Saturday 5th June 2021
There was only one development of note introduced in last month’s timetable change on Great British Railways (I know I’m premature but just seeing how it’ll sound) and that was on the Midland Main Line where East Midlands Railways (EMR) introduced an improved service between Corby and St Pancras International using electric trains for the first time.
I took a ride to the town, located in the newly set up North Northamptonshire Council (from 1st April), to check it out accompanied by former Brighton & Hove colleague and friend Mike Best, now also retired.
Corby has had a chequered history of rail service provision, but the last decade has seen significant investment, improvements and growth.
The town lost its station in 1967 taking on the accolade of being the largest town in Britain (some said Europe) without a rail service. After a brief flirtation with a shuttle service to Kettering subsidised by the local authority between 1987 and 1990 trains finally returned to the town with a newly built station in 2009 with an hourly service to London.
At that time there was a single track section of line from where the ‘branch’ to Corby (and on to Oakham and beyond) leaves the Midland Main Line but recent investment has seen this doubled and overhead electric wires extended from Bedford to Kettering and on to Corby enabling the new electric train service to commence from 16th May with a new half hourly service branded as EMR Connect.
In the space of just over a decade not only have trains returned to Corby but the track’s been doubled, then electrified and the service increased from hourly to half hourly. Not bad going and I’m sure the 55,000 residents or so of Corby will appreciate their new found status of being Britain’s latest town to receive an electrified train service after so many years in the train wilderness from the 1960s to 2009.
Last month’s changes are part of a wider recast of the Midland Main Line timetable which took advantage of other infrastructure improvements (more tracks, rebuilt station alignments etc) to now provide six trains into and out of St Pancras (not including Thameslink below ground) instead of the previous five. As well as the two Corbys there are also two Sheffields and two Nottinghams which have been speeded up by rationalising stations previously called at south of Kettering.
With a very few minor peak hour exceptions, stations south of Kettering (Wellingborough, Bedford, Luton and Luton Airport Parkway) are now only served by the new EMR Connect branded half hourly Corby electric service.
This also enabled EMR to withdraw the inconvenient peak hour rail replacement coach service between Wellingborough and Bedford introduced in the May 2018 timetable, much to the delight of those few commuters who’ve been forced to use it for the past three years.
EMR have taken delivery of 21 four-car Class 360 trains shipped in from Greater Anglia for the new service. These Siemens built trains from Germany date from the early 2000s and are due to be refurbished by EMR but this work was put on hold during the pandemic, so they’ve been introduced in the same state as when they left Greater Anglia.
Sadly this has meant the new improved timetable hasn’t been matched with improved train interiors; but their still very decent trains. The Class 360s still have 3+2 seating which EMR plan to reconfigure to 2+2 especially as the plan is to normally run them in 8 car format and in due course could run as 12 cars thereby offering significantly increased seating capacity compared to the Class 222 Meridians they’ve replaced.
A Class 222 had 235 seats but even an eight car Class 360 has 536. Our train yesterday morning was only a 4-car unit although that was more than adequate for the handful of passengers on board and its 268 seats being still many more than the Meridian.
EMR have upgraded the pantographs on the trains to increase their top speed from 100 mph to 110 mph, which enables the option of running 12 car trains south of Bedford although ironically until the wires are upgraded 110 mph is not possible south of Bedford, only north of the town where the new wires have been installed.
The trains are also yet to receive EMR’s new livery. Temporary EMR Connect branding has been added to the former Greater Anglia scheme until this can be done. But, with the new Great British Railways on the horizon one wonders whether these kinds of rebrands will now be put on hold. It will be a shame if so, as localised branding schemes do help to sell specific rail lines and their benefits to attract passengers.
When the new Corby station was built and opened it was in the guise of a “transport interchange” with buses and taxis. Sadly there’s not much of a bus service now serving the station – its location relative to the town’s road network doesn’t help.
Stagecoach’s X4 calls by in the morning peak and the evenings as well as all day on Sunday on its journey from Northampton to Peterborough and there’s a handful of journeys on a town route, but otherwise it’s zilch.
