The railways, Bedford and 2021

Although the last few articles on this blog have been avowedly COVID updates, as we approach the turn of the year it’s probably appropriate to look ahead rather more broadly.

Taking the very biggest picture for the railways first, there are big questions about when social distancing requirements will end and therefore train travel can be undertaken normally again (probably not in 2021 as things stand). There are also big unknowns relating to long-term travel patterns: there are widespread expectation that larger numbers of people will work partly from home in the future, but the extent of this not clear. Ideally the railways will be developing things like part-time season tickets, though in such a badly led “industry” it doesn’t seem likely. On which point, the long term future of the organisation of the railways is still up in the air, but surely we will see some sort of outcome from the Williams Review in 2021. The creation of a ‘controlling intelligence’ organisation (a bit like NHS England’s central role in the NHS) with full strategic oversight of the network seems to be a wish broadly shared across the sector (ideally with strong mechanisms to get input from passengers, but let’s not hold our breath on that). A rolling programme of electrification is next on many wish-lists, starting with the northern section of the Midland Main Line. But overall the picture going into 2021 is one of uncertainty and confusion – nobody seems to know how things might pan out for the railways as a whole in the short term

December 2020 timetable

Here in Bedford, the introduction of a new timetable in December finally restored our services to the (inadequate) status quo pre-lockdown, with an ongoing lack of peak expresses, but the faster Thameslink services finally reinstated. This comes after months of inexcusably degraded services for the unfortunate commuters who had no choice other than to rely on them – a real low point for customer service on the modern British railway.

Unlike with the first lockdown, the imposition of ‘tier 4’ restrictions in an area including Bedfordshire, London and the places in-between has so far not resulted in a new, reduced timetable being introduced.

So, in the morning peak, there are three services that will get you from Bedford to St Pancras in 47 minutes (assuming they run to time), and in the evening there are three that will get you back in a journey time of 45 minutes. At other times, there is a basic pattern of four trains per hour, each taking an hour to travel between St Pancras and Bedford, give or take a minute.

The peaktime services are as follows, giving their departure time and journey time in minutes, and starting with the morning peak towards London:
0704, 50
0701, 63
0722, 47
0718, 61
0734, 50
0752, 47
0748, 61
0801, 63
0822, 47
0818, 61
0832, 62
0850, 59

And northbound services in the evening:
1706, 52
1711, 58
1721, 45
1726, 59
1736, 52
1741, 60
1751, 45
1756, 59
1806, 53
1811, 64
1821, 45
1826, 59

In respect of East Midlands Railway services, there is no substantial change, with buses between Bedford and Wellingborough operating in the peaks. One interesting feature of EMR’s new timetable is that unlike its predecessor, it does not specify which services are Meridian trains and which are HSTs (although the ‘MER’ and ‘HST’ abbreviations are still glossed in the key to the timetable). Possibly this is because the class 180 trains are now part of the fleet as well – although there surely isn’t much of a barrier to applying the ‘Meridian’ name to them as well, as it’s not an official designation other than in branding terms, and EMR can apply its brand however it likes, plus realistically most passengers won’t notice the difference.

A class 180 train, now in service with East Midlands Railway. Not a ‘Meridian’, but pretty similar as far as most regular passengers will be concerned. Image by EMR.

Meanwhile, on the Marston Vale line, after a partial reintroduction of train services in the late autumn, the line started operating exclusively with bus replacement services on December 8th, and this will continue until January 3rd. This is attributed to staff shortages.

May 2021 timetable

By far the most significant thing to look ahead to in 2021 is the introduction of the new timetable for the Midland Main Line in May. This will be the moment when the ‘Corby split’ happens: Bedford’s express trains will (mostly) only go as far north as Corby, while trains for Sheffield and the East Midlands will scream through Bedford without stopping.

It’s a dark cloud, but with a few silver linings – of sorts. We went over the basics last time, but in short we will get express services back in the peaks, albeit slower than they used to be; and they will be operated by class 360 electric trains, although unfortunately they will only be refurbished after they have started working on the route, not before. In practice, passenger levels won’t in any event be at the new normal (whatever that turns out to be) in May, never mind the old normal; for peak travel between Bedford and London, it should still be an improvement for those who do have to make journeys.

There are several elements that have to come together for this plan to happen, and they are not yet guaranteed to be in place – although it seems entirely possible that they will be by May. Firstly, the class 360 trains have now mostly been withdrawn from their current duties between London Liverpool Street and stations in East Anglia, and they have all been modified to run at 110mph (between Bedford and Corby only in the first instance). Some have already been transferred to MML, and are being stored at Cricklewood, while some are in Kettering, for driver training.

The second element is the new electric wires between Bedford and Corby, which are not yet completed and ready for use. They continue to be tested by the ‘Frankentrain’ of sundry vehicles noted in the last article, but they are now permanently energised rather than being switched on and off for testing.

When the class 360s come into use, they will free up Meridian trains for services to Nottingham and Sheffield, which in turn will mean the classic Intercity 125 High Speed Trains will finally be withdrawn from the Midland Main Line – the last line on which they remain operating long-distance express services to and from London. In truth the end of their time has been complex and drawn out, with red-liveried sets from the East Coast Main Line replacing the blue-liveried trains that have been plying the line for decades. In the process, train lengths have been shortened: the poor condition of some of the ex-ECML stock has required a lot of work to get the carriages serviceable, and shorter six-coach formations are now quite common. With reduced passenger numbers, this probably isn’t mattering too much.

(For those who care about such things, the replacement red sets have newer, quieter engines in their power cars; the loss of the original engines with their raw, screaming sound has been mourned in some quarters.)

Class 810 ‘Aurora’ trains

Although the new bi-mode trains will not call all that much at Bedford, at least to start with, readers may find these short videos by EMR about the design process for their interiors of interest. That said, their introduction remains a few years away.

East West Rail

The reason why Aurora trains may call somewhat more at Bedford in the long term is East West Rail: with services to Oxford due to start before the end of 2024, and a new connection to Cambridge then due for construction, Bedford will be an interchange between the Midland Main Line and the strategically important rail link through the Oxford-Cambridge ‘arc’. So it’s hard to imagine connectivity not being provided.

In the meantime, East West Rail will be consulting in 2021 on the route between Bedford and Cambridge. The consultation will apparently also cover, “a number of other improvements to the line between Oxford and Bedford which we have developed in response to earlier consultation with our stakeholders and communities.” Hopefully all will be clear when the consultation launches in the spring.

One particularly interesting thing that can be viewed on the East West Rail site right now is this interactive map showing not only the corridor for the proposed route, but also listed buildings, ancient woodlands, public rights of way and many other items of interest in its vicinity – it’s an effective presentation of data from multiple public sources, and well worth a root around in.

On the section of the line towards Oxford, work is continuing into 2021, not least on the replacement of the Bletchley flyover. The planned schedule for work on that part of the route, and locally focused newsletters, can be found on the Network Rail website.

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