Riding the Marston Vale line on a replacement bus

Tuesday 31st January 2023

Message to email subscribers: I am very sorry some subscribers didn’t receive Saturday’s blog and quite likely today’s too. I have raised this issue with WordPress and asked them to urgently look into it. One of their “Happiness Engineers” (yes, really) has been in touch to advise ‘there is an ongoing problem …. our developers are aware … and are working towards a solution’. I hope normal service will resume as soon as possible, but in the meantime posts can be found here.”

You’ve got to feel sorry for passengers using the Marston Vale railway line which runs between Bedford and Bletchley.

On the horizon are exciting plans to transform the line as part of the East West Rail project with some stations possibly getting four times the current hourly service as well as investment in new track and signalling yet for months and even years the line has been beset with unreliability and complete abandonment by trains.

Passengers got their hourly train service back on 16th May last year after a long Covid inspired period when London NorthWestern operated the entire timetable with replacement buses and things were finally looking up during the summer and autumn only for Vivarail to go into administration in December meaning maintenance arrangements for the class 230 trains used on the line ceased overnight.

London NorthWestern immediately announced a suspension of the service with no alternative maintenance arrangements available and future use of the former London Underground D stock converted trains in doubt.

So it’s been back to buses again to achieve some semblance of a service on the line for passengers using the 10 intermediate stations as well as Bedford and Bletchley.

Some of the stations are not easily accessed by large vehicles so London NorthWestern have arranged two simultaneous departures on the approximate hourly replacement service, one deploying a minibus calling at all stations and the other operated with full size coaches skipping four of the smallest and hardest to reach stations thereby giving a quicker end to end journey time.

The train took 42 minutes for a Bedford to Bletchley journey whereas the limited stop coach does it in 67 minutes and the all stations stopper takes 85 minutes – double the train.

Daytime departures from Bletchley between 11:00 and 17:00 are at the same minutes past each hour (01) but from Bedford the times are more variable between 48 and 05 on different hours although are all 55 past the hour between 11:55 and 15:55.

It takes eight vehicles to run the service – two on each departure so this operation must be proving quite costly for what is a small branch line.

The coaches and minibuses out in service when I took a journey up and down the line last Thursday were provided predominantly by Luton based AtoB Group which includes Tates Coaches and minibuses using the A to B brand. One coach was also provided by another Luton based company: 7 Plus Travel Ltd.

I planned to travel on the 11:05 all stations departure from Bedford and having arrived at about 10:55 found a minibus sitting outside the station in the bus stand where rail replacement buses stop.

There didn’t seem to be a second vehicle so at 11:04 as the driver (who’d been taking her break in the driving seat) turned the engine on, the 10 passengers who’d been waiting with me in the sheltered area wandered over, opened the door and climbed aboard.

The driver confirmed she was the all stations departure and she didn’t know where the limited stop vehicle was but just on 11:05 as we were about to leave a coach appeared and all 10 passengers got off the minibus and transferred over to it.

This left just me on the minibus and we set off for the tour of all 10 stations across the Bedfordshire countryside. It wasn’t a luxury style minibus and didn’t offer much legroom….

… and it didn’t offer ‘level boarding’ although a wheelchair could be accommodated using a tail lift at the rear if needed.

First stop was at nearby Bedford St Johns where three passengers were waiting but caught the coach which was approaching behind us.

Whereas the coach skips the next station, Kempston Hardwick, we made our way to reach it but got caught in a long slow moving queue of traffic leaving Bedford due to a lorry blocking our progress as it delivered building supplies.

This delay cost us five minutes and we reached Kempston Hardwick at 11:29 instead of 11:24 with a passenger bound for Bletchley patiently waiting for us.

Next station is Stewartby where another passenger was waiting. At this time it would seem the limited stop coach was still behind us otherwise he’d have been better taking that for his journey to Woburn Sands. The other passenger waiting was for Bedford.

Millbrook was our next station, another by-passed by the limited stop coach as we needed to take a more circuitous route to reach it including passing the famous test track now owned and run by UTAC.

By now we were only three minutes down having made up two minutes of our delay.

Almost all the stations on this line are two platform affairs by a level crossing and with rail replacement buses picking up alongside the entrance to the station.

The next two stations – Lidlington and Ridgmont – are also served by the coach.

Oddly as we arrived at Lidlington we met the coach heading the other way (because it takes another route which is supposedly quicker) and it seemed strange it hadn’t made better progress.

