diamond geezer

 Sunday, June 16, 2024

This is England's best value rail ticket.

It's for a ride from Bletchley to Bedford, a distance of 16 miles, and the fare is £1.

Even better I have a railcard so it cost me 65p.

Why? What is going on here? Explain!

This is the Marston Vale line, a minor branch line which has been suffering from an embarrassing lack of rolling stock recently. It was supposed to be operated by three converted District line trains - the Vivarail Class 230s - and these did indeed enter service in April 2019. However Vivarail had all sorts of technical and financial issues and entered administration in December 2022 at which point the Marston Vale trio were withdrawn.

No parent company meant no maintenance contract meant no service, end of. It's not easy to source new rolling stock at a moment's notice, especially when your platforms are really short, and it took until November 2023 to grab a couple of replacement Class 150s. These two were only enough to run a peak hours service, however, and it wasn't until a third became available that a full hourly service resumed on 19th February.

After two years of pandemic and a year of rail replacement buses, it's no surprise that passenger numbers had taken a total battering. So London Northwestern Railway decided to make a dramatic gesture and attract people back with a rock bottom fare, hoping they'd become repeat passengers. Initially the offer was for three months but they've since extended it for another three, and so it is that every single journey on this line costs £1 until the middle of August. Utter bargain.

What use is a railway line from Bletchley to Bedford?

Obviously it's useful if you live here, but the line is actually spectacularly good at dodging centres of population except at each end. A lot of the stations aren't particularly close to the villages they're named after, nor would you want to walk along a dark lane to get there, so the line's ability to generate traffic is low. But it is a very rare connector between the West Coast Mainline and Midland Mainline so ought to be able to attract west-east passengers, indeed this is how it started.

The line dates back to the 1840s and was one of the constituent parts of the 'Varsity line', a railway connecting Oxford to Cambridge. Many attempts were subsequently made to close it, but Beeching only managed to lop off the Oxford to Bletchley and Bedford to Cambridge sections leaving this quiet rump in the middle. It made a bit more sense freightwise when the Marston Vale was full of brickworks but they've all gone now, every last chimney, and the view from the train is now mostly woods, fields and filled-in quarries.

An Oxford-Cambridge railway still makes good sense, especially because it'd allow crosscountry travellers to avoid coming into London, so plans are underway to incrementally restore the link. Oxford to Bicester reopened in 2016 and Bicester to Bletchley is due to come back on stream next year with a new station at Winslow. Bedford to Cambridge is proving more problematic because the old alignment has been built over in several places, with plans currently at the "we think we know where the line's going" stage and absolutely nothing built. For more about East West Rail see here.

What's the £1 experience like?

Prepare to ride a juddery diesel not necessarily very fast across a pleasantly undistinguished landscape. Nowhere else in southeast England still runs two-car Class 150s, though they're a mainstay of some lines in Cornwall, Wales and the North. Stations are small and well looked after, bedecked with flowerboxes and decorative benches courtesy of the Marston Vale Community Rail Partnership. The only ticket offices are at either end of the line - elsewhere you pay your £1 to the conductor on the train, assuming they can be bothered to walk up and down which evidence suggests isn't common. Maybe they're more tenacious when the fare is worth collecting.

Trains take just over 40 minutes to rattle down the line so there's a hourly timetable for most of the day (Sundays excepted). Someone might like to think of producing a simple version, though, because all I found to take away at Bedford station was a 10 page photocopied pdf, top-left stapled, and this is not the way to attract people back onto the railway. Trains are timetabled to pass at Lidlington, roughly in the middle, although the line's almost all double track so this isn't an operational necessity.
Bletchley → Fenny Stratford → Bow Brickhill → Woburn Sands → Aspley Guise → Ridgmont → Lidlington → Millbrook → Stewartby → Kempston Hardwick → Bedford St Johns → Bedford
The £1 ticket also allows you to break your journey - I asked and checked - so if you really want to go for it you could visit all 12 stations on your day out. I don't particularly recommend it however because these aren't necessarily exciting places to spend an hour, plus the paths and roads between them aren't always convenient, but I did manage to tick off seven. More of that tomorrow.

Where's the cake?

Pride of the line is the Heritage Centre at Ridgmont station. This is housed in the old station building which, at the 7th Duke of Bedford's insistence, is pretty and half-timbered. It has a very small museum crammed into the former ticket office, on both sides of the window, which is packed with all sorts of line-related ephemera from black and white photos to galvanometers and signalling gear to old BR rulebooks. You get an even better sense of background detail if one of the volunteers shows you round, properly bringing the place to life. "That Amazon depot over there," said mine pointing out of the window, "used be to the brickworks."

The cake is in the tearoom which occupies the former Ladies Waiting Room and another room nextdoor. The smell of bacon suggested the menu was considerably broader than just sweet carbs. It was also encouragingly busy yesterday despite effectively being in the middle of nowhere, this because a lot of people drive, such is the place's wider attraction. Throw in a small giftshop with offerings to suit both the train obsessive and their partner and this is the obvious place to pause on your £1 journey. Until 19th August. If not now, when?

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