For the second article looking at what East West Rail might mean for Bedford, we turn from the controversy surrounding the tracks north of Bedford station, to the station itself. It’s here that the wider benefits to Bedford of East West Rail really start to come into focus.
Bedford station is unable to accommodate current levels of traffic: southbound East Midlands services compete with Thameslink services for platform space, and this regularly leads to delays in the evening peak in particular, as trains from London get backed up outside Bedford. It was also a key factor in suspending the morning peak services back in 2018. So, adding an entire new line to the existing station clearly won’t be viable: East West Rail requires a major rebuilding of Bedford station.
This is a massive opportunity. As well as the operational constraints in terms of the actual trains, the station overall is well past its sell-by date. The station building is cramped and far too small for the number of passengers who use it – it is regularly uncomfortable at peak times, with long queues for ticket machines blocking it up in the mornings.
Also, while late 1970s British Rail architecture no doubt has its fans, overall the building is in a style that the public as a whole have not generally warmed to; the opportunity for something more aesthetically pleasing is welcome. Hopefully it will be taken: this will be the biggest station project on EWR, and should be built as a flagship station for the line, as well as a flagship building for Bedford. In the process, the aim should be to deliver a station with good interchange for bus services, cycling and walking, including both to the town centre and to the river and, yes, a decent amount of car parking.
The consultation’s Technical Report offers a fair, if rather grim, assessment of how the station currently sits in the town, which is worth quoting at length:
The relationship between the station and the town centre is currently very weak. The station is located off Ashburnham Road, at the back of a low-rise residential area. There is no direct, vibrant and pedestrian-friendly route from the station to the town centre, with the urban fabric acting as a barrier, and most of the public transport network not directly serving the station.
Ford End Road Bridge does provide some east-west connectivity, although the bridge is narrow, and a separate pedestrian bridge is provided to the north since the original bridge is not wide enough to accommodate a footpath. The nature of Ford End Road overbridge – a series of brick arches – and the road network configuration around the station, act as a barrier to north-south connectivity in the area. The area surrounding the station is mostly given over to car parking for both passengers and railway staff. All car parking is at surface level which gives the current station area a suburban and vehicle-dominated landscape and character.
Clearly, improving on this situation is a major prize for Bedford.
The consultation discusses various possibilities for new platforms. Depending on the options eventually selected, there could be some or perhaps even all of the following new platforms:
- Three new platforms for EWR services, to the east of the existing platforms (therefore going through the area where the main station building currently sits) – these are a firm proposal
- A new platform for Thameslink trains, most likely an extension of the current bay platform, 1A, to become a through platform
- A new dedicated platform for southbound East Midlands trains, to match the current platform 4, used exclusively by northbound East Midlands services.
If all of these options are pursued – which isn’t guaranteed, but could be done at a push – Bedford station will have nine through platforms, from its current four! Squeezing all of those platforms into the current station site, which gets somewhat narrow around the area of the current main entrance, may be a challenge – but it should be doable.
It’s important to understand that this is separate from the question of whether new tracks get built north of the station – the new platforms will be needed for EWR, and desirable for Thameslink and East Midlands Railway, irrespective of whether there are four, five or six tracks immediately north of Bedford station
However, EWR have indicated that some of the buildings that border the station on Ashburnham Road may require demolition. This isn’t as firm a proposal as has been suggested for the Poets area, and it’s not self-evident that these properties would have to go in order to make way for the new station. The proposals to rebuild the station as part of the Thameslink programme (abandoned following public spending cuts when the coalition government took office in 2010) did not involve demolishing these buildings. Effective representations in the consultation exercise should be able to steer EWR to a solution that provides a suitable new station for Bedford without needlessly demolishing homes and businesses.
Nice though a new station will be, let’s not overlook the reason for rebuilding the station: from it, you will be able to get a train to Cambridge in around 35 minutes, and to Oxford in around an hour, as well as a more reliable Thameslink service and, more likely than not, reinstated intercity trains direct to destinations in the East Midlands (which Bedford is due to lose next month at the time of writing).
That said, it’s not entirely clear when those services will start running. EWR have outlined three ‘connection stages’ for the introduction of new services:
- CS1: two passenger trains per hour, each way, between Oxford and Milton Keynes – ‘expected’ in 2025 (and very likely, as work is well advanced)
- CS2: an additional two passenger trains per hour between Oxford and Bedford
- CS3: Oxford to Bedford trains extended to serve Cambridge, and two new trains per hour between Cambridge and Bletchley – with an ‘ambition’ to start running by the end of the decade (note the much less firm language – not a coincidence, as that is a demanding target).
