The future for Bedfordshire’s many thousands of rail commuters has been unveiled - with the theme that train travel will be better than ever.
The shiny new Thameslink train - set to serve passengers on both the Bedford-Luton-St Pancras line and shortly afterwards on the Great Northern line through east Beds too - was revealed to a scrum of media at a glitzy launch in London’s Excel Arena on Tuesday, January 28.
The Government’s rail minister Stephen Hammond was there, as were the MDs of train operator First Capital Connect and train designer Siemens, to take their moment in the spotlight.
But the star of the show was a full sized mock-up of the new electric Class 700 train - at the very heart of proposals to revolutionise our rail services in and out of London.
A total of 1,140 carriages - that equates to 115 new trains of varying length - have been ordered and they will enter service on the tracks from Bedford to Brighton via Luton from early 2016. They will be phased in on the Peterborough to Kings Cross line one year later.
Those among the railway media at the launch - and yes believe me, there’s quite a sizeable posse of them - could no doubt explain to you all the technical improvements on this new train, designed and developed by Siemens at a cost of more than £80million.
But for those, like me, who want to enjoy travelling in them rather than knowing the ins and outs of the axle arrangement I can tell you from my peek around that there’s a greater feeling of space and capacity than the FCC train I boarded to get to the launch.
There’s no more five seats across a carriage - it’s a maximum of four, sometimes three, and more tip up seats too. That means 666 seats on a 12-carriage train and room for a total of 1,754 passengers.
On our tight railway network you can’t make the trains any wider or higher. So it’s all about margins aimed to improve comfort and punctuality. For instance the doorways are a little wider, allowing people on and off more quickly. The doorway areas are set back a little allowing more room to stand when necessary.
Overall the trains have a light and airy feel. Rattling windows - and arguments over whether they are closed or open - are a thing of the past as these cabin windows are sealed, and climate controlled carriages are the order of the day.
These lighter trains accelerate more quickly, know the load in each carriage and can adjust the air flow as a result. And the seats are bolted to the side of the carriages, making the floors much easier to keep clean. There’s more storage room, and even the toilets look better.
The new trains are just a part of what’s going on in this rail revolution and at Tuesday’s launch there were enough statistics to make a maths teacher beam with joy.
The £6.5 billion Thameslink programme will create 8,000 jobs and increase the number of carriages serving the capital by 40 per cent. There will be 15 per cent more seats from stations along the line from Peterborough and Cambridge, and 80 per cent more peak seats across central London.
It’s the future - but it’s not quite there yet. Solving congestion on routes into London is not as easy as just shoving more train services on, as I discovered chatting to FCC managers.
For instance, work on linking the Peterborough to Kings Cross route to Thameslink, therefore providing through trains to Gatwick Airport and Brighton, is under way and is probably only a couple of years away. Great.
But families in Biggleswade shouldn’t head to the platform with their bucket and spade for an uninterrupted journey to the south coast just yet, There’s a spanner in the works and it’s called London Bridge. It’s a major bottleneck for passing through London and you can’t put more services through there until the current dog’s dinner of a station is completely redeveloped and overhauled. That’s about four years away.
However despite the many hurdles still to navigate it is difficult not to be impressed by the amount going on. Forget about some mythical golden age of railways in the distant past - we’re quite probably heading towards it. If those pledges writ large today come to fruition the people of Bedfordshire will never have had more options on the rails.
Of course, launches and mock-ups are meant to be shiny and gleaming. We have yet to see how these trains cater for commuters on a miserable Monday morning. How will they deal with that bizarre mix of hordes of football fans and theatregoers coming home on a Saturday night? And after a while will it still be a bit whiffy sitting within six feet of a toilet you’ll only use in desperation?
For now though, let’s stay positive and hope these new trains make the difference.