Frequently asked questions
Who comprises the Baldock Rail Users Group (BRUG)?
The BRUG comprise a core of Baldock residents/commuters who ran the Save Baldock Trains campaign, and now have morphed into the BRUG, which is officially registered with Govia Thameslink Trains as the representative rail user group for the town. Most day-to-day on-line contact is via the BRUG Facebook page, and this web site intends to provide a more official and permanant face to the group. We anticipate/hope that people will volunteer to help out if and when needed, and also hope all and sundry might come along for the occasional social drink to chew the fat
Why have the trains changed at all?
The recent changes are part of long-planned (originally conceived in the late 1980s) 'Thameslink Programme', which aims to provide continuous cross-London travel, and upgrade/expansion for the services north and south of the Thames to deal with future capacity issues. The main Network Rail infrastructure work to deliver this has been runing from 2009. The rail operator franchise that affects Baldock, is Govia Thameslink Railways who, since 2014, have operated the Thameslink and Great Northern services that now serve Baldock.
One of the key infrastructure changes that affects Baldock, is the opening of the Thameslink Canal Tunnel, which links St Pancras with the east coast main line running into Kings Cross, so allowing trains to run continously from, e.g. Cambridge, through to various London terminals (St Pancras, Farringdon, City Thameslink, Blackfriars and London Bridge) and on to southern locations including Brighton and Gatwick Airport. In time, most Baldock services will be these 'Cambridge-to-Brighton' (or similar) services, running through St Pancras rather than the older sevices which all terminated at Kings Cross.
A final configuration of services will not be delivered until 2019 (and possibly 2020 we speculate), and this final timetable relies on being able to run 24 trains per hour (each way) through the Canal Tunnel. We understand the capacity of the tunnel at the point of the May 2018 changes was maximum 18 trains per hour. Furthermore, the full capacity of 24 trains per hour cannot be delivered with the current conventional signal system and manual train operations. A new automatic train operation and related signalling system is required to deliver the full 24 trains per hour through the tunnel (and on through the core region to London Bridge). Hopefully by 2020, all will be introduced and working properly. Until then, at least one service running through Baldock may not be delivered.
What was the original GTR proposals in the Sept-Dec 2017 consultation (phase 1)?
In the phase 1 consultation (sept-Dec 2017), GTR published the proposed route and train frequency information for the Great Northern services (GN2 Kings Cross services) and Thameslink services (TL6 semi-fast and TL7 stopping services to St Pancras) serving Baldock. The proposal removed all off-peak semi-fast services between Baldock-London such that all off peak journey times would be about 56 minutes (i.e. affecting day time, evenings and weekend services). Also, it appeared that the proposed overall capacity did not take account of the planned large increase in Baldock's population over the coming years. Suffice to say, the original proposed services would have been very bad for Baldock, if implemented.
Why did Baldock need the Save Baldock Trains campaign, and what did we do?
As noted above, the proposed loss of the off-peak semi-fast services, and the under-capacity in light of planned Baldock expansion over the coming years, meant that a robust response from Baldock train users was required. Furthermore it transpired that the GTR timetable team was not, at that time, aware of the planned Baldock expansion and the magnitude of that expansion (i.e. that it dwarfed the expansion, in terms of percentage increase, of the other towns on the Hitchin-to-Royston part of the line).
A reminder that the North Hertfordshire local plan intends to deliver 3591 new houses to Baldock (population 10640, 2016 census), which likely means an increase in population of around 85% (assuming the national mean occupants-per-household of 2.54). In comparison, the proportional increase of population in the surrounding towns due to the local plan house-building propsoals are significantly less (i.e. Hitchin <15%, Letchworth <20%, Royston <25%). Considering that it is likely that a relatively high proportion of the new Baldock households will comprise new commuters using Baldock train station, we might expect Baldock to become roughly equivalent to Royston (population 16574, 2016 census) in terms of number of rail passengers.
It was clear that Baldock will require a significant increased rail passenger capacity in the coming years. Furthermore, providing ONLY slow stopping sevices at all times other than week-day peak, would be an unacceptable change.
To raise awareness of the potentially disasterous proposals, the Save Baldock Trains group posted leaflets through almost all doors in Baldock, repeatedly pinned posters at Baldock train stations, and physically handed out leaflets at the station for a number of days during peak commuter times. Furthermore, discussions with the local councillors (who were obviously well versed in the North Hetfordshire local plan) also sought to encourage them to put pressure on GTR to take full account of the housing expansion in their final proposed timetables.
What was the outcome of the campaign, and what was delivered in the May 2018 new timetables?
In short, the campaign (combined with pressure from the local councillors) can be considered a great success. GTR received a total of 5845 responses on the consultation survey website (which GTR considered a success considering the historically low response expected for many rail consultations), with Baldock returning the highest number of responses by far. Indeed, Baldock registered 649 responses (i.e. 11% of all website responses, representing about 6% of Baldock's population), with the second place station (Knebworth) registering 307 responses (although hats-off to Knebworth also, as while this is 5% of the total website response, it represents over 7% of Knebworth's population).
