East Midlands Trains announced back in December that they’ve had an overhaul of their MML (Midland Main Line – essentially their London – Sheffield route) timetable for the next two years in connection with the next phase of the Thameslink programme, with one of the main changes being the removal of Bedford & Luton peak-time calls southbound in the morning peak and northbound in the evening peak.
Before I get into the detail of where I feel this does and doesn’t work, I just want to look into the announcement itself a bit further – it’s been no secret that Bedford & Luton aren’t seen as priority calls on the East Midlands Trains London route from their perspective, and this quote from their Managing Director confirms this:Tap/click to read quote
“In order for this to be successfully introduced by the Department for Transport and GTR, we have had to make some changes to our timetable to allow the additional GTR train services to run on the lines we share into London. We’ve carried out an extensive review of our timetable, which takes into account feedback from our customers and we’ve managed to largely protect journey times from the north and East Midlands to London, and will be able to run some faster trains on a number of services.
Overall, our new timetable represents a largely positive story for customers in the East Midlands and South Yorkshire. Whilst some trains may have slightly longer journey times than today, the extra capacity provided by the new timetable, coupled with some headline journey improvements, will deliver a significant boost to our customers.
We are proud to have been the UK’s most punctual long distance train operator for over nine years, and that is a record we’d like to keep. We recognise that with GTR operating more services on our lines we will need to be even more focused than ever to make sure our trains run on time. Therefore as well as our investment in extra staff, we’ve also got three additional HST trains coming into our fleet to help provide extra resilience for the new timetable.
In the longer term, we will continue to work with the Department for Transport and Network Rail to deliver the improvements needed for the Midland Main Line which will provide greater capacity on the network and will enable future timetable improvements and more journey time benefits.”
Note it’s all East Midlands-centric – there’s no note of the loss of the Bedford/Luton calls at all. Indeed, one of the main points made is capacity, which is essentially gained from losing the Bedford & Luton commuters, at their expense.
The loss of capacity for Bedford commuters for the next two years (at a minimum, it’s speculated East Midlands Trains services won’t resume calling after this time) isn’t the issue here – Thameslink services (including two new fast services Bedford – Luton – St Albans – St Pancras) start at the station so they’re basically guaranteed the chance of a seat. What is an issue, however, is the journey times – 45 minutes being the fastest compared with around 35 minutes in the current timetable. That’s an extra 20 minutes a day, or around 6.5 hours a month lost for the average Bedford commuter. It also means that anyone commuting south from places such as Leicester to Bedford has an extra hour added to their return journey each day at a minimum, as they’ll now need to get a replacement bus from/to Wellingborough.
Now that the background’s been set as to why this change is causing controversy, let’s look at the detail.
Bedford station has 3 platforms able to be used for southbound services, which are shared by both East Midlands Trains and Thameslink services, and the latter all turn around here.
This is the track layout at Bedford from OpenTrainTimes (click to enlarge) – note London is to the left as you’re looking at this:
Ignoring platform 1a (as this is exclusively used for the Marston Vale line shuttle) this leaves 4 platforms available for use, numbered 1-4.
Platform 4 can only be used by northbound East Midlands Trains services – it’s unelectrified and there’s no signal at the south end of the platform. There’s also a through line for southbound East Midlands Trains services, which isn’t platformed, so southbound services which call at Bedford have to cross over onto the slow lines and use one of P1-P3.
The morning peak timetable at Bedford has a few pinch points on the southbound platforms – whilst all looks well at the time the above screenshot was taken (0810 on a weekday morning), earlier in the morning there can be a few issues. One good example of this is the time around the 0755 fast service to London – take a look at this timetable snippet (again from the excellent OpenTrainTimes):
The timings here for the East Midlands service are quite tight here – and this is more often the reality (and it can be worse than this if it’s the Thameslink 0748 that’s delayed rather than the East Midlands service as with this example):
As such, a 5 minute delay by one operator (either way round) at around 8am will almost certainly provide a knock-on delay to services from the other operator, either as the East Midlands London service will need to await a platform if, for example, the 0748 is delayed leaving, or as above, the Elephant & Castle Thameslink service can’t get out of the depot until the East Midlands service gets out the way.
A 5-10 minute delay doesn’t sound like much, but when this happens regularly, it typically means the timetable just doesn’t work. Note there’s a train in P3 at this point which forms the 0804, so in some cases the fast service has to wait a full 10 minutes for this to depart before it has somewhere to go.
This is just one example – similar conflicts frequently occur around the time the 0708 fast service calls.
However, northbound services in the evening peak don’t experience the same issue. As P4 is dedicated to East Midlands Trains services, and there’s typically no East Midlands services departing St Pancras for at least 10 minutes after departure of those that call at Bedford, there is zero conflict. As such, I don’t see the rationale in terms of the Thameslink programme for these fast evening peak services to no longer call. I do see that these East Midlands Trains services are often (though not always e.g. the 1800 to Melton Mowbray at present still frequently has empty seats at the front of the train) overcrowded as far as Bedford, however this will just push the problem, and amplify it due to the St Albans call, on the Thameslink ‘fast’ services calling St Albans, Luton & Bedford.
I don’t realistically expect this to alter the decision short term in any way, but I do want to raise awareness – on both sides of the debate – as to what’s practical. The sensible compromise, in my view, would be to have Thameslink provide the additional morning fast services, as proposed, but until electrification to Corby is completed and the permanent semi-fast London/Luton Airport/Luton/Bedford/Wellingborough/Kettering/Corby services are in place, to keep the current evening northbound calls at Bedford for now – there is no issue with line capacity at all by calling at Bedford northbound. This has the benefit of giving weary evening commuters more chance of a seat overall, whilst resolving the issues I’ve identified above regarding the morning services.
What do you think – anything I’ve missed here? Would be interested to read your comments on these changes.
(Updated penultimate paragraph of Background section 26th January 8:45am to provide clarity regarding commuters southbound from Leicester etc being affected in a.m. peak and northbound in p.m. peak rather than the other way around)