319433 and 319220 at Milton Keynes Central. 2K91 17.05 ex-London Euston. 21st June 2018. © Mark Richards
The Milton Keynes area is dominated by Network Rail`s 4 track West Coast Main Line (WCML) which after passing through the Chilterns via Tring Cutting heads across the Aylesbury Vale past Cheddington and Ledburn Junction to Leighton Buzzard. Passing through Linslade Tunnel with its unique 3 bore formation resulting in the centre bore having tracks in reverse order, i.e. from the west side Up Fast then Down Slow, the line twists and turns through the North Buckinghamshire countryside to reach Bletchley. Here there is a junction with the branch to the east which until 1967 went through to Cambridge and was cut short to just serve the intermediate stations to Bedford. The Flyover at Bletchley is currently out of use until anticipated re-opening as part of East West Rail in December 2023.
Signalling on the main line is controlled from Rugby Signalling Control Centre (SCC) with the Bletchley to Bedford line signaled from the Marston Vale Signalling Centre at Ridgmont. The trackbed of the mothballed Oxford line to Claydon L&NE Jn which was last used as a through route in 1992 is planned to be re-opened in late 2023 in connection with the long awaited East-West project.
Proceeding northwards from Bletchley the WCML passes through the new city of Milton Keynes which has at its heart Central Station, with it`s 7 platform layout – six through platforms and a south facing bay, platform 2a. All the lines through the station are signalled for bi-directional working except for platform 6 (Down Fast). North of Milton Keynes Central the four track WCML splits approaching Wolverton station to accommodate the access line to Wolverton Works. The Centre Sidings serving the Works are situated between the Slow and Fast lines. The station at Wolverton was formerly the junction for the closed branch to Newport Pagnell (closed to passengers in 1964, freight in 1967), now part of Milton Keynes extensive Redway cycling and walking route. The original station building on the overbridge was demolished by BR in 1991 but a new station building at platform level, adjoining platform 4 on the Up Slow was opened in 2012.
After passing over the River Great Ouse Viaduct the line heads for Castlethorpe past the site of the former water troughs which can be identified by the remains of the tower on the Down side, used to soften the water supplies for this facility. Shortly after the remains of the closed Castlethorpe station can be seen which was located near the centre of the village. Another mile sees Hanslope Junction which was the first high speed facility created on the southern end of the WCML and replaced crossover junctions at Roade and Wolverton in the 1970`s.
390122 passes Wolverton on the Down Fast. 19th July 2018. © Mark Richards
The principal long distance intercity services are provided by Avanti West Coast which to the south originate and terminate at London Euston. Destinations to the north include Birmingham New Street/Wolverhampton, Manchester Piccadilly, Liverpool Lime Street, Chester/Holyhead, Preston/Carlisle and Glasgow Central/Edinburgh Waverley. There are two overnight sleeper services operated by Caledonian Sleeper which run non-stop through this area. The Lowland sleeper operates to Glasgow and Edinburgh, the Highland Sleeper conveying portions for Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William.
London Northwestern provides the local services which run between Euston and Northampton and longer distance services to Birmingham New Street, Liverpool Lime Street, Rugeley Trent Valley and Crewe via the Trent Valley and the branch from Bletchley to Bedford.
Southern run an hourly service (Mondays to Saturdays only) from Milton Keynes Central to East Croydon via Kensington Olympia.
Avanti has a high frequency service with 3 off-peak trains per hour to the West Midlands and to Manchester with hourly frequencies to Liverpool and destinations in the North West or through to Glasgow Central. For North Wales there are 7 daily services to Bangor and/or Holyhead with Chester seeing an hourly service from Euston. There are 2 return services off-peak to Shrewsbury (extension of Birmingham New Street services) and 4 return services off-peak to Blackpool North.
