The expansion before the cuts?

Thursday 16th December 2021

As trailed in Tuesday’s blog about Soham, on Monday and Tuesday I took a look at a couple of other developments in the new winter rail timetable which commenced on Sunday.

If one of LNER’s no expense spared razzmatazz launches is anything to go by the most exciting December development by far is the new once a day direct service on Mondays to Fridays between Middlesbrough and London.

This entails a journey leaving Middlesbrough at 07:08 calling at Thornaby and York before running non-stop to Kings Cross arriving 10:22. A return leaves the Cross at 15:25 also just stopping at York and Thornaby arriving back into Middlesbrough at 18:18. Note the journey time is 3 hours 14 minutes southbound and only 2 hours 53 minutes northbound. More on this shortly.

The timetable makes for a useful five hour stay in London with a reasonably early start and not too late a return. All the more of a puzzle then why it’s only a Monday to Friday venture as I’d have thought leisure travellers and shoppers would have welcomed a weekend day return to London of this kind.

There are of course other train journeys available from Teesside to London including the hourly TransPennine Express (TPE) Middlesbrough to York service (part of its Redcar to Manchester Airport timetable) which provides connections in York for London or the Northern hourly service to Darlington and change there. But changing trains is never as convenient as a through service so the new LNER journey scores highly on that front.

However, if journey time is important a quirk of train pathing means you can leave Middlesbrough at 07:20, twelve minutes after the morning LNER train has gone, and arrive into Kings Cross eight minutes sooner at 10:14 instead of the LNER’S 10:22, even including a six minute change of trains at Northallerton (from TPE to Grand Central). How odd is that?

Most passengers wanting to avoid the punitive Middlesbrough to Kings Cross £165 off-peak single fare (£243.20 return) will buy an advanced purchase ticket. LNER have priced their advanced single at £38.60 southbound and £33.40 northbound. When I checked last night, tickets are available at this price every day over the next few weeks.

If you put the TPE/Grand Central quicker journey option into any train companies’ online fare finder it defaults to the £165/£243.20 so might put you off, but split the enquiry at Northallerton and Grand Central are offering a single from there to Kings Cross for £37 to which you add £10 for a single from Middlesbrough to Northallerton, making a total price of £47.

I’d still opt for the LNER £8.40 cheaper and direct journey albeit taking 20 minutes longer.

Returning from London it looks like LNER wins hands down with its 15:25 direct journey departure from Kings Cross being the quickest and cheapest option too, although a later departure at 16:48 on Grand Central to Eaglescliffe gives a decent 10 minute connection to a Northern train arriving Middlesbrough at 19:50 taking 3 hours, 2 minutes, just nine minutes longer than LNER’S 2 hours 53 minutes.

I took a ride up to Middlesbrough on LNER’S inaugural northbound direct train on Monday afternoon after visiting Soham. I caught the train from York where over eighty passengers also boarded, but mainly because the previous TPE journey had been cancelled due to no driver so I guess none of these passengers were generated by LNER’s entry into the market.

I did a quick count as we approached Middlesbrough – there were 70 in standard class and 16 in first class with quite a few having alighted in Thornaby, probably as many as 30 or 40.

A better assessment was early on Tuesday morning seeing how many boarded at Middlesbrough and Thornaby on the 07:08 to Kings Cross once the podium, loudspeakers, microphone and sparkly fireworks had all been cleared away from Monday’s launch party (aka gathering for work purposes).

The train rolled into Middlesbrough’s platform 1 from its overnight sleepover in the sidings just before 07:00 and 28 boarded in standard class with four in first class. We picked up nine more in Thornaby making for 41 on board as we headed on to York.

There’s padding in the journey time after we joined the East Coast Main Line at Northallerton resulting in us dawdling along the slow line for a while letting a train from Berwick-upon-Tweed whizz past us which leaves York at 08:01, calling at Retford, arriving into King’s Cross at 10:03 – what a shame we couldn’t have stayed in front of it!

Our departure from York is at 08:13 after a scheduled arrival at 08:06. Even after our dawdling we arrived early at 08:03 making for a ten minute pause. That Grand Central journey leaves nine minutes after us at 08:22 from the same platform so our Train Manager spent much of the ten minutes on the train’s PA advising boarding passengers to check their tickets to ensure they’d got on the correct train “tickets marked Grand Central are not valid on this service” and all that. It’s an odd way to run a railway and encourage passengers, it really is.

I did another head count after we’d left York and found 58 on board (43 standard class and 15 first class). A few who’d boarded in Middlesbrough/Thornaby had got off in York and I reckon about 20 joined us in York, meaning around 35 passengers were making the journey from Middlesbrough/Thornaby to London on day 2 of the new service.

As we headed south through Newark and Grantham we became sandwiched between a Grand Central train from Bradford ahead of us with that company’s train from Sunderland behind us. All three of us were behind LNER’S Skipton originating journey which unhelpfully was running 13 minutes late.

