The electric shock coming down the line for Reading’s commuters

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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.

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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.

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The electric shock coming down the line for Reading’s commuters

10 thoughts on “The electric shock coming down the line for Reading’s commuters

    1. Thanks James. Unfortunately Crossrail stops all stations into Paddington so is far inferior to mainline services for London-bound commuters. If it just stopped at Maidenhead and Slough then yes, it would solve the problem. But they’d get stuck behind stopping services so can’t be provided.
      This is why mainline services should all call at Reading

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  1. Reading General says:

    It always appears to me when i visit the station, leaving london bound punters aside, that many people want to board westbound services and many leave eastbound services. So, many people require a stop at Reading to interchange or exit, rather than it being just stopping to pick up ‘commuters’. From a broader point of view with regards to campaigning it is worth remembering that a large amount of people boarding london bound trains in the morning are not from the borough but have arrived on other trains to join a london service..
    Cheers

    Liked by 1 person

  2. TrainSpy says:

    I think there’s a big case of entirely missing the point here.
    The new Intercity Express Trains offer around 20% more standard class seats compared to today’s HSTs (give or take, depending on exactly which trains are you comparing). That’s a direct benefit to Reading commuters.
    They will also reduce westbound journey times by as much as 20 minutes.
    Additional brand new commuter trains (Class 387s) will provide longer trains for Reading commuters into London. They will also enourage shorter distance commuters (from Hayes/Maidenhead for example) freeing up significant numbers of seats on quicker trains into London.

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    1. thanks TrainSpy. You’re right that I’m not quite telling the full story in my article, in that there is additional capacity for Reading-to-Paddington too, as you explain.
      But I stand by the main point that seeing regular services bypass Reading will come as a shock to our commuters, especially when there are delays to other services and the next service/path then isn’t available to them.
      Reading’s significance on the network is downgraded (albeit slightly) by the introduction of these through services, which isn’t ideal for residents or the attractiveness of the town commercially. I think that’s an observation worth making, and hadn’t been picked up by local media.

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  3. TrainSpy says:

    That’s not quite true either though – your article says:

    “…most commuters I know will take a seat over a USB charging socket any day of the week.

    “Unfortunately, those tangible benefits of electrification are not to be felt in Reading.”

    As we’ve just said, those additional seats will be seen in Reading.

    I suppose the point about seeing some of the new trains pass straight through Reading is a fair one, but given Reading currently enjoys a train once every five minutes on average into and out of London throughout the day (more at peak times) – a frequency that is difficult to match for any other commuter town – its hardly a revelation.

    And finally GWR doesn’t actually have any trains in the current top ten overcrowded list – largely because of the additional capacity etched out from converting a First Class carriage on each long distance train to standard (the Telegraph link is for 2015).

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    1. fair cop on that wording – I’ve rephrased that sentence to be clearer that I’m talking about the line capacity. My article was written back in March 2016 (although had a recent surge of visitors) so the quoted Telegraph link was up-to-date at the time of writing. If things have improved marginally since I guess that’s positive.

      Just on your “commuter town” point, I know with regard to London flows that’s correct, and my article does major on Reading’s commuters. But we should not be considered a “commuter town” (or the even worse term I hear “dormitory town”). Reading has 42,000 inbound daily commuters vs 33,000 outbound. Even subset to rail journeys, there are 6,400 daily inbound arrivals vs 6,300 departures, so we are net commuted to, rather than from. http://www.nomisweb.co.uk/census/2011/wu03uk/chart

      My view is that we should be pushing Reading as a commercial centre, and maximising its connectivity to support that aim. Thus, even if these extra services were set-down only / pick-up only at Reading into / out of London respectively that would be a positive move.

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  4. TrainSpy says:

    Cheers ROT – I just think it is important to recognise that Reading is an extremely well served area from a rail perspective – largely because of earlier investment in the railway that frankly other towns and cities have not received, and not despite it.

    I also agree on the whole dormitory town nonsense – and like the net commuted to figures. However again, I would argue that this is what GWR’s strategy is designed to focus on. The commuters generally come from within the Thames Valley – therefore the calling patterns of the new Intercity Express Trains are largely irrelevant – they effectively just shuttle between London and Reading anyway.

    The important services for Reading inbound customers are not the ‘showstopping’ High Speed Trains, but the local commuter services – which will greatly benefit from the brand new fleet currently replacing the old diesel trains currently in use.

    Crossrail will also play a very important role in freeing up spare capacity for these commuters so dangerous to dismiss its impact out of hand.

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    1. Yes, you’re right that Crossrail is useful for people commuting into Reading from the east, and having our name on the dot matrix destination signs under central London will be a profile boost.
      To me, the recent investments don’t feel targeted at Reading, but rather co-incidental. The station rebuild was to prevent routine delays to intercity services awaiting platforms, rather than to boost Reading per se. We didn’t get the full new concourse the council wanted either. Crossrail needed somewhere to terminate, and it feels like there was reluctance to bring it as far as Reading – had they not then Thames Valley commuting would have been badly impacted.

      I’d like the government to decide that Reading can be a big deal, and as such maximise its connectivity. Fast, tube-like frequent connections to London boosts business investment here too, with executives able to access meetings in London / days in the London office easily. Reading should be able to complete with the recent Paddington office cluster as a business hub.

      The coming Heathrow rail link perhaps feels like the most pro-Reading investment. It could be a big factor in attracting new business. And of course it furthers the case for all services from the west to call at Reading to allow interchange for the airport.

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