Reading has seen a massive investment in its railway infrastructure in recent years, with the station re-build, extra platforms, the flyover to the west, and the tunnel to the east. The next show in town is the electrification of the Great Western mainline. But closer inspection of the plans shows that Reading’s post-electric commuters could be in for something of a shock.
The electrification on the Great Western mainline is a huge project estimated most recently at £2.8bn, already way above its initial estimates. The outcome will be faster, cleaner, more efficient train services befitting of the 21st century. Crucially, there will be some capacity freed up on the tracks, thanks to improved signalling technology. This is the main benefit for passengers; new trains are all well and good, but most commuters I know will take a seat over a USB charging socket any day of the week.
Unfortunately, that extra line capacity may not directly benefit Reading. Why not? Because they’re targeting Bristol instead. There have long been complaints from the West that over the course of decades the timetables have been “padded out” to include more calls at interim stations, particularly Reading and Swindon, and more recently Didcot. The result has been a gradual slowdown in journey times from London to Bristol.
The initial plans for post-Electrification, presumably after heavy lobbying from Bristol, see the extra line capacity allocated to new half-hourly services, in both directions, between Bristol Temple Meads and Paddington. The catch? After one call at Bristol Parkway, these services will be non-stop to Paddington. A new regular experience for Reading’s long-suffering commuters will be watching shiny new trains speed past at 125 mph every 15 minutes. Actually, it will be 95 mph because health and safety means they must slow down to avoid creating so much draught that it could drag passengers down onto the tracks. It’s an apt analogy, because for Reading this plan monumentally sucks.
This idea, seemingly unopposed from Reading, is frankly ludicrous. Reading’s army of daily commuters each shell out over £4k a year, rarely get a seat, and endure the most over-crowded services in the country. Yet Network Rail’s £2.8 bn plan to tackle it is to get Bristoleans to their occasional business meeting in the smoke 5 minutes quicker and without those pesky Berkshire folk clogging up their aisles and vestibules for the last half hour.
In the short term, the remaining stopping Bristol trains might have a little more room for us, given that the extra services will satisfy some of the West Country demand. And some of the new trains will be one carriage longer, with further space saved from smaller engines. But it seems inevitable to me that this will be at best short-term relief as demand grows further. Also, at Paddington, Bristol bound travelers will take the first available service, even if it stops at Reading, whilst our commuters will have to start to take care not to board a service with no Thames Valley halt.
The worst part about this plan is its failure to recognise that 21st century Reading is a very different proposition to a 1970’s Reading that perhaps fairly didn’t warrant the frequency of service it enjoys today. As a rapidly growing commercial centre in its own right, Reading is now a leading regional player, quite apart from also housing a huge legion of London-bound commuters with many more apartment schemes in the pipelines to swell those numbers further. And yet, it’s almost as if the town’s progress goes unnoticed. The place that brought you Britain’s largest town without city status, now we bring you Britain’s busiest train station and largest population centre to suffer the indignity of regular passenger services flying through it without stopping. It’s very simple. All trains passing through Reading should call at Reading. Our huge commuter population is the cash cow of the network. We’ve funded the electrification. We should get the benefits. Bristol currently has one non-stop service per day into Paddington (and none the other way). Why is there a sudden need for 60-odd trains per day to whizz past Reading? Are the needs of the West really the greatest?
For the Stattos among you, Reading is indeed, as often quoted, the second busiest interchange railway station outside of London. If you measure instead on barrier entries/exits, Reading still ranks very highly and, notably, has 60% more local passengers than Bristol Temple Meads.
The problem of congestion into Paddington is well publicised, with two trains from Reading making the annual top ten most over-crowded services. The issue is not lost on Network Rail. Their strategy document seems to concede these proposed Bristol expresses need to come to the rescue, but then admits even that won’t be enough, and then proposes not to anyway! Have a read, (the 2019 ITSS is the new post-electrification timetable).
Further capacity is also required to serve commuters on long distance services between London Paddington, Reading, Didcot and Swindon. There is an option to amend anticipated calling patterns in the 2019 ITSS so that additional long distance services call at these stations during the peak periods, to help smooth demand;
however whilst this could provide additional capacity, it is not sufficient on its own to accommodate all predicted passenger demand. Such additional calls may also be inconsistent with the improved inter-urban journey times anticipated by the Intercity Express Programme.
Thankfully, the 2019 timetable is still a work in progress, so there’s time for Reading’s three MP’s (yes, I’m including John Redwood’s Reading South-East constituency) to press the case for changes to this flawed initial thinking. I asked Great Western to clarify their plans for trains skipping Reading, but perhaps staff at the Holiday Line are on vacation: I got no response. In the meantime, please stand clear of the platform edge – the train approaching platform 2019 is not scheduled to stop at this station.Follow @readingonthames