We moved over to the slow line between Grantham and Werrington Junction north of Peterborough and took our ‘foot off the gas’ coasting leisurely along to allow the Grand Central train from Sunderland to pass us on the fast line. I profess to not understand the intricacies of railway scheduling and train paths so it’s a complete mystery to me why we had to drop back from the formation and effectively lose around 20 minutes on the journey. Sir Lewis Hamilton wouldn’t have conceded so easily.

We arrived into Kings Cross just two minutes late at 10:24.

And just to add to the frustration …. pulled in in front of that Grand Central train from Sunderland that had passed us!

This new service must cost the resource of a five coach Azuma in the fleet and there was a crew of five or six on board (including a cleaner/rubbish clearer who boarded at York for the two hour journey to Kings Cross) so it’s going to have to work hard to generate enough new passengers to cover those costs and who’ll be attracted by a direct service travelling from/to Teeside rather than changing at Darlington, Eaglescliffe or York.

Casual observations of LNER’s similar direct journey extensions to Harrogate indicate numbers are slowly building, but these are just extensions from Leeds rather than an additional service all the way to and from London. And these are unusual times for the railway so it’ll be interesting to see whether the Treasury’s bean counters have the patience to let this initiative find its wheels during the coming winter months and it’s quasi-lockdown feel and develop the market way beyond Tuesday’s 35 passengers.

The other significant timetable development on the railway from last Sunday is a much improved timetable on the Severn Beach branch. GWR are now running an hourly service between the one platform terminus at Severn Beach to Bristol Temple Meads linked into another hourly service between Avonmouth and Weston-Super-Mare making for an almost half hourly timetable between Avonmouth and Bristol (27/33 minute frequency) which is slightly better than the previous pre Covid much more uneven 35/40 minute offering.

Up until last Saturday the Covid temporary timetable consisted of a two-hourly service to Severn Beach with infill journeys to Avonmouth for a rather erratic three trains every two hours frequency from Temple Meads.

As I haven’t been on the Severn Beach branch for a few years and there’s a new station on the way at Portway Parkway (highlighted on GWR’s network map above) as well as exciting plans to make the line part of a wider Bristol MetroWest project I took a ride out to Bristol after arriving back in London from Middlesbrough on Tuesday.

Severn Beach terminus station

It’s a fascinating journey out to Severn Beach with the first five or six suburban stations served in very close succession necessitating two on board conductors to keep on top of ticket checking and selling. It feels very much like an Overground type ‘metro’.

After passing Sea Mills I looked out for construction work for the new Portway Parkway station but saw no sign at all by the tracks other than what looked like some preparatory work in the existing Park and Ride car park where the station will be sited. It looks like it’ll be a while yet before this station opens.

By the time we reached Avonmouth most passengers had alighted with sixteen left on board for the final ten minute fling to Severn Beach calling at St Andrews Road and passing the industrial landscape of scrap metal dealers and oil terminals galore.

The community at Severn Beach itself is quite small and is no doubt pleased to have its hourly train service restored. After arriving the train and crew settled down for its 39 minute layover at the terminus – which seems somewhat inefficient but reflects the cycle of train journeys (Weston SM to Severn Beach, back to Temple Meads, back to Avonmouth, back to Weston SM) coupled with the journey time from Avonmouth to Severn Beach being just 10 minutes so doesn’t make for an easy way of compiling an hourly Severn Beach and half hourly Avonmouth timetable.

In fact you could operate a half hourly service with the same resources all the way to Severn Beach and only cost the extra diesel.

After that 39 minute break, five passengers boarded between the Beach and Avonmouth on the return journey at 14:01 but we picked up a decent load as we continued from there into Bristol.

I concluded the Severn Beach community are very well served and lucky to have such a good service back again but I wonder if those Treasury bean counters are aware of this development. With widespread cuts on the rail network predicted for 2022 Severn Beach rail users might be advised to enjoy their hourly train …. while it lasts.

Roger French

Next blog: Saturday 18th December 2021

17 thoughts on “The expansion before the cuts?

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  1. A small typo, in that you are missing the second s in Teesside.

    A cynical part of me wonders if the lack of weekend service is in order to avoid engineering works a couple of times a year?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rather odd thing happening on Great Western. The new timetable was supposed to restore the hourly London-Cardiff trains, which run between the hourly London-Swansea ones. However they don’t seem to have run this week although there’s no mention of this on their website. RealTimeTrains and the GW website shows them as running next week though. I wonder if this has been due to Covid (lack of either passengers or staff) or still down to yaw damper repairs being carried out on the trains?

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  3. Ensign Bus

    Ensign bus are in trouble with the traffic commissioners. Their traffic manage has been ordered to attend a 2 fay refresher course

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  4. LNER to Middlesbrough is an interesting one. The idea behind the Grand Central service was to reinstate a connection between Teesside and London, but obviously with it only calling at Eaglescliffe and not at stations that actually serve any meaningful number of people in Teesside then maybe it is missing the mark there. With Middlesbrough having good connections to LNER services via York and Darlington – and it isn’t as though passengers will be put off by some of the connections being on shonky old Pacers any more – it seems on odd one to prioritise, but maybe the demand will be there, we’ll just have to wait and see. It’s just a reminder of how fragmented rail services to Teesside are, and how poorly connected it is as a region.
    And no, I don’t understand why a non-stop 125mph train would be looped to allow another non-stop 125mph train to overtake. My guess would be that they couldn’t ‘flight’ the two trains together through Welwyn or some other bottleneck because the trains ahead and behind were too close to the GC service to squeeze another path in without disrupting those other trains on a regular interval service, and with the GC being an existing service it would get priority for the path, but I don’t really know how these things are worked out. I’ve been in a similar situation on Hull Trains in the past where we got looped to allow another train past. Doesn’t show the railway in a great light, though!

