Monday 3rd August 2020
It was pats on the backs all round at Network Rail and GoVia Thameslink Railway (GTR) this morning as although operational problems a plenty caused by damaged overhead lines near Farringdon meant disruption for Thameslink services across the network, the opening of Stevenage’s new ‘turnback’ platform 5 was rightly being celebrated with completion said to be a year ahead of schedule.
Back in the summer of 2017 GTR’s consultation on the Thameslink ‘transformative’ timetable for May 2018 caused much consternation among Hertfordshire commuters when they were told the exciting newly planned Cambridge and Peterborough through trains to Brighton and Horsham meant there was no longer space on the East Coast Main Line at Stevenage for Great Northern trains on the Hertford North line to either terminate at Stevenage or, as some had been doing, continue on to Letchworth and turn there.
There was significant negativity in local media alleging creating a ‘turnback’ facility had somehow been forgotten about in the grand Thameslink project and reports it would mean a bus replacement service for up to seven years until the extra platform and siding could be built only inflamed commuters’ ire still further.
As well as being part of the Thameslink programme, ensuring Stevenage’s platforms were not blocked by local terminating trains was also crucial to the equally grand East Coast Main Line modernisation programme which is still underway with all sorts of projects including better access to Kings Cross and a new ‘dive under’ at Werrington north of Peterborough – both currently under construction.
The objective is to enhance the capacity of the East Coast Main Line so more trains can run and improve its ‘resilience’ – a term beloved of rail folk justifying £millions in investment. Sadly, as we saw this morning, notwithstanding all the investment going into the railway, resilience is still stretched.
In the event the infamous May 2018 Thameslink timetable meltdown didn’t see all the originally planned cross-London services introduced so the controversial withdrawal of Great Northern trains from Hertford North into Stevenage was also postponed.
It was a year later, in May 2019, when more Peterborough and Cambridge trains started running into the Thameslink ‘core’ and south to Brighton and Horsham that the capacity problem hit and the bustitution service began.
This involved Go-Ahead London running two shuttle bus routes direct between Stevenage and Hertford North as well as a separate service between Stevenage and the next station, Watton-at-Stone, where an hourly train on the Hertford North line terminated.
I took a couple of rides on the shuttle service last summer and it was noticeable how lightly used it was. In the 2017 consultation GTR reckoned 1,100 passengers a day would be inconvenienced while these works we’re taking place, but 104,000 would benefit. More like 100 being inconvenienced by my reckoning.
Ground clearing work ready for the new track and platform was already well under way when I visited last summer, but it’s the work that’s been completed in the twelve months since then which really is impressive and justifies those pats on the backs.
This morning’s opening ceremony by Rail Minister Chris Heaton-Harris shows off a new extension from the existing footbridge above platforms 1-4 to a new upper level walkway linking to a new lift and staircase down to a separate gateline for the new platform 5 by its buffer stop. There’s also a ticket machine located here.
Out on the platform there are two large fully enclosed waiting rooms which are a very generous provision for any passengers arriving in good time for their train before it has arrived from its previous journey from Moorgate before heading back again.
There are other seats on the platform as well as the usual departure signs.
The great thing about the new facility is trains from the Hertford Loop line can now terminate at Stevenage without coming into contact with the four running lines on the East Coast Main Line as the track into Platform 5 is bi-directional and is directly linked to the line which comes from Watton-at-Stone and dives under the main lines. Nice.
The slight drawback with this is that while it keeps trains running smoothly passengers making connections to and from the north at Stevenage to and from stations on the Hertford Loop line have to go through a gateline and up to the footbridge between the platforms and then back through another Gateline and down to platform level. I’m thinking that’ll probably mean problems with ticket acceptance at the second gateline – but hopefully that’s been thought of and the gates programmed to accept a ticket for a second showing within a matter of minutes.
There was also a bit of an issue this morning with the departure signs not realising platform 5 had opened – indicating Moorgate trains via Hertford North were departing from platform 4 but I was told that was being fixed during today. I also see from online reports that yesterday’s ‘soft opening’ was a bit chaotic with train planners and signal staff still thinking platform 4 was being used rather than the newly commissioned 5. Just a minor teething problem no doubt.
Aside from this morning’s separate operational problems it was all very impressive at Stevenage – but then at a £40 million price tag it really should be. It’s a lot of money for about 2 kilometres of new track and overhead wires, a platform, waiting rooms, seats, signage, lift and staircase. But there again, these things don’t come cheap. Modernising the railway is an expensive business.
Congratulations are certainly due to everyone involved for the completion of an impressive project well ahead of schedule – which makes for a refreshing change when it comes to new things on the railway.
Two trains an hour are now running to and from Stevenage’s platform 5 and it’s possible for more services to run from here on to the Hertford North line – there’s been talk of a ‘metro’ type service, and, of course, TfL have firm aspirations to take over the line along with the trains using the the main line to Welwyn Garden City.
It looks like more exciting developments for Stevenage lie ahead.