Coronavirus and the railways V

Welcome back to Bedford Rail – it’s time for another review of how the railways around Bedford are being affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It’s been a while since the last one, as your correspondent has been busy with shows on Bedford Radio, and a series of historical articles that will hopefully appear on here before the end of the year – but no promises.

For some context, here’s a piece I’ve written separately about the pandemic, how it affects behaviour and what a path back to ‘normal’ might look like. The thinking in it underpins what follows: in short, it’s hard to see an end to social distancing until the second half of next year at the absolute earliest, and more plausibly 2022; this means the railways will be operating on an altered basis for some time to come. In the more immediate term, a return to nationwide lockdown appears highly likely within days of the time of writing, so we will see what services the railways offer in that context.

But for now, here’s where things have got to over the later part of the summer, as train services have been brought back to close to normal – with a major exception for Bedford’s commuters, that has again left them poorly served.

Current timetables for Bedford

The headline story can be summarised very simply: East Midlands Railway has restored its pre-COVID pattern of services; Thameslink has not; and Bedford commuters have suffered a degradation of services as a result. This had already happened by the time of our previous update, but the new timetables introduced in September did not – from Thameslink’s end – put it right. We’ll turn to other services later, but this conspicuously poor service is where we have to start.

So, East Midlands southbound services start in earnest at 1013, with buses between Bedford and Wellingborough in the morning peak. Northbound services from London run throughout the day up to 1624, with the buses coming back and trains resuming at 1943. To compound the misery of travellers between Bedford and Wellingborough, buses are taking a substantial diversion at the moment. When services are running, they are at uneven intervals of around 10 and 50 minutes southbound, and around 20 and 40 minutes northbound; they are overwhelmingly Meridian trains, one per hour to and from Corby, one to and from Nottingham.

So, as EMR have restored their pre-COVID service pattern, it would make sense for Thameslink to have done the same. But they haven’t. The ‘express’ services introduced in May 2018 to compensate (to an extent) for the loss of the East Midlands expresses are still absent from the September timetable, as are some other faster services. The extent of the deterioration in the service available to Bedford commuters bears setting out in some detail.

Below are Thameslink’s services from Bedford to London, departing between 0700 and 0833, in the current timetable, as introduced in September. The figures show the departure time, and then the journey time into London St Pancras in minutes. Where the services have a different running time to the December 2019 timetable (the one that was in operation immediately before the emergency measures began), this is noted in brackets. Also given in brackets are services from the December 2019 timetable that have not been reinstated at all, and their journey times. Mostly, increased journey times reflects the addition of stops at intermediate stations. Where trains’ departure times have changed by only a minute or two from December to September, they are treated as the same service, and the September 2020 time given.
(0701 – 63)
0704 – 60 (was 50)
0718 – 63 (was 62)
0722 – 47
0734 – 63 (was 50)
(0752 – 47)
0749 – 60 (was 51)
(0801 – 63)
0805 – 59 (was 50)
(0822 – 47)
0819 – 62 (60)
0833 – 61 (62)

The poor level of service is readily apparent: only the 0722 offers a journey time of substantially less than an hour (being a single example of a reinstated ‘express’), with none of the 50 or 51 minute services that were previously available now on offer. Overall, the peak has four fewer departures for London than before, and four further services that are now substantially slower than they used to be.

The equivalent table for the evening peak (departing London between 1700 and 1830) shows a similar picture.
1706 – 59 (52)
(1711 – 58)
1721 – 60 (47)
(1726 – 59)
1736 – 50 (52)
1740 – 59 (60)
1751 – 63 (45)
(1756 – 59)
1806 – 52 (53)
1811 – 59 (54)
1821 – 61 (47)
(1826 – 59)

Overall, there are four fewer services, and five trains have substantially increased journey times. Unlike the morning peak, not even a single ‘express’ service has been reinstated. As this site observed earlier in the summer, the last time train services between Bedford and London were this slow, they were being run with steam trains.