We passed Ridgmount next, as the coach did, where there’s a small and fascinating Heritage Centre about the Marston Vale line that’s well worth a visit…

…in the former station building ticket office…

… and where there’s also a lovely tea room too.

The following station – Apsley Guise – was just one for us to call at but we didn’t pick anyone up anyway.

The roads around Aplsey Guise are quite narrow which suited the minibus but could have caused problems for a coach so it’s just as well the route is split in the way it is.

Next up is Woburn Sands where our Stewartby border alighted and by now we were now only a minute down on our scheduled timings.

Passing the station it was clear Network Rail staff were busy at work taking advantage of the platforms being out of use by giving them some attention.

As we approached the next station, Bow Brickhill, yet again the so called limited stop coach was there which once again seemed an odd thing when it was supposed to be 17 minutes ahead of us by this point.

Still no more passengers for us, and as we continued via the last station, Fenny Stratford, which the coach would by-pass,,,,

,,, we were three minutes down again but it didn’t matter as no-one was waiting. It was then a straight run from there to Bletchley including under this rather restricted road width bridge carrying the railway …

… and we arrived into Bletchley at 12:30.

Where the limited stop coach had already parked up….

…. and another minibus was laying over.

Inside the ticket office at Bletchley there was a notice board and leaflet holder organised by the Community Rail Partnership which helpfully had some folded A4 typed timetables showing the rail replacement service…

… and a wipe board confirmed despite the drivers obviously not being in ASLEF, the service wouldn’t be running tomorrow and Friday during the strike.

After a lunch beak I decided to return to Bedford on the limited stop coach rather than the minibus to try and find out why it seemed to be running behind schedule. Just before departure at 13:01 the coach pulled up at the bus stop for replacement buses and seven passengers boarded.

As we were pulling out the minibus which was running the all stations journey pulled up as well, but no one was around to board.

A Tates coach also pulled in on the 11:55 limited stop journey from Bedford due to arrive into Bletchley at 12:57, so was only four minutes late.

It was straight to Bow Brickhall for us (missing out Fenny Stratford) where we dropped off one passenger and picked another up for Ridgmount. Our next station was Woburn Sands where two alighted and we were due at Ridgmont, our next station, at 13:17.

But, oh dear, the driver took a wrong turning at the rather complicated M1 junction 13 and instead of continuing south on the A421 beyond the first roundabout with the improved and widened A421 continuing north to Bedford, he turned left there and followed that road thereby missing the turning at the next roundabout for the A507.

The passenger for Ridgmont realised what had happened and got up to ask the driver if he was going to Ridgmont which he confirmed he was explaining he’d taken a wrong turning.

Unfortunately it meant a seven and a half mile detour up and down the A421 dual carriageway until the first exit where we could turn making us 21 minutes late. We managed to make some of that delay up on the rest of the journey, having picked five passengers up at Stewartby and arrived at Bedford 13 minutes late at 12:18 instead of 12:05.

It made me wonder if the driver had taken a wrong turn on the outward journey too, which would explain why he was so late when we kept catching him up. I suspect so.

At least the coach was nice and comfortable with plenty of legroom and seat back trays….

…. and had usb sockets too.

And there was space for a wheelchair.

No-one is saying how long the poor passengers who use the Marston Vale line are going to have to be using coaches and minibuses instead of trains.

The Class 230s look like they’ve become an expensive liability which won’t see any further use. With all the new trains going into service I would have thought there should be some suitable trains available to cascade down to this line. I know GWR having cancelled their Class 739s and retiring the Castle HST sets so are in no position to help but I hear some Class 158s might be found from elsewhere, or maybe TfW with all its new trains will have something?

Let’s hope a solution is found very soon, because this is no way to be running a railway.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: TThS

28 thoughts on “Riding the Marston Vale line on a replacement bus

Add yours

  1. When you look at the dismal number of passengers using the service at the moment, it does bring into question how worthwhile it is keeping all of those stations open at all … I wonder if numbers have dropped significantly as a result of the bustitution.


    1. I would use the line instead of driving but the new trains were so unreliable, as they were testing them on live passengers instead of a proper programme, I had to buy a car. The old trains were dirty but mostly turned up on time. The bus replacements during the early times of the new trains were dire. So, even though I need to get to Stewartby from BSJ and back tomorrow, I’m taking taxis, as bus drivers missed us out or got delayed constantly, were never given maps or briefed and it seems things have not changed. How hard is it to prescribe a route?


