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.
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.
Next blog: Saturday 18th December 2021