30th April 2022
If you fancy taking a direct train from Brighton station to somewhere beyond the normal Southern/ Thameslink outposts of Southampton, London Victoria, Bedford, Cambridge or Hastings/Ore then you’ve got just ten working days left. After Friday 13th May those destinations will be the limit of your rail travel experience without a change of train.
GWR announced a few weeks ago it will be ending its two journeys a day direct service from Brighton to Worcester (in the morning) and Bristol (in the afternoon) via Southampton, Salisbury and Bristol when the new summer timetable starts on 15th May.
These journeys, which are shown in the timetable as running daily, morphed into only running on Mondays to Fridays a while ago – totally out of tune with the growth in weekend leisure travel of course – but will be no more after Friday 13th May.
It wasn’t that many years ago the West Coastway tracks to and from Brighton saw GWR loco hauled trains as well as hourly trains extending as far as Bournemouth (admittedly I’m going back to the Connex era) and South West Trains running regularly into the city from Basingstoke. My memory is a bit hazy but I think these ran two-hourly, and I may have dreamt it, but I think some continued beyond Basingstoke to Reading.
To the east Southern ran as far as Ashford where there were handy connections to the rest of Kent but these trains were cut back to Eastbourne in the great May 2018 timetable revolution, admittedly a sensible move with the class 170 diesel units being restricted to two coaches proving inadequate at busy times between Brighton, Lewes and Eastbourne.
For many years there were InterCity long distance trains from Brighton to the north of England and even Scotland. These took the Brighton Main Line (BML) to Clapham Junction and continued via Kensington Olympia to either the West Coast Main Line or doubling back to the Great Western line and running via Reading and then Oxford and Banbury to Birmingham and beyond.
These journeys passed to Virgin Trains and subsequently Cross Country at privatisation and linked Manchester with Reading and Gatwick Airport and Brighton two or three times a day.
The final remnant of these was withdrawn in December 2008. Further details of these journeys can be found on the fascinating 1S76 website which charts “the rise and fall of cross country train services to and from Brighton” from 1979 to 2009.
While these journeys usually took longer than going via London they offered the convenience of a direct journey which is particularly welcomed by many passengers especially those with luggage, families and those unsteady on their feet.
Many passengers don’t like the idea of using the Underground between Victoria and other London termini for trains heading to the west country or north although Thameslink does provide a better option for Kings Cross, St Pancras and Euston via a short walk. It’s a shame connections in Stevenage aren’t better between Thameslink trains to and from Brighton and LNER’s Leeds and York stopping trains as that would also make for a handy connection point.
I’ve used the GWR service from Brighton as far as Bristol a few times. It’s a 5 hours 18 minutes marathon if you travel all the way to Worcester but you can do it an hour quicker via London. However It takes 3 hours 31 minutes on the GWR direct service from Brighton to Bristol which compares well with a 3 hours 26 minutes journey via London mainly because connections between arrivals into Victoria and departures from Paddington are either unrealistically tight or a bit slack for the Victoria to Paddington change, meaning an hour spent in London.
You used to be able to pick up some bargain priced advanced purchase fares by taking the direct route too. I recall an £8 single for Brighton to Bristol on one occasion – and that was without a Railcard.
The one downside I’ve found on previous trips is the timekeeping of the service mainly because it used to be slotted into a path following a stopping train out of Brighton to West Worthing which itself had a tendency to run late. There was nothing more frustrating than crawling along though Aldrington and Fishersgate losing time and knowing there’s three more travelling hours ahead.
Pathing is of course one of the challenges for these long distance regional-come-inter-city services when tracks are intensively used by frequent commuter style services. It’s what killed off the Virgin/Cross Country trains which used to reach Gatwick Airport and Brighton and referred to earlier. The BML just wasn’t suited to their like.
Southern have withdrawn the 08:53 stopper to West Worthing on Mondays to Fridays in recent months (it still runs on Saturdays) giving the GWR train leaving at 08:59 a much clearer run but ironically on my recent journey for one last time on the GWR service earlier this month on Good Friday, both the 08:53 and 08:59 were running and sure enough we caught up with it by the time we reached Fishersgate eight minutes out of Brighton.
Another factor is the diesel units used don’t lend themselves to comfortable long journeys with their restrictive leg room. Class 158s have been the mainstay in recent months and at least the train has been formed of three coaches in recent times, whereas years ago the two coaches provided were woefully inadequate.
My ‘one last ride’ on Good Friday may have meant there were more than the usual number of leisure travellers due to the Easter break but we left Brighton with 100 on board which is quite impressive for a journey that’s about to be withdrawn. Obviously not all were making lengthy journeys, and some hopped off at local stations including Hove, Shoreham-by-Sea and Worthing, but in each case we picked many more up than we dropped off.
By Worthing the conductor/guard was making announcements imploring passengers to remove bags from seats so everyone could sit down as the train was getting busier. Annoyingly some ignored the request and continued to fetter their luggage.
Another annoyance is the lateness of opening the doors allowing passengers to board. It was 08:53 before the conductor/guard (who had been taking his break on board after arriving into Brighton from Portsmouth Harbour at 08:35) allowed the growing number of passengers waiting on platform 1 on to the train.
On a long journey passengers want to get settled into their seats well before departure time at the terminus station and it just upsets them when they can’t.
I didn’t travel all the way to Worcester on Good Friday – I had other exciting plans, like spending 4 hours and 40 minutes travelling back from Portsmouth to Brighton by bus but I kept an eye on the timekeeping of the 08:59 Brighton to Worcester on its 5 hours and 18 minutes marathon and I’m pleased to report having at one time become ten minutes down between Cosham and Portchester it arrived into Worcester Foregate Street after calling at 30 stations along the way dead on time.
Farewell GWR in Brighton. We’ll miss you.
PS: An addendum to Tuesday’s blog about Coventry’s revamped railway station with many thanks to Peter Murnaghan who raided his slide collection and found these two images showing how convenient bus and rail interchange was at one time at the station.
Many thanks Peter for passing on these photos.
Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS.