Thameslink returns!

June 3rd, 2014

It was recently announced that GoVia have been awarded the new Thameslink Southern Great Northern (TSGN) rail franchise, with the new management taking over in September 2014. GoVia is a consortium of the British firm GoAhead (mostly an operator of buses) and the French firm Keolis, which is part of the state-owned rail operator SNCF. They will take over the services currently run by First Capital Connect, some operated by Southeastern, and then integrate all the services operated by Southern from 2015 onwards. GoVia have promised that they will resurrect the “Thameslink” brand for this extensive network.

Looking at this mostly from a Cambridge perspective, a number of interesting service improvements are promised for our route:

  • firstly, the ongoing refresh of the Class 365 trains will continue over the summer, so the new operator should have a newly-refurbished fleet of trains on the fast services to Cambridge and King’s Lynn
  • the current hourly service to King’s Lynn will become half-hourly from May 2o17 (once the junction improvements in Ely have been completed)
  • the Cambridge-Kings Cross expresses will be retimed to get the journey time down below 50 minutes again (this is probably as a result of needing less margin now that the Hitchin flyover is open)
  • new trains (the Siemens Class 700) will be introduced

Once the Thameslink Programme is complete in 2018, there’ll be quite a big change to the timetable. The DfT and the Thameslink Programme have both published maps that show services we can expect in four years time – now, there’s always a risk that they might be changed again in that time, but it’s worth having a look now anyway.

Promises, promises

So, the DfT map promises (mouse over “Cambridge”) that Cambridge will have “six trains an hour to and from central London off-peak” from 2018. Cambridge currently has four trains an hour to London off-peak: two non-stop (one of which has come from King’s Lynn), one semi-fast (calling at Royston, Letchworth etc) and one slow one that serves all the stations between Cambridge and Hitchin and then major stations into London. So, what’s going to happen to the existing services, and what new services will we get?

Helpfully, there’s a clue in the map published by the Thameslink Programme, which shows how trains will be routed through the “Thameslink Core” (between St Pancras and Blackfriars) linking up destinations north and south of London. Each line on the map represents two trains per hour each way (so a half-hourly service, approximately), and two lines are shown as serving Cambridge – making four Thameslink services every hour! The grey line on the map shows a Cambridge to Brighton service, which will also serve Gatwick Airport. The red line shows another Cambridge service serving, err, Tattenham Corner? Really? I used to commute from Croydon to Kingswood on the Tattenham Corner branch – it’s a popular commuter route but by no means a major destination in its own right. Tattenham Corner station itself is really only there to serve Epsom racecourse anyway! However, the reason for doing the Thameslink upgrade is to get more line capacity by reducing the congestion caused at major stations by terminating trains in central London – and the Tattenham Corner off-peak trains currently terminate at London Bridge.

Fast trains to Gatwick and Brighton

Now, my hunch is that the Cambridge-Brighton service will take over the existing stops and timings of the Cambridge semi-fast service, except that it’ll run half-hourly instead of hourly. It currently takes an hour for this service to reach Kings Cross, and likewise an hour for the limited-stop service from London Bridge to Brighton. Given 20 minutes to transit through London and 20 minutes to turn the train round at each end, that makes a nice neat 3 hour cycle – so the half hourly service can be fulfilled using six trains.

Slow trains to Tattenham Corner

I suspect that the Cambridge-Tattenham Corner service will take over the existing Cambridge “slow” train, which takes 90 minutes to reach London. London Bridge to Tattenham Corner services currently take 50 minutes, so with the 20 minute transit time through London that makes 2 hours 40 minutes. Assuming a ten minute turnaround at each end also gives a 3 hour cycle – six trains again would give a half hourly service. If this happens, this’ll be a big step forward for the smaller stations on the Cambridge branch – they’ll get twice as good a service as they get at present.

So, here’s your answer: six trains an hour – two that start from King’s Cross,  run non-stop to Cambridge and continue to King’s Lynn; two that start from Brighton and call at major stations only to Cambridge; and two from Tattenham Corner serving all the local stations.

New trains too

Now, the Thameslink services are all going to be operated by the new Class 700 trains, which will come as an eight-car and a twelve-car version. These trains have big walk-through connections between coaches, so they won’t be coupled and uncoupled the way that our existing trains are. Since the small stations on the Cambridge and Tattenham Corner branches have 8-car platforms, it would seem likely that our stopping services will see the existing Class 317 and Class 321 trains (dating from the late 80s) phased out and replaced with the new Class 700s. I suspect that the old trains might find their way to newly electrified lines in the north-west of England or on Great Western suburban services in the short term. Siemens are supposed to be delivering the new trains from 2016 onwards, so it’s likely that we’ll start to see them operating our existing services before the Thameslink services begin.

The King’s Lynn trains are also due to be replaced with Hitachi-built Class 801 trains eventually – these should start to appear in 2018 as well.

One unresolved question

As yet, we don’t know exactly which services will call at the new Cambridge Science Park station. Cambridgeshire Council’s consultation suggests that all the services currently using the Cambridge-Ely line will call at the new station (i.e. the King’s Lynn trains, the Birmingham-Stansted train, and the Ely-Liverpool St trains), plus one “semi-fast” service currently terminating at Cambridge station will be moved up to terminate at the bay platform in the new station. On that basis it seems likely that some or all of the Thameslink trains will serve the new station – given that it has only one bay platform I might be tempted to suggest that two out of the four Thameslink trains will call there – most likely the faster Brighton services as they have a bit more turnaround margin and will give the promised “semi-fast” service. Let’s wait and see!



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