The coach parked up yesterday morning…..
… was allegedly on a rail replacement service, but we couldn’t work out why, when or what.
Leaving St Pancras yesterday morning it was noticeable how smoother and faster the journey began especially as we followed the fast Sheffield and fast Nottingham trains which roared out with their diesel powered engines at 09:32 and 09:35 respectively whereas we simply glided silently out of Platform 1 at 09:45.
Soon into the journey Train Manager Sally came round to check tickets and we got chatting about the new service. What a gem Sally is for EMR. So friendly and personable. She’s based in Derby and used to work on inter-city trains and although she misses that work, three weeks into the new arrangement, she’s beginning to enjoy the new challenge of working this service.
Sally thinks the service will prove popular once regular passengers get used to the idea the trains are different to the former Meridians used on the route.
I’m sure that’s right, but there’s consternation in Wellingborough where the few happy peak hour commuters to Bedford who’ve now got their train back are offset by even more unhappy St Pancras commuters who feel their service has been downgraded to a commuter type stopping train from inter-city style fast journey. All the more so for those who enjoyed the luxury of first class travel (probably via a business account) to and from London as the new half hourly service is standard class only. I assume EMR are offering refunds to season ticket holders.
The journey yesterday morning went very smoothly for us with an on time arrival into Corby at 10:54, 69 minutes after leaving St Pancras.
We switched over to the slow line just before Kettering at 10:46 ensuring the fast line is cleared for the next fast to Sheffield at 10:48 which had left St Pancras at 10:02, followed by the 10:05 Nottingham which stops at Kettering, such is the slickness of the new timetable and its train paths.
As a regular traveller on the Brighton Main Line I very much appreciated the comfortable seats in the Class 360s – especially as we enjoyed the declassified former first class 2+2 seating.
They’re a great improvement on Southern’s Class 377s and certainly Thameslink’s Class 700s. I wouldn’t mind travelling regularly on them.
I wonder if commuters from Clacton miss them too, at the same time as Wellingborough commuters are displeased with their new offering. Which only goes to show you can’t please everyone, as the inevitability of change affects us all.
Corby Station’s ticket office is relatively luxurious for the half hourly train service it now supports and was all the more so for the previous hourly timetable. Mike observed how much grander it is than his local station in Seaford which has the same level of service.
There’s a real time departure sign for the few bus departures from the station and a poster showing a list of departures.
I doubt anyone catches a bus to or from the station though.
Inside the ticket office is a further electronic sign which pretty much sums up the non-interchange arrangements. I can’t help but wonder at the ‘business case’ behind the installation of this screen.
One other factor impacting train-bus interchange is Corby’s long tradition of being a taxi town with cheap fares and informal taxi sharing. We noticed quite a few taxis coming and going to the station while we were there.
There’s even a very busy taxi type ‘bus’ station in the town centre which has a constant stream of customers …
…. alongside the town’s main bus stops.
Back at the station EMR have installed banners promoting the new Connect branded service …
…. and hopefully will get round to updating the poster showing train departure times which currently shows last year’s out of date information (once DfT allows such luxuries).
And if you want to pick up a timetable leaflet with details of the great new service on offer…..
…tough; it seems it’s too dangerous for your health at the moment. Even though it’s apparently OK to swap books in the station’s adjacent free library cabinet.
There’s a rather novel series of cycle racks under the platform canopy which extends over to where the few buses stop too …
… and there’s a small car park for 60 cars.
As Corby continues to grow as a town and the population expands over the next few years I’m sure EMR’s new half hourly electric “Connect” service will prove successful and popular.
It competes with Stagecoach’s Gold branded (for now) route X4 for local traffic between Corby, Kettering and Wellingborough. The X4 also runs half hourly but with inconvenient station locations in Corby and Wellingborough has an advantage over rail, even though on board journey times are quicker on the train.
Let’s hope with its new found enthusiasm for rail the Government will soon give the go ahead to complete the much anticipated full wiring of the Midland Main Line north through to Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield so the full potential of the line can be realised.
And not just Corby.