While the number of people having to commute between Bedford and London is much lower than it would usually be, those who have to do it are being very seriously disadvantaged, to the extent that the increased journey times can clearly put people’s jobs at risk.

Bedford Rail approached both Thameslink and East Midlands Railway for comment, to find out their reasons for the decisions taken in the timetable changes, and whether they had been talking to each other.

EMR explained that even the limited restoration of Thameslink services brought back the pathing difficulties that required stops at Bedford to be dropped at peak times, having briefly been reinstated during the first lockdown timetable: “The stops were then removed [again] alongside an uplift in our Intercity services (from memory, we went from 2tph to 4tph) as well as an increase in [Thameslink] services north of London (albeit not all of these travelled as far as Bedford). As a result, EMR services needed to essentially slot back in to their original (pre-COVID) paths which means we cannot accommodate Bedford and Luton stops, and the associated additional journey time, in our peak services.”

They also set out how they have had to weigh up the needs of Bedford passengers with those of passengers travelling from further north, at a time when social distancing requirements reduce the available capacity on trains: “Passengers from north of Bedford have no alternative services into London – whereas Bedford customers do have the alternative of [Thameslink], and with rolling stock which is much larger and therefore easier to maintain social distancing.”

Thameslink responded as follows, with the welcome news that fast services will be restored at the December timetable change (barring any further changes as a result of the newly-announced lockdown):

“The current timetable is designed to respond to changes in customer demand, as monitored by passenger counts and customer comments, and to ensure services for our customers are as reliable as possible during the pandemic.

“The Thameslink timetable is currently based on a normal Saturday service, operating six days per week, modified with additional early morning, peak time and school time trains to cater for schools and key workers. This design was chosen because, with passenger numbers remaining below 40% of normal levels, it would provide enough space on board and, importantly under the circumstances, it is a proven and resilient design that could be introduced quickly as services were stepped up after lockdown.

“We continue to adapt services in response to customer and stakeholder feedback and changes in travel demand. In the Winter timetable, effective from Monday 13 December, we will introduce additional peak time services which will provide faster journey times between Bedford and St Pancras International.”

An earlier version of this article also noted this presentation by Thameslink (dated September), made available on the Bedford Commuters Association website. This has now been superseded by the above response, but it remains the case that the issue of longer journey times is not mentioned in the Bedford Commuters Association’s summer newsletters, nor is any indication given on their website that they have recognised the problem or were working on behalf of Bedford commuters to try to solve it.

Turning away from commuter travel now, we can see that Thameslink has retained its pattern of four trains per hour in each direction throughout the day, and also at weekends (with the Sunday trains curiously 5-6 minutes slower across the board). EMR’s expresses offer much faster travel to London, with stops at Bedford throughout the day, and no buses necessary. The services calling at Bedford, and their calling patterns, are more varied: it’s a mix of Nottingham and Sheffield services (more commonly the former), mainly operated by Meridians but with some HSTs – so, all in all, much as it was pre-COVID.

Bedford Rail feels a bit bad about always leaving the Marston Vale until last, but it does at least mean we get to end this section with a positive story, as the trains have started running again! Or more accurately, one train has started running again – there is now a mixed service of trains and buses, with one train going up and down the line a few times a day (a full service would involve two trains, crossing each other at some point along the line). So, on weekdays there are trains departing Bedford at 0609, 0825, 1110, 1555, 1755, 2116, with buses in-between and running up to a final departure at 2228. There are six departures on Saturdays, 0851 to 1920, with buses before, after and in-between.

Plans for the future

The likelihood of a further period of lockdown makes the following quite provisional, as there is clearly the potential for work to be delayed and changes to be put back as a consequence. But with that caveat, we can say that the ‘Corby split’ plan is still due to happen with the May 2021 timetable change, delayed from the original date of this December.