As will be clear, there is no target date for CS2, when services will commence between Oxford and Bedford. For that to happen, the upgrade of the Marston Vale line (see future article) and Bedford station will have to have been completed. That suggests that EWR will have to crack on with those works quite quickly.
So that’s the big picture. But the EWR consultation also sets out some more detail about what the new Bedford station might look like in practice.
Bedford station – ‘North’ concept
EWR make clear that their ‘North’ option is their preference, for reasons that we’ll see very clearly when we look at the ‘South’ option. The ‘North’ option envisages a station on essentially the same site as the current one, but much expanded.
The new EWR platforms will sit to the east of where the current platforms sit (allowing for possible new Thameslink and East Midlands platforms). The EWR tracks will approach the station under the arches of the Ford End Road bridge – this will restore arches to use that previously accommodated tracks from the old Bedford Midland Road station, which was roughly where the southern car park area and prefab building for Thameslink drivers sit. EWR propose to re-use the current bridge and not re-build it, subject to further survey work confirming it’s in good enough condition.
The proposal is to bring the railway up from Bedford St Johns as double track lines on a fairly direct alignment, through the Jowett sidings, used by Thameslink to store their 12-coach trains. Provisionally, EWR expect to be able to replace at least some of this siding capacity with new sidings between EWR and the Midland Main Line, where there are already sidings for shorter 8-coach Thameslink trains. The EWR lines will go past the nineteenth century Grain Store building, which is not expected to require demolition. That said, the exact fate of the Thameslink sidings and Grain Store will depend on further survey and design work, so there is still a bit of uncertainty in this area.
Overall, the ‘North’ option gives the possibility of an, “attractive urban station forecourt and plaza between Ford End Road Bridge, Ashburnham Road and the station,” plus options for improving pedestrian routes to the town centre and river (though it would fall to other redevelopment projects to achieve this).
However, the consultation notes that providing car parking and transport interchange will be a challenge on a relatively constrained site. For cars, a multi-storey car park is the most likely solution, on the area to the north where the current car parks are (and given the demand for these spaces, it has long seemed surprising that at least one extra storey of car parking has not already been added, as has been done at Northampton and various other stations south of it on the WCML). It could have spaces for businesses and/or public services on the ground floor.
Overall, while this option seems sensible and plausible, it does appear somewhat lacking in ambition. To ensure enough space for interchange (buses, walking, cycling), while still providing the much larger concourse that the station clearly needs, a useful option would be to put much of the concourse on a large raised area above the tracks. The successful recent rebuilding of Reading station (previously another station blighted by a cramped concourse and footbridge) offers an example of where this works well, and given the scale of the new Bedford station, a similarly ambitious approach should surely be under consideration. That is surely the solution to achieving as much as needs to be achieved with the in places quite constrained site that EWR are faced with.
Bedford station – ‘South’ concept
EWR have developed an alternative option, in recognition of Bedford Borough Council’s ambition to regenerate the area south of Ford End Road bridge, and suggestion that as part of this the station could be relocated there. However, EWR are clearly not keen on it: it would be much more expensive and require additional funding from other development schemes, which in turn would introduce uncertainty and risk of delay to the EWR project as a whole.
However, the consultation offers an outline of what this option might look like. East Midlands services would be served by dedicated platforms on the fast lines, with two bay platforms and two through platforms for Thameslink, plus the three EWR platforms. So this option certainly doesn’t fall short in solving Bedford’s platform shortage – but the platforms would be spread out, with a long interchange distance between the EWR ones and the others.
The station could have an entrance area facing the town centre, or alternatively EWR suggest putting a lot of the concourse above the tracks – the option they notably didn’t discuss for the ‘North’ concept.
Overall, this option would cover a larger area of land, leave less space for other redevelopment, and create greater challenges for finding new sidings for Thameslink.
In some ways, the rebuilt Bedford station encapsulates the benefits of East West Rail to Bedford: a major improvement on what we currently have, and the gateway to new travel opportunities missing since the 1960s, and with much faster journey times than back then. But there is more to the scheme than just what will happen at Bedford station, and the next article will look at its often-overlooked cousin, Bedford St Johns.
Maps and diagrams are from the EWR consultation materials, and other images by Bedford Rail unless stated.