The timetables for Bedford have undergone another slight update, and with news emerging about our future services it’s therefore time for another look at the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the railways.
On the Marston Vale line, there are still no passenger trains. The bus services remain in place, and work continues to solve the problems with level crossings on the line that have made running trains impossible.
On the Midland Main Line, timetables have been adjusted, but peak hours journey times between Bedford and London remain at 1950s standards. The East Midlands expresses remain suspended.
All services to London in the morning take about an hour, and just one faster train has been introduced in each peak: a 51 minute service in the evening, still below the speed of the ‘express’ Thameslink services introduced in May 2018, and a 47 minute journey in the mornings – but very early, departing Bedford at 0652 and arriving in St Pancras at 0739.
East Midlands Railways claim Thameslink have introduced more frequent services to compensate for the loss of the expresses, but that’s not really the point – it’s the journey times that are the problem.
This problem may soon get particularly acute, if more people find they are required to resume their commutes to London – more on that below.
Corby split delayed
The planned changes to East Midlands Railway’s services for Bedford that were due to be made in December (the reinstatement of peak hours express trains but slower than before, and the loss of direct trains to destinations in the East Midlands and beyond) have now been postponed by six months.
Every aspect of the project has been delayed by coronavirus and the requirements to change ways of working: the electrification of the line from Bedford to Corby, the cascade and refurbishment of the class 360 trains, and the training of staff to work them.
According to reports, the electric wires are now due to be energised on August 23rd (the original date, which we were all warned of in leaflets put through our doors, was April 11th!). Of the new trains, three of the class 360s have now been mechanically upgraded to run at 110mph, with a fourth underway and 17 still to do. Driver training on the units is due to start in December.
There are reports that efforts might be made to introduce the changes earlier in 2021, though the industry has found coping with even scheduled timetable changes (May and December) hard enough in recent years, never mind extra ones, so let’s not pin too many hopes on that.
As things stand, it is not clear that anything approaching proper peak hours journey times between Bedford and London will be available before May. Let’s remember that it is possible for a passenger train in normal service to travel from St Pancras to Bedford in 31 minutes (admittedly running non-stop). Outside the peak, journey times of 36 minutes are still on offer. The ‘express’ Thameslink services used to be able to do it in 47 minutes. But in the peak today, the best available journey time is basically an hour (bar the two services highlighted above). It’s obviously not good enough.
Currently only relatively small numbers of passengers are affected, though it will be a serious blight on their lives to be losing so much time to their commute. But with the Government attempting to encourage a resumption of office-based working patterns, the terrible service currently being offered to Bedford commuters may soon become a problem for substantially more people.
In practice, the determinants of whether commuting levels rise again will not be exhortation by the Prime Minister, but the preferences of employers and workers. Many organisations may have concluded that there have been benefits from home working, and wish to continue it for at least some of their staff, at least some of the time. Similarly, some workers will have found working at home more congenial than commuting, and may also continue to lack confidence that train travel is safe. Employers will, in turn, have to weigh up to what extent they wish to compel people to return to the office, for the sake of their employment relations. Nonetheless, it doesn’t seem fanciful to think that there could be a substantial increase in passenger numbers relative to their current slump (perhaps a ‘back to school’ wave in September, once businesses have had chance to do their risk assessments and make detailed plans?), albeit still probably well below previous levels.
Safety in both office environments and in the trains themselves will be a matter of concern. Crowded indoor situations remain dangerous: if one person has COVID-19 when they enter the space, many will have it when they leave. Certainly there is less virus circulating than there was earlier in the year, but it remains highly infectious and can spread easily. For longer distance commuters, it’s a particular consideration, as exposure to any individual with COVID-19 will be prolonged, and transmission much more likely. And there’s no getting away from the obvious fact that it’s impossible to maintain two metre social distancing on anything other than a very under-occupied train. Thameslink services in peak hours are standing-room only between St Albans and London in normal times, so even halving the number of passengers on them will still make them reasonably full – many people will be sitting next to strangers on the class 700s’ narrow seats. It’s also the case that masks and hand-washing are measures to be used as well as social distancing, not a substitute for it. Given all that, it will be understandable if many Bedford commuters prefer not to resume their journeys to London, even leaving aside the matter of cost: season tickets are a big commitment, but individual peak journeys made without one are very expensive, so many commuters will have that to consider as well.
Although wariness of train travel, or of working in an office and therefore using trains to get there, may be entirely rational behaviour, it is clearly causing problems for public transport at a policy level. There has been much coverage of the impact on the lack of office workers on outlets that rely on them for trade, such as sandwich shops. But the lack of passenger revenue has also totally destroyed the business model of the railways (to the extent that it ever really worked in the first place): private train operating companies are simply no longer viable, and the railways were taken into public control early in the pandemic. Reflecting this, the sector’s debts are reportedly due to be added to the Government’s balance sheet. Combine this with the long-running problems that the Williams review was instituted to look into (its report is still unpublished), and some form of structural change involving more transparent measures of public control is clearly the only way forward for the railways. Unfortunately the Government is ideologically allergic to any such solution, which appears to be causing a total paralysis of leadership from the DfT, over and above its traditional weaknesses. Things will probably be resolved by some bodge that allows the Government to bow to the inevitable while somehow being able to present it as “not nationalisation”; unfortunately it may also be not workable and/or not sensible.
All of which matters, as it is in this environment that any decision to reinstate acceptable train services for Bedford will be taken – or not.