But there may be some good news about the worst effects of the Corby split. A report in October’s edition of Modern Railways magazine states that EMR is ‘aiming to maintain some contra-peak commuter services for Wellingborough and Bedford following consultation feedback’. Assuming ‘contra-peak’ means northbound in the morning and southbound in the evening (ie ‘contra’ the peak relevant to London commuting, but in the right direction for the smaller number of people heading north of Bedford and into the East Midlands for work) this will be very welcome, and will avoid the worst of the damage of the ‘split’ plans, with direct connections between Bedford and destinations in the East Midlands and beyond remaining in place for commuters heading north.

The class 360 electric trains that will provide Bedford’s connection with London are currently being mechanically upgraded to run at 110mph from their current maximum speed of 100mph, although they will only be able to use this capability north of Bedford for a few years yet. They will not be refurbished internally when first introduced, and so have 2+3 commuter style seating – not ideal for 40-odd minute journeys, though the seats won’t be as uncomfortable as those on Thameslink. Internal refurbishment will follow however, and they will be repainted in EMR’s purple livery before entering service.

The original plan was for the class 360s to run in 12-car formations in peak hours (ie 3 x 4-car units). However, if passenger numbers remain low because of the coronavirus pandemic, 8-car formations might be used instead, and this might free up more trains to be sent off more quickly for refurbishment.

The electric wires running north from Bedford are now live, and being tested by a ‘Frankentrain’ featuring several electric locomotives and a motley assortment of coaches, which is being run with different numbers of pantographs in contact with the wires to test them.

While the new wires will support 125mph running, the older wires south of Bedford will only support speeds of 100mph, as discussed in updates passim. Modern Railways magazine reports that Network Rail is ‘looking at options’ for upgrading it – without this upgrade, the class 360s will be stuck at 100mph between Bedford and London (compared to 125mph in places for the Meridians, meaning journey times will be a few minutes slower), and the new bi-mode trains will have to use their diesel engines, despite the presence of overhead wires, to reach their top speeds. This work was already expected as part of the current ‘control period’ for infrastructure upgrades.

Speaking of the new bi-modes, the East Midlands Railway fleet continues to change during the period before the new ‘Aurora’ trains enter service in 2023. The class 222 Meridians will continue to be the workhorses of the fleet, now mostly given an interim purple and white livery. New red HST sets that are ‘less non-compliant’ with Person of Restricted Mobility (PMR) regulations are being slowly introduced, although the work needed on them after their withdrawal from the East Coast Main Line has proved extensive. The aim is to have five in service by December, and the old blue-liveried coaches all withdrawn. There will be a further change in May, when the last of the HSTs will be withdrawn, with all EMR services through Bedford covered by the Meridians, the handful of similar-looking class 180s discussed previously, and class 360s.

Coronavirus and the railways

The long-term future of railways overall is highly unclear, in multiple respects. Commuter traffic is likely to be heavily suppressed in the short to medium term (how long this lasts depends on ‘normal’ returning) and somewhat suppressed in the longer term, as many employers have successfully adopted remote working, which is likely to lead to more people working from home either entirely or partly. The railways may need to find ways to serve rising numbers of part-time ‘Tuesday, Wednesday And Thursday’ commuters – pity about the acronym.

In the short term, rail franchising has been ended. Rather than fully taking on the business as originally envisaged in rail privatisation, the private train operating companies (TOCs) are now being paid an agreed fee by the Government to cover their costs, and passing all revenues (which are not much!) back to the Exchequer, without any opportunity to boost their profits.

However, this makes the situation sound more settled than it is: there is ongoing strife between the Treasury and wider ‘industry’ about what money should be flowing into, and out of, the taxpayer’s coffers, and in exchange for what. Really it’s too tedious to get into in detail, and perhaps as soon as next spring, the Williams Review might finally be implemented, giving a new long-term structure for a still-privatised railway, but hopefully with more strategic and capable leadership. But it is clear that there is still much thinking to do about what the railway is for, what level of services can be offered, and at what cost, to paying travellers and the taxpayer – we can expect this to shake out over the next few years, in a process that will probably be messy and uncomfortable, and will certainly have long term consequences for the railway as a whole. It may even threaten major projects like East West Rail and the redevelopment of Bedford station that should go with it.

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