If you caught the right train yesterday, you'd have been given a free cupcake to celebrate a railway opening 18 years late.
Thameslink 2000, now known as the Thameslink Programme, is a 20th century plan to link various destinations north of the Thames with various destinations south using tunnels from St Pancras to Blackfriars. It's been possible to go from Bedford to Brighton since 1988, but the remaining connections required knocking down bits of Borough Market, completely redeveloping London Bridge station, and billions of pounds of other upgrades. Final completion won't be until December 2019, but the major timetable change is this May, and the first so-called 'preview services' ran yesterday.
Key to all this are the Canal Tunnels, which link the East Coast Main Line to the Thameslink core. They do this by dipping underneath the Regents Canal, and were actually dug way back in 2006 as part of Eurostar's realignment. I took a ride on the first passenger train to pass through.
I didn't go all the way out to Peterborough, I hopped on at the first stop in London, which was Finsbury Park. You could tell something was up because there were rather more Thameslink staff on the platform than usual, some holding large cardboard boxes labelled 'Fragile'. You could also tell something was up because the Men Who like Railways were here, specifically the Post-Retirement branch (n.b. Women Who Like Railways oddly failed to show). They clustered and chatted, or tried to get decent shots of the train arriving as proof of conquest, and in it rolled bang on time.
A train from Finsbury Park direct to Gatwick Airport, how very exciting. It wasn't busy either, as you might expect on a Monday morning with only a sprinkling of publicity, so the train had plenty of seats to go round. That is except in the front carriage, where most of the MWLR had assembled, and who were showing up on the Train Loading Display as minor overcrowding. Perhaps they weren't keen on sitting down. The seats in these new 12-carriage trains have been likened to ironing boards - hardly ideal if you're making the full three-hour journey, but allowing plenty of standing room for rush hour short-hop commuters.
The first tunnel, south of Arsenal's stadium, is not the new one, which comes a minute later as the train veers off the mainline and starts its descent. Once you're inside the tunnel there's little to report, everything being dark... just the sensation of going down, and curving round, and gently climbing on the other side. Thameslink staff improved the experience on this occasion by walking down the aisle and dispensing Fragile branded cupcakes, plus a leaflet which they knew half of us would read if it came with free sugar. Your future rush hour experience will not come with smiles and gifts.
The driver then wrecked the ambience by announcing that we were being held at a red signal while waiting for a free platform at St Pancras. I suspect this is going to be a familiar refrain in the future, as Thameslink gears up to sending one train every 2½ minutes down this central core. The fact that we waited there and still arrived into St Pancras a minute and a half early explains how this magical train-squeezing trick is going to be performed, namely over-generous timetabling. It may also come as a shock to some passengers used to arriving and departing from Kings Cross to suddenly discover that St Pancras is the place to be instead.
On we sped to Farringdon, then City Thameslink, then Blackfriars. This bit isn't new, it's 20 years old, but rolling out onto the platforms midriver at Blackfriars is always impressive. The next bit is new, however, or at least has been upgraded to cope with the full flow of two-way traffic now expected. For the last few years all Thameslink trains have been diverted south via Loughborough Junction on a tediously slow wiggle through south London. Yesterday we were finally able to turn left and trundle high across Southwark before crossing the old bridge over Borough Market, at long last renewing the connection to London Bridge.
We arrived on platform 4, which wasn't previously accessible when London Bridge was relaunched in January. A second Thameslink train pulled in alongside on platform 5, ditto, on its way from Horsham back to Peterborough. It was due to be the second train through the new Canal Tunnels, so a lot of the MWLR hopped out and clambered on for the return journey. I decided to stay on to East Croydon, via New Cross Gate and Norwood Junction, enjoying the faster route and the remnants of my cupcake. And then I did a quick bit of shopping in the Whitgift Centre, before catching the third train on the way back.
A quick word about what's going on. These are 'preview services', designed to give passengers a flavour of what's going on, and drivers and staff a chance to practise the new routes. There are only six preview services a day. Four trains run between Peterborough and Horsham, and two between Brighton and Cambridge. Half the trains run north, and half south. They only run on weekdays at present, avoiding rush hours. Other trains have been nudged around the timetable slightly to make way. You can see the timetable, and read more information, here.
Cambridge has never popped up on the destination board at East Croydon before, but there it is. Unfortunately the train to it is currently running late, for which the automated announcer duly apologises. The train is also rather busy, having rolled in from Brighton via Gatwick Airport with all the luggage that entails. In the description which follows I'm going to focus specifically on timing, because this may prove to be the bête noire of the new Thameslink core.
The majority of passengers alight at London Bridge, because up until yesterday that's where their train would have terminated. Those who stay aboard are perhaps surprised to hear the driver announce "we're running a little bit early" and aren't due to depart until 12:49. 12:49 is twelve minutes away! How can we have been seven minutes late at East Croydon, but are now twelve minutes early. The answer is creative timetabling, indeed if we'd arrived on time we'd have been sitting here for a full 17 minutes. Some devil has scheduled an extra-long layover to ensure that we're definitely going to be in place to depart 'on time', and if that means passengers sitting around for ages so be it. It won't be the case that all future Thameslink services do this, but all three northbound preview services have acres of padding, so when the driver said "we're running a little bit early" he was telling a fat white lie.
We leave on time. We nearly reach Blackfriars in 2 minutes, but instead we sit outside at a red signal while a train to Bedford overtakes us on the other line. This is the train which left Brighton 3 minutes after our train, but is timetabled to arrive into Blackfriars 3 minutes before ours, despite stopping more often. This is timetabled devilry, deliberately introduced to improve the reliability of the service, and to slot us into the right gap in the schedules heading north.
We arrive at Blackfriars two minutes late. We arrive at City Thameslink two minutes late. We arrive at Farringdon one minute late. But we arrive at St Pancras one minute early, thanks to the padding in the timetable, and we depart bang on time. Shuffle trains slowly enough through the central section and you can almost ensure they'll be punctual by the time they come out the other end.
Things shouldn't be this protracted by the time the full Thameslink timetable kicks in next year, but maybe think twice before using it to cross central London. If extra minutes are deliberately shoehorned into the schedule at various stations, your journey won't be 'late', but it may not be especially fast either. My preview service took almost half an hour to get from London Bridge to Kings Cross St Pancras, whereas I could have got there and back on the Northern line in the same time. There again, I wouldn't have got that second cupcake...
When the Thameslink Programme is fully operational, the destinations of the trains will be...
• Northbound: Bedford, Luton, St Albans, Peterborough (new), Cambridge (new), Welwyn Garden City (new)
• Southbound: Brighton, Gatwick, Horsham (new), Littlehampton (new), Sutton, Sevenoaks, Orpington (new), East Grinstead (new), Rainham (new), Maidstone East (new)