 0735 rather than 0734. There are also fewer services than in the regular pre-coronavirus timetable: for instance, the 0722 is entirely missing. All services stop at all stations between Bedford and St Albans City: whereas before there were a couple of ‘expresses’ per hour that called only at St Albans and Luton, now all Bedford trains also call at Harpenden, Luton Airport Parkway, Leagrave, Harlington and Flitwick.

Northbound in the evening, again we have fewer trains overall and no particularly fast ones – although curiously, the departure times are much more closely matched to what they used to be. So, the 1736 from St Pancras used to call only at St Albans, Luton and Flitwick, while the 1751 was a pure ‘fast’ service; both now stop at all stations from St Albans City to Bedford. The previous 1741 service, albeit a slow train, has not been reinstated at all.

This is all at least good news for Harpenden commuters, who screamed so loudly back in 2018.

As a result of these changes, in the peak it is now basically impossible to travel between Bedford and London in less than an hour. (OK, some services sneak in at 59 minutes, but let’s not split hairs; even under the May 2018 settlement, some services did it in 47 minutes). From the archive timetables available to me, this appears to be the first time this has been the case since the 1950s, when all services between Bedford and London were operated by steam trains.

Marston Vale Line

At least there is slightly happier news on the Marston Vale line, where a day-long service is being reinstated. But not a train service: there will be a combination of all-stations and semi-fast rail replacement bus services (the latter calling only at Bedford, Bedford St Johns, Stewartby, Lidlington, Ridgmont, Woburn Sands, Bow Brickhill and Bletchley). Apparently the all-stations buses won’t be able to accommodate bikes. The faster buses will take an hour and two minutes between Bedford and Blethchley, the slower ones an hour and 23 minutes.

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