  2. As a local resident I can say that you got lucky with the minibus. Many are kitted out for more school transport and some have only seven seats in the rear as many have been removed, possibly for wheelchair accessibility, possibly for driver licensing arrangements? They are a lot more ropey than the van you took.

    There has been an outline plan put forward to have replacement units being in place in September. 2023 is going to be a long year.


    1. Seems stranger they cannot find a couple of suitable replacement trains anywhere in the UK

      The Loading gauge on the line is W8 which is pretty standard as far as these things go in the UK (The multitude off loading gauges is down to the historic nature of the UK railways. When built there were no standards)

      Sadly Brunel’s Broad Gauge which was far superior to the standard gauge lost out in spite of trials proving it to be better the standard gauge had become to well established well except in NI which has its own 5′ 3″ gauge. The same Gauge is used in Southern Ireland


      1. Main issue is platform lengths. Even a pair of 153s would be too long in some places so I think 150s are the only option. And I guess it takes time to shuffle them round to become available.


  3. I can highly recommend the tea rooms at Ridgemont – superb food and very reasonably priced. One of the downside issues is that there is no revenue protection and no one to check if you have valid tickets so the service is literally a free for all!


  4. I know Roger is a cockney sparrow by birth, but did he really have a lunch beak before returning to Bedford?

    Interesting blog, as always. It does seem unfathomable that trains can be obtained, placed into service, and yet there is no form of worthwhile contingency in terms of “aftercare” for these circumstances.


    1. It’s more than unfathomable – it’s a disgrace, and ultimately the DfT must be held responsible. Otherwise we are expected to believe that there is no self-powered passenger rolling stock resilience anywhere in the GB rail industry. What about employing a couple of Northern or TPE trains which are anecdotally out of use at present?


  5. Thank you very much for an excellent review. I can only conclude that no-one at the train operating company gives a jot. West Midlands trains also have many new DMUs awaiting entry to service, and they could surely re-arrange some of their stock to replace the hapless 230s !


    1. My understanding is that the Marston Vale line is now only cleared for class 150 and 153 units, and given the way the railway is today it’s unlikely that anyone is willing to sign off on the (paper) exercise to clear them for other 15x units, assuming West Midlands Trains has any, or the practical exercise to clear them for the new DMUs.

      All WMT’s 170s are overdue transfer to EMR, and I hear that the DfT has basically told WMT that those units “must” be transferred to EMR by May “or else”, although I don’t suppose anyone believes there’s anything the DfT can do if they’re not transferred! The whole railway today is, after all, the DfT’s own mess.

      It’s just another example of how the whole railway today is set up to fail.


  6. If this report wasn’t serious, it could almost be a comedy program on TV!
    But seriously, it adds to my thoughts generally about the chaotic and unreliable state of much of public transport in the UK. It is hardly a wonder, therefore, that public transport is in decline and many people have deserted it and prefer to use their car or just work from home


  7. OK, so Vivarail went bust. But we are told that the units worked well. They were supposed to be maintained by Vivarail on site locally. It is reasonable to suppose that there is a shed full of spare parts for the units. And also there will be skilled (former) staff who understand the job and could be provided with access to the spare parts.

    If an Administrator has been appointed to look after the affairs of Vivarail, is there really no prospect that the staff and kit could transfer to the train operator? There are still plenty of redundant Underground units in sidings that could be sold off to try and pay debts.

    The use of buses just seems so defeatist to me. And the future of the proven, good trains is ….. what exactly ?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it’s scandalous that the Vivarail units are out of use, the TOC should have the capability to maintain them (by taking on the Vivarail engineers). I suspect DfT micromanagement is responsible. Also the whole issue of Vivarail upcycling the former LU D Stock into nice DeMUs not being widely taken up by the TOCs.


    2. “It is reasonable to suppose that there is a shed full of spare parts for the units.”

      On today’s railway it’s not reasonable to make any such supposition.
      Parts are bought in as and when required; stores basically don’t exist any more.

      Why? Because that’s what the DfT demands.


  8. OK I’m platitudinous again to use the favourite industry jargon; but I suspect, again, that there are so many fingers in the rail pie, that the comfort and convenience of the passengers is at the bottom of the pile, if it makes the list at all. What are the railways for, apart from jobs for the boys (mostly), obviously?