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  5. Having a look at the service today, it turned out that the grand central train was running about 10 minutes late and thankfully common sense prevailed allowing the new Middlesborough service to run direct and it got into kings cross 3 minutes early (and it would’ve been a lot earlier than that if it hadn’t got stuck behind other delayed trains).
    My only suggestion is that perhaps if the two trains come on to the same platform perhaps this is a necessity if there are no other available platforms at that time so then if the LNER service needs to leave first then it would make sense for that train to enter the platform second.

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  6. The GC train is due to lurk in Platform 1 for about an hour before departing northwards again. The LNE one, on the other hand, leaves soon after arrival, scoots up to Bounds Green or thereabours ECS and then returns, this time to Platform 9.

    As the LNE train arrive fdirst today, it grabbed all of Platform 1 while the GC one used Platform 2. Whether that caused any knock-on effects I don’t know.

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  7. It certainly does seem odd to have lengthy 39 minute layovers at Severn Beach which, if nothing else, can’t be very exciting for the train crews. Although the Severn Beach branch was singled back in the 70s or 80s, it does retain two passing points at Clifton Down and Avonmouth. I agree with Roger that it would make more sense to run the half hourly frequency all the way to Severn Beach – although the positioning of the passing points may mean that the frequency isn’t at an exact 30 minute interval.
    Another, more drastic, option would be to withdraw passenger services entirely beyond Avonmouth as this section of line only has one intermediate station followed by a barren four mile stretch before arrival at the terminus. This option would face very stiff opposition, however, and is unlikely to ever happen.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I assume it’s because LNER don’t have enough staff the reason it doesn’t run at weekends.I don’t think, assuming it still runs, the Sunderland King’s Cross ran weekends either?

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  9. I don’t know the Severn Beach area but would it make sense to build a new stretch of line so that trains could run say from Newport to Bristol via Severn Beach. It looks to only need about 500 metres of new line

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  10. Would it make sense for the Grand Central train to arrive at York, and wait for the new Middlesborough train to be coupled to it? It would mean that only one path was required, and the Middlesborough trip would be quicker.

    However, could two competing companies ever come to such a logical arrangement?

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  11. Worth mentioning that the Northern services between Saltburn, Middlesbrough and Darlington are half hourly offering an excellent connection opportunity at Darlington into services north & south.
    I think the direct Middlesbrough to London is an attempt by our mayor to open up the area to business by having direct links available, and I can see it proving popular with day trippers to London once a later journey is available. It’s expected to grow to 6x daily over the next few years. The TPE service is getting extended to Saltburn in May too, giving a new seaside opportunity that I feel will prove popular and offer (much needed) extra capacity to this seaside town. That seems to be gaining in popularity from Redcar I’m glad to say.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Greater Anglia Announce Service Cuts

    Greater Anglia is reducing most services slightly from Monday 20th due to declining passenger numbers

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  13. I think your comment about the fare from Middlesborough should refer to peak rather than off peak. The 1518 return is a bit too early in my opinion. Re Eaglescliffe, I was extreemly surprised when using the station off off a Moorsbus service on a September Sunday, that about 30 passengers boarded the evening Grand Central to Kings Cross and about double that number got off the northbound one, so maybe Eaglescliffe is not as useless as you suggest, no doubt the large car park helps.

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    1. Eaglescliffe is conjoined with a village called Egglescliffe and is a fairly large town plus Yarm and Stockton are close.With the Grand Central usually,at the busy times, about 30 get on in Hartlepool and a similar number in Eaglescliffe but there are generally not so many already on from Sunderland.I think that it’s possible that people ride local trains to Eaglescliffe from Darlington and Middlesbrough to get the GC although from Darlington it’d have to be cheaper given all the LNER trains.A Sunderland is large I don’t know why they don’t put more on the GC but I assume it’s because they go to Newcastle on the Tyne and Wear Metro 🚇 and get LNER and now Lumo.Assuming that everyone is going to London as there are other places in England!I use GC for trips to Northallerton occasionally but only once since coronavirus.

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  14. To tell the truth, I would like to highlight that it is truly queer and inexplicable to have 39 minute layover at the terminus because it is not a typical situation. I can say that before this moment I hadn’t heard about such a state of affairs and it was a little bit surprising for me. I absolutely agree with you that it is absolutely inefficient and I can say that it is really inadvisable. For me, it is an unreasonable and irrational decision which complicates the movement of many people. I think that it would be much more proper to take certain measures and contribute to change such a state of affairs, benefiting in many respects.

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