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A very rough start for East Midlands Trains
East Midland Trains
Member Name: jamesontheroad
East Midland Trains
Advantages: Some faster connections Sheffield/London; refurbishment started on Liverpool/Norwich trains
Disadvantages: Overcrowding still a problem, and now also affecting premium mainline trains
Britain has two (relatively) high speed mainline railways that run from London up the east and west coasts of the country. In between these two is the under-appreciated, under-resourced and frequently overlooked Midland Main Line (not to be confused with the former train operator of the same name), the railway that connects the cities of Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester, Bedford and Luton with London St. Pancras. Over this line the principal passenger train operator is the Stagecoach-owned East Midlands Trains (EMT), who were awarded the franchise to run trains from 2007 to 2015. They replaced the company Midland Mainline, who had been the incumbent operator since British Rail was privatised.
In addition to this "Mainline" route (dubbed Route 1 by EMT, which includes additional spurs to Burton-on-Trent, a new station in Corby, and a few daily services Leeds), East Midlands Trains have also taken on responsibility for half of the former Central Trains franchise. This part of their franchise has been sub-branded as East Midlands Trains Connect (emphasising that is anything but a mainline) running cross-country trains between Liverpool & Norwich (route 2) and local trains around the East Midlands (route 3).
The character, strengths and weaknesses of EMT are different for the different routes: beware reviews, comments or complaints about EMT in general, because each part is different.
On the Mainline, EMT run two kinds of trains: the venerable diesel HST 125 and the more modern Meridian diesel multiple unit. As part of their new franchise commitments, changes have come to the former Midland Mainline franchise, with plans for two trains an hour and faster journey times on the core route between Sheffield and London St. Pancras. However this has meant re-organising the fleet so that the newer (but shorter) Meridians serve almost all trains from Sheffield to London, and HSTs concentrate on the Nottingham - London route. Nottingham is on a triangular spur off the mainline between London and Sheffield: beware any train between these two cities that stops at Nottingham, because your journey will be substantially longer as it backtracks to make this stop. Problematically, there are now fewer carriages per day between London and Sheffield, although there are more services. Of particular concern at the start of 2009 is the fact that the flagship named train "The Master Cutler" - once a Pullman train with an extra first class carriage - now leaves Sheffield for London with substantially fewer seats, especially in first class. Extremely valuable high fare business passengers have actually been forced to stand on this key route into London because longer HST trains have been downgraded to the newer Meridians.
On Route 2, the core East Midlands Connect line, things aren't much better. Neither Central Trains nor British Rail before them had much luck providing adequate service on this vital cross-country route between Liverpool, Manchester, Stockport, Sheffield, Nottingham, Grantham, Peterborough, Ely and Norwich. End to end it takes about five hours, and carries a mix of long distance, local and commuting passengers. Ever since the days of British Rail, this service has been operated by one, two or three carriage diesel multiple units. Before EMT took the franchise, the Department for Transport split the fleet and removed both newer trains and the third carriage of the remaining fleet for other franchises. Not only are trains on this route rarely more than two coaches long, there is precious little slack in the system for maintenance, with only two units spare at any one time for maintenance or back-up. Overcrowding is common, and to make matters worse, the 2008 announcement by the Department for Transport to order 1300 new carriages for the National Rail network has assigned just three new carriages to the entire EMT franchise. This route is in bad shape, and is not expected to get better soon.
Local routes in the East Midlands (EMT route 3) radiate from Nottingham and Derby, serving local stations on branch lines. These routes also suffer from some intense rush hour overcrowding, often because single or dual carriage railcars are all that is available to run the trains.
On winning their franchise, East Midlands Trains announced many heralded improvements, including reduced journey times and some refurbished or reformed trains. While the intensively used cross-country fleet is getting a much needed refurbishment (in which luggage space is being sacrificed for more seats), this is happening at a snail's pace and is not solving the key problem, which is a lack of capacity. On the mainline, attempts to use the slightly faster new Meridian trains to speed up services between Sheffield and London (the fastest now manages it in about an hour) the changes have seen the much longer and more spacious HST trains disappear from key services. Overcrowding on certain services not only continues, it is now an issue where it was not before. Additional changes such as replacing walk-up buffet counters on mainline trains with trolleys have also been fraught with problems and complaints.
The next six years of this franchise promise to be interesting, but to passengers who - like me - have used EMT for long distance journeys, my advice is simple. Book ahead not only for cheaper tickets, but also to reserve a seat. Travel light, since luggage space is extremely inadequate on all but the HST trains. And research alternative routes that may be more comfortable: i.e. Sheffield to London via Doncaster; Liverpool to Norwich via London.
Summary: A series of unwise decisions needs to be examined, or else a good franchise could go very bad.
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