The East West Rail consultation proposes a major revival for the second of Bedford’s railway stations, Bedford St Johns. However, there are options for what form it will take.
The available options are shaped by the available spaces for new infrastructure, which in turn are dictated by the history of Bedford’s railways in that part of town. So to understand what’s going on, let’s take a quick look at the past of the sites in question: why do we have a Bedford St Johns station at all? Why does Bedford need a small station near the main one? And how do some seemingly odd options and parcels of land come to be available?
Two old lines, one old station: Bedford’s railways south of the river
As this blog has previously outlined, the first railway to serve Bedford was the line from Bletchley, which opened in 1846 and terminated at Bedford St Johns station. Subsequently the line was extended: from Bletchley to Oxford, and then from Bedford on to Cambridge. Both extensions closed to passenger traffic in 1967, leaving just the Marston Vale line on its own again.
By this time, the other Bedford station had become much more substantial than St Johns: Bedford Midland Road (as it was originally known) opened in 1859, on a line running south from Leicester, through Bedford to Hitchin, where it connected to the main line into London King’s Cross. In 1868, new lines opened between Bedford and the new terminus at St Pancras. The line to Hitchin remained, although much less important than it had been, until it eventually closed in 1961.
With the lines to Hitchin and Cambridge both closed, Bedford had rather more railway in that part of town than it needed. A stretch of the line to Cambridge actually continued in use until 1979, taking coal to the old Goldington Power Station (where the Riverfield Drive housing estate now stands – the power station eventually closed and was demolished in the 80s, and that stretch of line is part of the cycle route along the north side of Priory Park).
In 1984 the lines were finally rationalised: the old St Johns station was closed, but a curve from the Marston Vale towards Bedford station allowed trains to reach the newly built platform 1A. A new, very short, platform was built under the Ampthill Road bridge, to serve as a new Bedford St Johns station, largely because it was easier than the lengthy administrative faff of actually closing the station. This being British Rail in the 1980s, the work was done on the cheap: after coming up the double track Marston Vale line, trains were directed onto a single-track stretch of line, over a tight curve that limited speeds to 15mph. And so it has remained to this day. Clearly, this section of line will need to be upgraded if it is to meet the demands of East West Rail, which will be much faster and busier than the current Marston Vale line.
The current land and infrastructure
As can be seen from the Google Earth view and annotated map, the railway at this point passes through a fairly wide corridor of land with areas of scrubland and car parking. The western edge of the area marks the alignment of the old line to Hitchin, which explains why the bridge over Ampthill Road has spans with nothing more than a car park beneath them – there used to be railway tracks there. (The two industrial buildings shown next to the car park were demolished in autumn 2020.)
Whatever option is selected for the new station and track alignment, EWR expect to have to demolish and rebuild the Cauldwell Street bridge, as it will not offer sufficient clearance. The Ampthill Road bridge is expected to be retained, subject to survey work confirming it will provide adequate clearance.
The area south of the River Great Ouse is earmarked for ‘intensification’ by the Bedford Town Centre Masterplan, and this area is surrounded by areas subject to grant of planning permission(s) for development. Depending on the shape of future development, the bridge that currently carries Ampthill Road over the railway could potentially be removed, or replaced with a gentler gradient up to the bridge, as the railway won’t remain on its current alignment whatever happens.
So, those are the parameters EWR have to work with. Let’s now have a look at their proposals.
Option 1 – the ‘hospital’ station
EWR’s preferred option is a station next to the hospital. The track would run parallel to Britannia Road, and the station would give direct access to it. The site is currently used as a car park.
This would follow the old Hitchin alignment, restoring the old curve from the Marston Vale line that was replaced in the 1980s, and allowing speeds of up to 40mph – faster than the designated 30mph necessary to meet the journey time requirements for the line (although obviously trains stopping at St Johns – the slower stopping services between Bletchley and Cambridge – would not achieve this).
As the line would run in the western part of the available area, it would free up the rest of it, including where the line currently runs through St Johns station plus the various areas of scrub and bushes, for development.
Option 2 – an Ampthill and Elstow Roads station
The second available option would be made possible by having the railway take a longer, shallower curve up from the Marston Vale line. This would swing out further east than the old Hitchin alignment, and allow speeds of up to 60mph (though again, not for trains actually stopping at St Johns).
EWR want to build any new stations on straight track, to minimise gaps between platforms and trains. This is better for both safety and accessibility. However, because this second alignment would involve a much longer curve, there would not be enough straight track in the area of the current station to put new platforms in. Under this option, the station would therefore be moved south, to the residential area between Elstow Road and Ampthill Road.
This station would be further away from the hospital and the planed redevelopment area, and would require a new bridge over the Great Ouse as the alignment of the track would be different because of the longer curve. However, residents in the Elstow Road and Ampthill Road areas might like the idea of having a station within closer walking distance – certainly it would be much more useful to them than the current St Johns station. If people living in that area would like a station there, now is the time to push for it by responding to the consultation.
So, those are the possibilities, and the reasoning behind them. One thing not discussed so far is the site of the old St Johns station, which has been sitting empty and overgrown since it closed in 1984. This has been to safeguard the route in case it was ever reopened – although sadly, similar measures were not put in place further along the line at Sandy, where the alignment has been comprehensively built over. Even without this, it’s not clear that the old route would have been a preferred option for the modern railway, but either way the days of the old St Johns lying empty are surely drawing to a close. Once the alignment of the new route is settled and work underway, it can expect to be sold off as part of the wider redevelopment plans for that part of town.
Maps and diagrams are from the EWR consultation materials, and other images by Bedford Rail unless stated.