As someone who works shifts, it is rare that I am off work and free for a bank holiday, so on the Early May Bank Holiday I decided to head off on an rail adventure from Peterborough across to Norwich, a short return trip to Brundall & then heading down into London with Greater Anglia in the afternoon. The main aim for the trip was to experience Greater Anglia’s first-class product on their Norwich to London route (which will feature in a later blog), however it was also the perfect opportunity to review East Midland’s Trains Liverpool to Norwich route beyond Peterborough. I had also planned my schedule to allow time for a short trip on what is currently the only local loco-hauled service in the UK, the Greater Anglia ‘short set’ which was operating on the Wherry lines, however this will unfortunately (for rail enthusiasts) have been replaced by more modern stock by the time this post goes live!
The first leg of my journey, from Peterborough to Norwich, was with East Midlands Trains as part of their longer Liverpool to Norwich route. Due to the length of this route, only trains in the middle of the day traverse the whole route, with my early train actually having started at Mansfield Woodhouse (just north of Nottingham) just under 2 hours previously. Although on this part of this route East Midlands Trains does operate a trolley service, this unfortunately leaves the train at Peterborough en route to Norwich and therefore I made sure I stocked up on some breakfast and a coffee prior to boarding the train (thanks West Cornwall Pasty Company!).
The journey to Norwich takes about 1 hour 30 minutes, which is about 15 minutes quicker than the journey would take by car (on a good day), with the train usually calling at Ely and Thetford on it’s way to Norfolk’s county town. Usually an off-peak single ticket for my journey (with my railcard discount) would cost £15.00 one way (or £15.05 return!?), however having planned this trip a couple of weeks in advance I was able to grab an advance single for the bargain price of £4.80. Although this does tie me to a particular train, this wasn’t a problem for this trip as the 0905 start was early enough for a Bank Holiday and leaving any later would leave me limited time in Norwich. An advance ticket also comes with the bonus of a reserved seat, although on this journey that wasn’t necessary as I was one of about 20 people on the 2-carriage class 158.
Departing Peterborough on time, I settled into my seat and was disappointed to find that this wasn’t one of East Midlands Trains’ refurbished class 158s and therefore didn’t have power sockets or wi-fi. Luckily, having learnt from my experience on CrossCountry trains (read about that here!) I had charged my laptop the night before and had enough charge to write on this leg of my trip. In terms of facilities I tend to give a trip 1* for each of the following: Toilets; Power Sockets; Walk up food bar; and wi-fi, with a trolley service getting 2* as it has the added bonus of not needing to leave your seat. Unfortunately for East Midlands Trains this means a very low 1* rating for facilities with only a toilet provided on this trip.
Due to the length of the Norwich to Liverpool route and the number of different major stations the trains call at, there is a risk that a delay in one area can be spread across the country and impact on numerous other Train Operators. Because of this there is plenty of slack built into the timetable and despite departing Peterborough on time, we arrived at Ely West Junction 6 minutes early, requiring us to wait for a few minutes to allow a King’s Lynn to London train to pass ahead of us. Approaching Ely, there is a good view of Ely Cathedral from the right-hand side of the train. Known as the ‘ship of the fens’ the Cathedral can be seen from miles around due to its location on the ‘Isle of Ely’ and the surrounding flat fenland.
Just north of Ely the train crosses one of the most infamous bridges in the country, with the low Station Road bridge having been struck by almost 120 over height vehicles since 2009. Also visible on the approach to Ely from the North is Papworth Sidings, now home to a large number of ex-GWR Mark 3 carriages and HST power cars. Given the success of the refurbished ScotRail Inter7City HSTs, there are calls from within the railway industry for these off-lease trains to be refurbished and used for long distance CrossCountry services. Personally, I think they would also be an ideal choice for the Norwich – Liverpool route as the existing trains can be very busy, especially north of Nottingham.
After reversing at Ely, the train heads briefly back north before diverging from electrified ‘Fen line’ onto the ‘Breckland line’ named after the Breckland region of Norfolk that it passes through. The first station that is passed through on the line is the little used station of Shippea Hill, which is served by only one early morning train towards Norwich from Monday to Friday with an additional evening service towards Ely & Cambridge on a Saturday. For the 2014/15 & 2015/16 statistical years Shippea Hill was the least used railway station in the United Kingdom with just 22 & 12 recorded uses respectively. Following a campaign by railway enthusiasts (including All the Stations – you can see the relevant video here), the usage figures jumped to 156 for 2016/17 & 276 for 2017/18!
Further along the line, between Brandon and Thetford stations, the railway passes through Thetford Forest, or more accurately Thetford Forest has grown around the railway, with the railway predating the forest by about 80 years. If you take a Greater Anglia service from Ely towards Norwich, you’ll be able to alight at Brandon and follow the Little Ouse path along the Little Ouse river and through the forest to Thetford. There are also numerous walks and trails throughout the area of the forest, some of which provide interesting views of the railway, as I found out when we explored the area in 2018.
Thetford station is home to an array of railway history. Just to the west of the station is a dilapidated railway wagon, one of very few left in situ around the UK (there is another at Shenfield) as well as the disused signal box which closed in 2012. The station complex itself is a Grade II listed building and there have been displays installed on the westbound platform showing the history of the station and railway. Departing Thetford on time, I was pleased to find only a few people had boarded the train meaning the rest of the seats around my table remained free.
Approaching Norwich, we pass under the Great Eastern Mainline, prior to joining it just west of Norwich’s Crown Point depot. This depot has existed since 1982 and was built to replace Norwich Engine Shed and allowed the InterCity trains serving the Norwich – London route to be serviced there rather than 20 miles away at Great Yarmouth. The depot has recently been upgraded ahead of the introduction of new trains by Greater Anglia with all of their current fleet due to be replaced by either Stadler or Bombardier built trains by the end of 2020.
As the railway curves left on the approach to Norwich station, the Carrow Road home of Norwich City Football Club can be seen on the left. Recently promoted to the Premier League, Norwich has played at Carrow Road since 1935 when the original ground was constructed in just 82 days. Pulling into Norwich’s platform 3, we arrived on time just over 90 minutes since departing Peterborough.
In conclusion, East Midlands Trains provided both a comfortable and punctual journey to Norwich which was quicker than if I had driven. Unfortunately, the lack of onboard facilities was a significant negative factor for the journey and something that East Midlands Trains has started to rectify with some Class 158s being retrofitted with USB sockets and wi-fi. However, given the countryside that is travelled across the lack of wi-fi isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it encourages you to enjoy the amazing scenery than can be seen outside the window.
The journey with East Midlands Trains from Peterborough to Norwich is comfortable and quick, however the facilities available leave a lot to be desired. If you’re travelling on the route, I’d advise you make sure you take your own drinks and snacks and have charged any electronic devices before you board. However, the route is quicker than the equivalent journey by car and so it is definitely worth letting the train take the strain and travelling to Norwich by Rail!
Operator: East Midlands Trains
Route: PBO – NRW
Date: Monday 6th May 2019