London Underground’s District line runs from Upminster in the east to Ealing Broadway, Richmond and Wimbledon in the west with the central section following the Thames. So, what on earth is a District Line train doing running around between Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire on the Marston Vale Line.
With the last of the type withdrawn from service with London Underground in 2017, some examples of the D-stock were destined for the scrapheap. Having first entered service on the District line in 1980, replacing pre-war CO/CP stock, the D-stock brought with it more comfort for both passengers and drivers and served the District line with distinction for almost 40 years.
Despite the scrapheap beckoning, more than 200 D-stock carriages were saved by Vivarail with the intention of converting them to multiple units to operate on Britain’s mainline railways. Estimated to cost a third of the price of a new train, the Vivarail D-Train has various power configurations and to date 14 have been ordered for use across the British railway network and in the United States.
The first operator of the D-Train in regular passenger service was West Midlands Trains who ordered three class 230s of the Diesel Electric Multiple Unit variety (DEMU). These have been in operation under the London Northwestern Railway (LNWR) brand on the Bedford to Bletchley ‘Marston Vale Line’ since 2019. A branch line off the West Coast Mainline, service on this line used to be operated by class 150s and 153s, with two units required to operate the hourly service.
Having explored the southern end of the Midland Mainline trying out the new EMR Connect services (read about that here), I ended up at Bedford’s ‘Midland’ railway station with about an hour before the next train service to Bletchley. Whilst generally an hourly service operates on the Marston Vale Line, the line is still affected by the reduced Covid timetable with most trains being replaced by buses. This reduces the crew that LNWR need to provide for the service, allowing them to focus the available crews on busier mainline services.
With the time I had available, I decided to walk from the main station to Bedford’s smaller station at St. John’s. Originally the middle section of the ‘Varsity line’ running from Oxford to Cambridge, the eastern and western sections closed in December 1967, leaving Bedford St. John’s as the eastern terminus the line for 17 years. The Marston Vale Line managed to survive numerous attempts at closure and, in 1984, St. John’s station was relocated in the former freight yard which allowed services to continue to the ‘Midland’ station and passengers to easily connect to mainline services. Now just a single, short platform, St. John’s still had a surprising amount of facilities with a shelter, ticket machine and information point provided. With entrances at both ends and no ticket barriers, the station also acts as a cut through, connecting the south of the town with the centre.
Arriving at St. John’s with plenty of time, I saw the Bedford bound service arrive and got my first look at the class 230 D-train. Whilst Transport for Wales’ versions generally keep the London Underground door layout, the LNWR versions have had the body shells reconfigured with only two doors per carriage. To meet modern accessibility requirements the trains have also had an accessible toilet installed as well as a modern passenger information system and ‘mod-cons’ such as USB sockets.
The Marston Vale Line is supported by a Community Rail Partnership (CRP) which allows the local community to support local lines that may be of less importance to their operators. There are more than 70 CRPs across Britain helping “communities get the most from their railways, as well as helping our railways to thrive”. Whilst the local CRPs and station adoption groups are independent, the Community Rail Network helps provide a central voice and support to these local groups.
The Marston Vale Line CRP certainly plays a large part in supporting the line and attracting leisure passengers to use the line as part of a day out. Posters onboard the train provide a ‘line diagram’ advertising what is available to do at each station, ranging from the John Bunyan Museum at Bedford to Bletchley Park at Bletchley and the Millennium County Park at Millbrook to the Heritage Centre at Ridgemont.
With the station house, constructed by the London and North Western Railway in 1846, being unused and having fallen into a state of disrepair, the Railway Heritage Trust part funded a refurbishment managed by the Bedford Rural Communities Charity in 2014. Following the refurbishment, the station house is now home to a tearoom, gift shop, toilets, and the heritage centre. Three small ‘start up’ offices and a meeting room have also been provided to support local independent businesses.
Having been served by ageing, increasingly unreliable trains for many years, the line does seem to be faring well with the new trains in operation despite Covid and the limited service. With the LNWR class 230s formed of, two coaches, with a mix of ‘tube style’ longitudinal seating, bays (with and without tables) and ‘airline style’ seats there was plenty of space onboard and despite being busy didn’t feel crowded.
Having travelled on the class 150s and 153s when in operation on the line, the class 230s are a massive improvement for this line. Until the introduction of the D-train in 2019, the Marston Vale Line had almost exclusively had older stock inherited from elsewhere on the network and although the former D-stocks are now more than 40 years old, their ‘upcycling’ has made them as good as new trains for their new lives. If you want to have a day out on the Marston Vale line, both Bedford and Bletchley are easily accessible from London and are also connected to the East and West Midlands respectively. Make sure to check out the Marston Vale Line CRP’s website (link above) if you are going to have a visit.