London Northwestern operate an off-peak pattern of 1 train per hour to Crewe via Weedon, 1 train per hour to Rugeley Trent Valley via Northampton and Birmingham New Street, 1 train per hour to Northampton and 1 train per hour to Crewe and Rugeley Trent Valley (via Northampton and Birmingham New Street, where the train divides). In addition there is 1 train per hour that terminates at Milton Keynes Central forming a semi-fast service to/from Euston. London Northwestern operate the Bletchley to Bedford service which operates at irregular intervals but generally hourly for the main part of the day. There is no Sunday service on this line currently.
The majority of Avanti services are formed of Class 390 Pendolinos formed into either 9 or 11 car sets. Class 221 Super Voyagers are normally to be found on Chester/Holyhead services but also work some Anglo-Scot services during the day. The Class 57/3 Thunderbird rescue locos which are provided by DRS are usually based at Euston and Rugby.
London Northwestern’s fleet is comprised of Class 350/1, 350/2, 350/3 Desiro’s forming the majority of services with Class 319 used on peak trains to/from Euston. The Bedford branch uses a mix of Class 153 units provided by Tyseley and Class 230 DMUs; the 153 diagram is due to be replaced by 230s in the near future. The Southern service from Milton Keynes Central to East Croydon uses their dual fitted Class 377/2, formed as 8-cars.
All five principal freight operating companies now run services through Milton Keynes Central. The majority of traffic seen passing through Milton Keynes Central during daylight hours is container based traffic from the Thames ports at London Gateway and Tilbury with other regular flows from Felixstowe and Southampton Maritime. Traffic is to and from a number of inland hubs such as Hams Hall and Lawley Street (West Midlands), Basford Hall, Trafford Park, Ditton and Mossend.
A limited amount of traffic to/from Dollands Moor (for the Channel Tunnel) does operate as well as aggregate flows from the Peak Forest area to Bletchley and car trains to/from Dagenham.
Freight generally operates through the area on the Slow Lines and is routed via Northampton.
Motive power on freight is varied. For Freightliner examples of Class 86/6 and 90 as well as Class 66 and 70 can be seen on intermodal services. Class 66s and less regularly 92s can be seen on DB Cargo operated services. Flask trains to/from Dungeness and Sizewell operated by DRS used to be a regular working for Class 37s but are now hauled by pairs of Class 68s. GBRf’s workings are almost exclusively Class 66/7 on intermodal services. Colas services can be regularly seen in the area, normally operating track machines.
The southern end of the WCML is often used for mileage accumulation runs for new stock. This has included London Overground’s Class 172s, Gatwick Express class 387 EMUs and more recently Class 68 and Mk.5a coaching stock for Transpennine Express.
66592 passing Bletchley with a northbound intermodal service. 21st June 2018. © Mark Richards
Other items of interest
At Wolverton the Works still carries out repair and refurbishment work but one of it`s most important duties is providing a home for the Royal Train which is looked after by DB Cargo. The train can be seen from time to time running empty to/from this location. When operating normally the majority of these arrive by rail via the Centre Sidings
Whilst at Wolverton one must not forget the Tramway which ran from Wolverton Station to Stony Stratford and for a short while to Deanshanger. Unfortunately it fell foul to the 1926 General Strike and never operated again. Artifacts including one of the double deck trailers can be found at the Milton Keynes Museum of Rural Life near Wolverton and included on display are sections of recovered rail which have been discovered over the years.
Most of the stations on the WCML provide opportunities for photographers, but with overhead line equipment being present and metal fencing this does limit views from the side of the line unless you are prepared to take distant/scenic shots.
The most photogenic location on this section of the line lies just to the north of Linslade Tunnel where the line is on a curve and
Another good location is at Denbigh Hall where the WCML crosses the A5. Access to this point can be gained from the nearby Watling Street V4.
On the Bletchley to Bedford line good photographs of trains working on the line can be had from the many level crossings such as Fenny Stratford, Bow Brickhill, Woburn Sands and Aspley Guise.
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Last updated: 30th January