More importantly, GTR took on board the concerns on Baldock's disproportionate expansion and the anger over the potential loss of semi-fast services, and confirmed in June 2017 that semi-fast off peak services, and increased cacpacity, would be delivered in the 2018 timetables. The local paper, The Comet, reported (28/06/17) "Great victory as off-peak trains are saved in timetable rethink".
The GTR proposal for a Dec 2018 timetable (i.e. intended to essentially be the final timetable goal), released during the phase 2 consultation (spring/summer 2017), provided Baldock services (to London) comprising, 4 semi-fast and 2 stoppers per hour during peak, and 2 semi-fast and 2 stoppers per hour during off peak.
The May 2018 timetable essentially reflects the Dec 2018 proposals, although due to the reduced capacity of the Canal Tunnel (disussed above), one semi-fast train would not be delivered in May 2018, meaning that the actual provision in May 2018 was intended to be 3 semi-fast and 2 stoppers per hour during peak, and 1 semi-fast and 2 stoppers per hour during off peak. But the 'missing' train will come in time, we are told. Furthermore, while eventually the Thameslink trains will run to St Pancras (and onwards), the majority of trains were running to Kings Cross for the May 2018 timetable. (A more detailed comparison of the Dec 2018 proposals compared with the May 2018 and subsequent timetables, is given elsewhere on this website).
Why was the introduction of the May 2018 timetable chaotic?
At the time of writing (August 2018), there are various inquiries ongoing. We can't make much of a comment as we do not yet know the detail. However, clearly availability of fully trained drivers (i.e. trained for a particular train type on a specific route) was a key issue. We understand from GTR that the driver training on a train/route takes 7 weeks.
How do the 4 June 2018 ammended timetable and the 15 July 2018 interim timetable relate to the May 2018 intended timetable, and the 'final' Dec 2018 proposals?
With all the recent cancellations and late running, it can all seem random. However, the May 2018 timetable essentially reflects the Dec 2018 proposals (give or take slight shifts in exact departure/arrival times), although due to the current reduced capacity of the Canal Tunnel (disussed above), one semi-fast train serving Baldock could not be delivered in May 2018. Furthermore, while eventually the Thameslink trains will run to St Pancras (and onwards), the majority of trains were still running to Kings Cross for the May 2018 timetable.
Following the chaos of the May 2018 timetable introduction, an ammended timeable was introduced on 4 June 2018. This wasn't a wholesale change, but was just the May 2018 timetable but with approximately 30% of services removed (most from off peak times of the day). The interim timeable introduced on 15 July 2018 was also the May 2018 timetable but now with 'only' approximately 15% of services removed, and with the missing services more evenly distributed through the day. (See the detailed comparison of the Dec 2018 proposals compared with the May 2018 and subsequent timetables, on the July 15th timetable page on this website).
Will the May 2018 timetable ever come fully into use?
We understand from GTR that the 15 July 2018 interim timetable (which as noted above, is essentially the May 2018 timetable but with approximately 15% of services removed), will be populated bit by bit with the 'missing' trains throughout the Autumn, with the goal of delivering fully the May 2018 timetable by Dec 2018.
Why on earth does Ashwell have a fast service?
This question comes up a lot. Not just for Baldock rail group, but for all the rail groups along the line. We have heard all sorts of wonderful conspiracy theories regarding why this might be the case (Normally they are based on the idea that someone ‘big’ in the rail company lives there). The answer we are afraid is rather unexciting and lies in the way trains are routed around our area. But since this gets asked a lot… the full answer is as follows:
Prior to the timetable changes there was a train that ran from Kings Cross to Royston. This train called at Baldock, Ashwell and Royston (other places too but they aren’t relevant to the explanation). With the new timetable it became impossible for this train to reach Ashwell and so the fast services was added to compensate.
To understand what happened we have to turn to a map of the rails around our towns. If you look at the below and look at where the tracks cross, these are places where a train can be turned around (labelled A and B on the picture below).
So the old route was simple - drive a train to all three stops. Then turn it around at B (or indeed further down the line – the key point to notice is that there are no turning points between A and B).
As the new timetable was developed, a problem with this route emerged. Under the new timetable, shortly after the semi-fast service to Cambridge departs another Cambridge fast service also departs. The thing about the fast services is that they are faster… and so under this new draft of the timetable the fast train caught up with the semi-fast train - leading to either a collision.. or the fast train having to go slowly.
With the current timings, the two services would meet each other at some point between A and B and so the option to turn the semi-fast services around at B was removed. This is why we have a train that now terminates and starts at Baldock. This resulted in Ashwell and Royston having to get their services via other trains. In the case of Ashwell there was only one option left that fit into the schedule – a stop on the Cambridge fast service.
It’s worth noting that Ashwell are not all too pleased with their new found burst of speed.
The Cambridge fast services are standing room only. Most Ashwell commuters would rather a seat for an extra ten minutes a day.