    1. Certainly not jobs for the boys! HMG would happily sack all the staff and run it totally destaffed if they could get away with it.

      As I’ve said before, the railway today is a life-sized train set for the politicians and the uncivil serpents at the DfT to play with. It’s certainly not there for the benefit of the passengers, and the staff are routinely ignored and/or treated like crap.
      Staff turnover on the railway is worryingly high, especially when you consider that all railway jobs (at least those where people are working directly for the railway rather than for agencies) pay rather higher than jobs outside, so people should both be clamouring for the jobs and staying there for life. But they’re not.


  9. What is the TOC’s reasoning for not running the service on ASLEF strike days? Roger’s observations indicate the service being used for local travel in the main. Services running on train strike days would be a small recompense for the lack of trains, but no.


    1. DfT instruction, I suspect, and/or a lack of interest from WMT HQ for whom the Marston Vale line is little more than a nuisance they were hoping to handed over to EWR by now.


    1. andrewrainsford beat me to the innovative (tongue-in-cheek) suggestion! Unfortunately, the same complications of bespoke maintenance arrangements as with the Vivarail units would be just one of the obstacles in the way. Longer term, if East West Rail was ever to be electrified, such temporary closures would likely be happening all over again, in addition to routine maintenance and renewal.


    2. The route’s not cleared for Pacers, which were never normally allowed south of Wolverhampton/Chesterfield on the London Midland Region so don’t even have historic clearance to refer back to (although the industry today seems to believe that the railway didn’t exist before about 2004, for some reason).

      They’d be better off clearing for the 196s which are sat around, but since there doesn’t seem to be much rush to bring them into service on the routes they are cleared for, I can’t imagine there’d be any interest in getting the Marston Vale line cleared for them. I suspect WMT’s hope was that by the time the 230s died, the DfT would have transferred the line to EWR so there’s no plan at TOC level to clear the Marston Vale – and we all know that the DfT love to micromanage but never in a helpful way.


  10. At the risk of splitting hairs, the fast is actually only 62 minutes to Bletchley and 64 return (not 67), thus only twenty minutes more than the train provided Drivers know the correct route. What does stand out of course, is the total lack of variable running time, merely because the Railway only know about “line speeds” and nothing about road traffic conditions, thus never catering for such variations. This frequently involves torturously slow or alternatively, late running journeys, usually the former.

    As always with replacement road services, no attempt is made to ensure Drivers have correct route knowledge, particularly as this is a long term operation and disgracefully, even less attempt to collect revenue. Where are the displaced Conductors? They could at least be travelling on some vehicles or at least on part of the route at times.

    To those suggesting alternative stock, surely it must be realised that in the wacky world of Railway operation, to start training Drivers and the multitude of other things it takes before a wheel can be turned, is a pointless ask. It just doesn’t happen, so free travel on a comfortable coach it has to be……


    1. Are trains so badly designed that drivers need weeks of training on each type?. I would have though all that is needed is a few hours


  11. This is obviously a sad and unfortunate situation, but having spoken with folks from WMT I know they are as disappointed as anyone and have looked for solutions to try to keep the 230s in service and have struggled. Without the maintenance support in place, if one were to break down it could be left stranded. The 230s are not common across the network and only exist in small numbers – it is not like a 15x where knowledge and support is widespread.

    As some commentators above have recognised, the infrastructure constraints on the line severely limit the stock that can be used, ruling out any of WMT’s current DMUs. I presume the Parry People Mover suggestion was not serious, but these are approaching life expiry and will need replacing on the Stourbridge branch – there have been reliability challenges with them of late.

    This means any solution will require WMT to train (or re-train) crew (at a time it is already training on its new fleets) – and this will take time even if suitable stock becomes available. Class 153s were used on the line as single-cars previously, but PRM rules which are now in force mean adding an accessible toilet takes out a significant percentage of the capacity (and I believe the school trains get busy). This really leaves only Class 150s, and there are none spare at the moment – spare DMUs are hard to come by on a railway which has huge swathes not electrified!

    The Marston Vale line has really suffered over the past few years – but whether you agree or disagree with the decision to focus resources on the main line and introduce road replacement through the pandemic it was taken with a strategic view of resource allocation and with the best of intentions. To say WMT don’t care is unfair, and I know that having finally restored the hourly service with the 230s last year the team there are hugely disappointed that the line faces further disruption, whose timing and suddenness could not have been predicted.

    Liked by 2 people

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